Putting the ‘Art’ Back into ‘Artefact’

The offending object.  A Quoit Brooch Style scabbard mount from Cheriton, Hampshire. Copper-alloy with sheet silver inlay. Drawn from a photo by T. F. Martin.

A few weeks ago the Portable Antiquities Scheme recorded an important new Quoit Brooch Style scabbard mount from Cheriton, Hampshire.  I’ve been working on an illustration of the artefact (above), which I was going to upload here along with a short account of its significance.  However, things didn’t quite go the way I’d planned.

I’ll be brutally honest.  I really wasn’t happy with this drawing and could barely bring myself to bother finishing it.  I’m a relatively inexperienced illustrator and when something isn’t quite right I often have to start again from scratch or give up.  Usually this is to do with conventions.  What works for one element has to be applied to all similar elements as you progress with the drawing.  If you start out wrong you have to replicate that error again and again or start over.  However, rather than moaning about about what it is I don’t like about this illustration, I thought it would be more interesting to explore why I found this a difficult object to draw.

Quoit Brooch Style, the family of objects to which this item belongs, is a big deal because lies somewhere between provincial Roman, Romano-British and Germanic styles.  As such, it has the potential to tell us about the ever-elusive Roman to Anglo-Saxon transition.  I had difficulty drawing it for precisely this reason: Quoit Brooch Style does not conform to the early Anglo-Saxon style that has formed the basis of my archaeological illustration training.  Put simply, drawing this foreign style meant I had to make up conventions on the trot, hence a disappointing result.

But it may also be the case that I have become attuned to the early Anglo-Saxon aesthetic.  Perhaps any result was going to be disappointing.  The drawing above, after all, isn’t that terrible.  But because this is an essentially late Roman object, it does not have the blend of form and decoration to which I have become accustomed.  Either way, it seems I have come to look at late Roman art through Anglo-Saxon eyes.  Not only am I less capable of reproducing it, but I also make involuntary subjective value judgements that impinge upon the intellectual objectivity I am supposed to hold so dear.

Over the course of my self-tuition in archaeological illustration, I have found that drawing can provide a means of furthering my understanding and knowledge of the subject.  Betty Edwards wrote a famous drawing course called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, which outlines some links between learning how to draw and psychological development.  The book is a mixture of popular psychology and drawing instruction and I’m really not qualified to comment intelligently on either.  Nevertheless, I fully subscribe to Edwards’ core idea that drawing for an extended duration causes the mind to slip into a meditative state.  I certainly experience this, which is why I draw partly as a form of relaxation.  Anyone who draws or paints probably knows precisely what I’m talking about.  When drawing an artefect, my usually over-riding awareness of typology, chronology and archaeological theory goes out the window as I become entirely immersed in the task and absorbed by the object.  During this process I think it is probably easier to build an intuitive aesthetic sense of an entirely different nature than reading about the object would impart.  Not only does the object come to reside in a visual memory, but it becomes part of a motor memory as the hand depicts its detail with a pencil or other instrument.

By now I have drawn enough Anglo-Saxon cruciform brooches to have commited parts of the corpus to memory.  Not only could I sketch many of them without visual aid (yes, I have my favourites), but I believe I could also probably make up imaginary items from the style set that I’ve absorbed, without having to think too much about it.  I could never do the same for Roman items.

The interesting thing about this learning process is that it is non-verbal and subliminal.  Archaeologists have become accustomed to converting physical, real objects into abstract texts.  A combination of this language and the particular form of knowledge it entails imparts authority and disciplinary structure.  By intellectualising this material archaeologists control it.  But we also lose something of its essence.   Visual or perhaps even material senses defy verbal explanation.  This is why artists often have considerable difficulty explaining their art.  Naive demands of “what does it mean?”, “what does it do?”, or “what is it for?” often dominate popular criticism of modern art.  Not wholly by coincidence, exactly the same questions tend to dominate archaeological enquiry, perhaps because we are schooled to believe that narrative or verbal knowledge outranks visual, material or experiential knowledge.¹  A few months ago, in my debut post,  I wrote about W. G. Sebald and alternative means of reflecting on the past.  I believe this visual sense of objects may represent one of them.  It is creative, personal and introspective but it also contributes to a sense of knowing about the past.  This is why, in my opinion, even in this age of photography and 3D printing, re-interpreting objects creatively by eye and by hand still holds a valuable place in the archaeological toolbox.

¹ In this observation I am in no small part influenced by John Moreland’s (2001) book Archaeology and Text.

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