Category Archives: art

Transforming prehistoric gestures into present day objects. Turning your (PhD-)research into postcards.

Like many archaeologists, I spend my days in a lab or at a desk. I study microscopic traces of use on Late Mesolithic and very early Neolithic stone artefacts to try to find out what these tools were actually used for all those thousands of years ago. By understanding the use of various types of tools we hope to understand the lives and activities on the sites they were found (Arconciel/La Souche and Lutter/St. Joseph) and in Switzerland/Western France at the time of the last hunter-gatherers and the first farmers here. This period, roughly 6500 to 4800 BC, is a fascinating period, during which many things, not least the economy, changes. That is the story I wanted to tell and I wanted to do this in a light-hearted and accessible way. At the same time I wanted to avoid the typical channels of public outreach. But I did want to show the beauty of the process of doing archaeology. This fascination for the archaeology of hunter-fisher-gatherer societies and the transition from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic of the early Holocene together with the wonder of seeing the activities and lives of people who lived such different lives from us in these small stone artefacts were the main reason behind the decision to do something with all the photos I am taking at the microscope.

We archaeologists often tell stories about the sites and objects we study after we have finished excavating and have done with all our analyses. Often the stories we tell are presented as complete and certain, while actually they are often complex and full of ambiguity and are seldom truly finished. We also show reconstructions or we invite the public to visit our excavations, the archetypical activity of archaeologists, and tell stories about and show photos from our digs in more or less exotic localities. But we rarely show the processes and the work we spend most of our time on: Our work in labs, in offices in dark basements of archaeological institutes, hot dighouses or even cold office containers on excavation sites. I hope to show some of these processes of making sense of the archaeological remains and knowledge creation through these postcards. Our, my daily work and the beautiful and fascinating things and objects this work creates and which are seldom seen by anyone.

Most visual depictions by archaeologists either try to show realistic or natural representations of archaeological remains, objects or archaeological deposits or they try to tell a story by creating visual reconstructions. Others are more picturesque and depict the archaeology in the context of the other, the exotic. A fourth category of archaeological visualisations are ethnographic in nature. Especially the first three types of images are usually published in scientific archaeological publications and reports. If the process of doing archaeology is recorded, it is often in the form of the ethnography of archaeology. With these postcards I hope to document the process of archaeology in a differing way. Furthermore, by publishing them on postcards, these photos are able to leave the elitist and restricted realm of scientific publication and other environments in which archaeology can usual be found, be it museums or public monuments or websites. The postcards feature microscopic photos of use wear traces and thus transform the gestures of people in the distant past into material haptic objects in the everyday lives of people in the twenty-first century.

Further inspirations for this little postcards project are the latent undercurrent of and recent call for more alternative and punk-ethos in certain circles in the archaeological community and the stones of the Murgtal Steingarten-project and Mail Art activities of concept artist H.R. Fricker. They stimulated me in the first place to produce something relatively inexpensive and easy to produce (of course, this would not have been possible without the great Ben Peyer of Version1!), common objects, but also something that could feature in everyday life and does not require huge effort on the part of the beholder. Postcards fitted the bill. On the one hand they are collectable objects, on the other they are mundane, everyday objects.

The postcards me and Ben made certainly don’t follow the visual vocabulary of the punk-tradition, but using such mundane objects for publicising my PhD-research and injecting them into everyday life, they might refer to some extend to the punk-ethos. Not unlike the visual output of punk culture, Mail-Artists in the second half of the 20th century made a lot of use of collage and montage techniques as well as stamps and other media and also had a strong d-i-y tradition. Furthermore, I hope the postcards also refer in a tongue-in-cheek manner to the Mail-Art movement and the way scientists in the past – before scientific journals became so common – spread and discussed their scientific findings by correspondence and letters.

Both the punk and the Mail Art movements were also about creating and maintaining communities at various scales. Lately, a lot of exchange between archaeologists and scientists in general takes place in the digital world, via email, social media, blogs, podcasts and platform such as researchgate. With these postcards I would like to extend these lively conversations into the physical world while at the same time, using digital channels to spread them. And last, I still think it is great to receive a postcard in the post and love sending them.

So, if you want to know how to receive a postcards, have a look here. It would be great to hear from you!

I decided not to use references in this text, but the following publications have inspired the production of the postcards and this text:
• Barthes, R., 1980, La chambre claire, Paris
• Edwards, E., 2002, Material beings: objecthood and ethnographic photographs, in Visual Studies, Vol. 17, 1
• H.R. Fricker > work in general more specifically the Steingarten Murgtal project
• Hamilakis, Y., Anagnostopoulos, A. and Ifantidis, F. (2009) Postcards from the edge of time: archaeology, photography, archaeological ethnography, in Public Archaeology, 8, (2-3), 283-309
Punk Archaeology
• Shanks, M. 1997, Photography and Archaeology, in Brian Molyneaux, B. (ed), The Cultural Life of Images: Visual representation in Archaeology
• Those two great blogs by Colleen Morgan – Middle Savagery and Bill Caraher – The archaeology of the mediterranean world


interpreting woodhenge-stonehenge rivalry

So archaeologists from the UK & Austria believe to have found ‘the find‘: a woodhenge (/barrow?) near Stonehenge. Illustrator Mike Frodsham does a nice tongue-in-cheek interpretation job : henge jealousy and an almost cave painting.

