Talking Theory and a Thought Provoking Visit to the Kelvingrove Museum

Last week was a good one for the development of the theory side of my PhD, it’s been a while since I’ve sat down for a thorough chat through some of the issues that plague archaeological reconstruction but I was presented with two such occasions in quick succession!

The first coffee-fuelled chat was between myself, Daisy Abbott and Martyn Horner within my department at the Digital Design Studio. We discussed in detail the documentation of the intangible arts considering the issues and perceptions of being ‘digital’ in art and research. Over the past few months I’ve been thinking about the ways of documenting the creative process when producing my reconstructions so it was really interesting to discuss some of my thoughts and concerns.

Particularly, in the arts and humanities there is an increasing acknowledgement of the need to document the processes involved in the creation of an output, be that a piece of art, an exhibition or in my case, an archaeological reconstruction. For many years in the arts the focus has been on the output, rather than the input required to generate the final outcome. In the digital realm there is often a closer relationship to the sciences than the arts, and this is reflected in the need to document our working. As Martyn pointed out, a scientists’ work would be rendered worthless without the documentation of their working, so why should the creation of a reconstruction in archaeology be considered any different?

Another interesting discussion topic which came up, and one which is especially relevant to my work on the Scottish Ten Project was the definition of ‘digital preservation’. The difficulty with my particular research project, and the specific source data behind the reconstructions I plan to produce over the course of my PhD is that essentially beginning this creative process from such precise laser scan data means that in the majority opinion, the further I come to interpreting the site as it was in the past, the further  away we move from the arguably ‘objective’ of the site in the present. We have to ask ourselves in this case what true value the concept of ‘digital preservation’ of a site has for archaeologists. Ideally on a project such as this, where ‘objective’ data is taken through an increasingly subjective process there would be a merger between digital preservation and digital interpretation/reconstruction; a partnership between the ‘real’ of the present site and the somewhat reductive process of striving towards attaining the most objective representation of the ‘real’ of the same site in use in the past. Is this possible or should preservation and reconstruction always remain as two separate entities?

Of course documenting the process isn’t the be all and end all answer to solving the issue of the subjectivity of the interpretive process; within the documentation there are further subjective decisions to be made. An important issue to address here is how to decide what is important enough to warrant documentation and what are the implications of awarding such importance to specific elements?

My second inspirational discussion came from a visit to the Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery on Friday with archaeologist and artist Aaron Watson. We visited the innovative ‘Scotland’s First People’ exhibit which consists of four sections each dealing with one element or period of time in prehistoric Scotland.

The 'Scotland's First People' exhibit in the Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery (photo http://www.glasgowlife.org).

Each section has a large canvas image with internal speakers which create an ambient narrative to each part of the exhibit. The artefacts are still presented in the traditional glass-case/information board manner so the ‘reconstruction’ element in this sense is very subtle and unobtrusive to the archaeology. Aaron and I agreed that the juxtapositioning of the ‘installation’ type narrative worked well next to the more traditional elements of the exhibit in the sense that there was a definite feeling of interpretive suggestion as oppose to a definitive ‘this is what the past was like’ approach.

We particularly enjoyed the section dealing with ‘Death and Ritual in Stone Age Scotland’, whose narrative came from an ethnographic account of a Hindu man describing the cremation of his son on a traditional pyre. The man’s story details the placing of a guitar on his son’s chest which obviously has parallels prehistoric grave goods. He also describes the addition of strong-smelling herbs and incense to the pyre to mask the burning of the body, saying that the smells from their burning are quite pleasant and soothing. Although this may be a bit of a grim detail to document, hearing this man describe the smells of the burning herbs together with the crackling and snapping sounds from the fire soundtrack really gives you an emotive sense of the experience without the overly forceful presence of an ‘archaeological reconstruction’. The ethnographic angle helps to reinforce the sense that this is a story, an interpretation – not hard fact to be applied directly to the past, and I think that subtle touch is why I liked the exhibit so much.

Discussing exhibits in the museum with Aaron really opened my eyes to a new way of thinking about archaeological reconstruction. Although through the interpretive process of reconstruction the archaeologist will consult various sources from scientific analysis of organic remains, to site layout, to ethnographic sources, essentially what will be produced will always be biased by the way that any given illustrator perceives the world around them. Even if we could take someone from the present and transport them back to the Neolithic or Bronze Age itself, they would still observe the experience from their own philosophical perspective. My point being that although I use the term ‘reconstruction’ to describe the visualisation process, this should not be taken to imply that ‘virtual time-travel’ in any sense is in obtainable!

If I took anything from Aaron’s visit I think it was to not be so opposed to the idea of embracing creativity, I realised that this approach in the right setting can be a very powerful tool in developing interpretations.

I'll leave you all with this image of a Carved Stone Ball sketched on a Glasgow underground ticket by Brian Loudon - a nice image to represent my day of discovery at the Kelvingrove Museum....what does it all mean??

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