Diggers Alternative Archive

Reproduction of article published in The Archaeologist in respone to some comments made concerning the images used for IFA conference and their appearence in The Archaeologist.

Mirroring reality? Images of archaeologists :
Hedley Swain

Alexander Keiller and the Windmill Hill excavation team in c. 1927 (photo Alexander Keiller Museum Avebury).

Whether you subscribe to the old adage that 'every picture tells a story@ or prefer a more systemised approach through the 'semiology of signification', few would question that all photographs and other images carry explicit and implicit messages. Problems encountered by the IFA in choosing images to 'advertise itself', raises more pertinent questions as to how we percive ourselves, how we would like to be percieved and indeed what it is to be an archaeologist.

David Webb, until he left this summer had worked for many years for the British Museum as a photographer. During the winter Dave showed me a portfolio he was working on of photographs of archaeologists. They immediatley struck me as capturing something of what it is to be a practising archaeologist, unlike most published images in which people are used as props to the real subject of the image, the archaeological site or find. I suggested Dave contact our editor and a selection of his Photos_Diggers was published in the first copy of the renamed The Archaeologist (1996c, 15-7 and cover). They have elicited the most animated mailbag to the publication I have known. Three letters were published (TA 1997a, 24 and TA 1997b, 24) as well as a response from the editor. The correspondents, although in one case admitting the photographs were 'atmospheric and reflect some of the charecters within the 'profesion', went on to complain about the many breaches of Health and Saftey the photos apparently displayed and the poor living conditions illustrated. Martin and Birthe Kjøbye-Biddle in their letter (TA 1997b, 24) stated of the cover photograph that 'no-one working with us in the field for over 30 years has looked like that'. It was thought that these images reflected badly on the IFA and the 'good practise' we are trying to promote. Similar criticism had been raised over another cover in 1995 (TA 1995).

Unperturbed, the IFA went on to use other images by Dave Webb to advertise this year's conference. Again some have criticised this decision. Although the photos in The Archaeologist were clearly a personal piece of work, the images were now being used by the IFA to promote the IFA. It was thought that the appearence of the archaeologists was a bad reflection on the profession - allusions to Newbury bypass protesters was made in one instance. One must ask whether the photograph of the Manchester Ship Canal used to advertise the 1996 conference reflected the IFA better?

Dave Webb's photographs are of archaeologists going about their work on archaeological sites. This is a fact. Unlike almost every other photograph of archaeology and archaeologists they are only 'posed' in the sense that the subjects are looking to the camera. The individual on the cover of the The Archaeologist is someone I know well and I would suggest is a typical dedicated, digging archaeologist. No-one may have looked like that on the Biddles' many excavations but I have worked on many sites with like clad colleagues. If members of the profession are unhappy with the image that these photographs display what does that tell us about the state of the profession? How exactly should we portray ourselves in order to create the correct image?

It has to be said that ever since archaeologists have percieved of themselves as a profession, self portrayal has seemed difficult. Mostly we illustrate what we are doing - sites, monuments and finds. Finds are often extremely attractive, interesting and thus photogenic. But they do not illustrate 'archaeology' as a subject, they illustrate themselves or pertain to a period in time.

Most sites are extremely dull to look at and difficult to understand for the non-initiated. Like finds, however, standing sites or monuments can be extremely attractive and are commonly used: see the last two covers of our Yearbook and various promotional literature items. But does showing a picture of Stonehenge convey an image of 'archaeologists' or even 'archaeology', or roather of British prehistory? Recent promotional photographs for a telivision programme on the supernatural has shown the presenter framed by the trilothons at Stonehenge. What message were they trying to convey? Assumedly not professional archaeology.

We come back to the need to illustrate people. Occasionally, for some reason we feel a need to ask excavators to stand in postholes or curl up in grave cuts. To make a boring photograph of a wall or section more interesting we put a person in it ( Ed: see photographs in 'A social history of archaeology', page 14). Invaribly, you always seem to be able to tell that the photo is posed, as the subject is not actually looking at the plan they are meant to be drawing or their context sheet is blank. Health and saftey is always rigidly applied in such images - the hard hat looks brand new. At least these very dull images seem to have replaced those which were more prevalent in the 1970s and always gave the impression that all archaeological sites took place in summer and were staffed purley by young women with limited clothes budgets.

The 'founding fathers' of the IFA sign the articles of associationin 1983 (photo Museum of London).

A flick back through back numbers of The (Field) Archaeologist, the journal actually shows very few pictures of archaeologists being archaeologists. It shows the 'great and the good' standing around in the suits at the annual conference; or the incumbent chair looking slightly embarrassed over a desk; but very few actual 'doing' archaeologists - until Dave Webb came along.

Of all the images I have seen in recent years purporting to be of archaeologists, it is only Dave's that ring true. Health and saftey is not all that it should be; most practising field archaeologists through a combination of bad pay, bad employment conditions and chosen cultural allegiances do look as if they have just come from the Newbury bypass. There is another section of the profession who do not do fieldwork now but spend their time interfacing with the development and construction industries. This group is better paid, have better employment conditions and espouse different cultural values - and look different. The fact that this latter group evolved from the former means they seldom get their new image quite right! Archaeologists are almost unfailingly middle class, their redeeming feature is that they are from the down-at-heel, liberal, eccentric middle classes; the ones with cultural aspirations but not the money.

I have no soloution to the question: 'what do archaeologists look like?' Or indeed, how the IFA should advertise itself. Obviously we should seek to uphold the highest standards for archaeology, which will include such elements as correct Health and Saftey measures and a 'professional' approach to clients. How we represent this visually is another matter. In the meantime we need to be honest with ourselves. If those who now wear the suits and are worried by the appearance and image of those who do not, they need to ask themselves why. Those who espouse alternative cultures need to aknowledge the limitations such decisions bring.

Excavators at Boxgrove 1996 (photo Dave Webb).

  • IFA 1995 The Field Archaeologist, 24
  • IFA 1996c Photographs By Dave WebbThe Field Archaeologist, 27, 15-7
  • IFA 1997a LettersThe Field Archaeologist, 28, 24
  • IFA 1997b LettersThe Field Archaeologist, 29, 24


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