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.
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…