Mesolithic Interventions

An exhibition at the York Art Gallery. I just came across the website. The gallery seems to have asked “…four artists to create a new installation at York Art Gallery’s studio. Their installation uses photography, video, sound and interactive digital technology to explore the era.” The artists visited the site and had a look at the finds as well.

I wish I could go and have look and see what they came up with. Although the YAG website shows a few pictures, it would be fun to see more, esp. of the digital and sound-work.

Rückwege – Archaeology of the Silvretta at “Visualisation in Archaeology”

Archaeology has always had its own visual vocabulary. We show our research results to our colleagues and to the wider public. This can, at the danger of simplification, often be divided into two categories: 1.) the dokumentation of the research results (plans, finds, tables etc.); and 2.) those visualisations that convey our interpretations (e.g. reconstruction drawings).

If we take the accurate visual representation of lithics (chipped stone tools) research, Martingell and Saville (Martingell and Saville 1988; Saville 2009) for example, argue we should that we should attempt to include as much factual information, mainly on technology, in drawings. Saville (2009, p.750) also includes, rightly I believe, use wear results in this.

However, like with most visualisations, it is, e.g. difficult to use this style of illustration to represent the dynamic, non-linear character of technology. Riede (Riede 2006, fig. 6, p62) tries to represent an evolutionary chaîne opératoire – artefactontogenies and phylogenies – and as such also the dynamic nature of technology in a figure. Although it is not a bad attempt, it is still rather linear. I fear that most people, including archaeologists, who are not in detail familiar with these ideas, see little more then another representation of the classic reduction sequences he tries so hard to avoid. This is especially the case as I expect that for many researchers the idea of an evolutionary chaîne opératoire is rather counter intuitive.

I have not seen any really satisfying examples of illustrations showing the dynamic nature of technology or an evolutionary chaîne opératoire. Continue reading


Often the way archaeology is portrayed and published is rather restrictive and can lack imagination. It also clearly has its own visual tradition and semantics. It is thus fantastic to see/hear a project like the composition NEANDERTHAL by welsh composer Simon Thorne which gives our scientific knowledge such a fresh and exciting voice. He composed a piece of music, a ‘soundscape to provide a musical illustration for the palaeolithic section of … [the National Museum of Wales’] … exhibit Origins of Early Wales.’


Simon Thorne in an interview: ‘The soundscape uses a degree of electronic manipulation, but the live piece will be just the four singers plus stones and whatever primitive sound-making system we feel is appropriate. It’s completely based on what we did in that initial three-hour session. We had to let go of our preconceptions about how we thought it should all go, and that opened up a really remarkable space.’


At the pieces’ first performance it was accompanied by a discussion of the composer with Prof. Steven Mithen, who has a strong interest in the evolution of language and music. Filmmakers were also invited to produce visualisations to accompany the soundscape.


Simon Thorne - Neanderthal

Simon Thorne - Neanderthal


Although archaeology is strongly based on the hard data obtained from excavation and the subsequent analysis of the findings thereof, there is, of course, also strong more or less subjective interpretation involved. As is the case with many of the ‘sciences’. Openly subjective or artistic representations and interpretations of the archaeological process and its results can be very interesting and informative and make us more (self-)conscious archaeologists. Either by using visual (or other sensory) representations or critiques. It opens up our archaeological eyes as well as the eyes of the wider public about the questions we ask, the methods we use to answer them, our dilemmas and our opportunities. Admitting to this subjectivity has been advocated by, a.o. many post- processualist archaeologists. I once came upon an article by a journalist who wrote that archaeology is a most complicated art, drawing on many sciences to paint its picture. Nonetheless I believe one of the main aims of archaeology is to understand past realities through the study of material remains.


However, it is not just archaeologists who are slowly (re-)discovering the values of artistic interpretation and representation of their work and findings. Researchers in other fields, like the physicists and the neuro-scientists mentioned in this piece on the website of Seedmagazine, are also finding it a valuable tool and medium. 


In their manifesto Cochrane and Russell have asked for a ‘re-engagement of archaeology with the history and contemporary practice of the visual arts’ (2007, p.8). and for archaeology ‘to express theoretical concepts in a format which is not constrained by linguistic context (2007, p.3). I believe this can be extended to the not explicitly theoretical part of archaeological practice and its findings. The NEANDERTHAL project for the National Museum Wales does exactly that, using not so much the visual as audio. It is an artistic and alternative (and seemingly educated) interpretation of Neanderthal sounds, based on current scientific thought, which transcends that of the scientific report.


As Thorne states on his website:

…why did we ever come to make music in the first place? The idea that Neanderthals sang their way through the landscape, and that early humans were also accomplished musicians creates a space that is ripe for conjecture…

a little `ecce homo erectus´ diversion

On the Townhall of Venlo (where I spend a large and formative part of my life) a niche is used to place temporary artwork. 2 british artist, Shaun Doyle and Mally Mallison, created this little gem. I think I most appreciate the ode they bring to Prof. Eugene Dubois. The man seems sadly and strangely under-appreciated in his region of origin, perhaps the province of Limburg (NL) was too catholic for most of the twentieth century…

Just thought you might like it as well.