To archaeologists and anthropologists ‘materialisation’ is the embedding of an abstract meaning into a solid, physical thing (see DeMarrais et al 1996). A wedding ring might be seen as the materialisation of romantic sentiment or legal binding. A gift materialises a social relationship of obligation between people. Thinking about materialisation questions the artifice that sets mind against matter. But materialisation isn’t just for philosophical introspection. It arises from a very human yearning to cast an otherwise unstable, uncertain and ambiguous world into a real, tangible and supposedly enduring physicality. The small things we carry around with us daily provide little anchors that keep us from drifting off to sea. However, as I was discussing in my last blog, this is all a bit of a conceit, objects crumble and the world we live through isn’t very stable at all. Materialisation helps, but it cannot hold back the tide.
Baron von Schrenck-Notzing’s Phenomena of Materialisation is a book I came across when I was exploring Francis Bacon’s methods for my last blog. One of his three furies at the base of a crucifixion was based on a photograph in the book of one of von Schrenck-Notzing’s psychic mediums, Eva Carrière, exuding ectoplasm bearing a human face.
Phenomena of Materialisation is a fascinating book, a product of early 20th-century spiritualism and the flux of the interwar period. The book is a collection of scientifically-described seances during which ectoplasm was produced by mediums from unknown, otherworldly sources. Spiritual forces became physical; projections of the mind became bodily; matter appeared from nothing.
Materialization was a surprisingly prevalent belief and subject of scientific research in the later 19th and early 20th century. People would attend seances as a form of dubious entertainment or scientific investigation, which could be at once transcendental as well as pornographic. During the seances, mediums who could achieve modest fame for their abilities (like Eva Carrière, Helen Duncan or Jack Webber), would enter trance states, and communicate with particular deceased individuals, who would make themselves manifest through ectoplasmic extrusions depicting faces, hands, genitals, other body parts, whole bodies, or just semi-fluid forms.
Poor old Schrenck-Notzing, who seemingly believed his investigations to be scientific, was duped by Eva Carrière’s hoaxes. Her ectoplasm was in fact made from nothing more supernatural than paper and textile. Following the publication of Phenomena of Materialization the hoax was revealed and the baron became a laughing stock.
Schrenck-Notzing obviously wanted to believe in materialisation. He was aware that not all of Carrière’s mediumship was entirely honest, yet he still held onto a faith in some of her abilities through tenuous concessions. He had that human yearning to believe that the powers of the abstracted mind could create permanent physical objects, perhaps in a similar way that the anthropological understanding of materialisation reveals a desire to project the mind onto a material world.
The fact that it was all ultimately a hoax relates to anthropological beliefs in materialisation. The wedding ring does not actually contain a materialisation of love and fidelity, it’s merely comforting to think it does. The gift does not really contain a relationship between partners, but it’s a symbol of that bond, and a highly effective one. It’s nice to fetishize the material world, believe in some tangible but incomprehensible, super-human power in materials, but perhaps ultimately it reveals something of human desperation in the face of a psyche capable of abstract thought.
DeMarrais, E., Castillo, L.J. and Earle, T. 1996. ‘Ideology, materialization and power strategies’. Current Anthropology 37(1), 15-31.
Edwards, H. 1941. The Mediumship of Jack Webber. New York: E.P. Dutton. Full text available here.
Schrenck-Notzing, A. von 1920. Phenomena of materialisation: a contribution to the investigation of mediumistic teleplastics. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner & co. Full text available here.
Francis Bacon was a frequent visitor to the British Museum where he repeatedly went to see the Parthenon Marbles. Bacon said that they “were always very important” to him, but he wondered if that was because of their delapidated state, “whether if one had seen the whole images they would seem as poignant as they seem as fragments” (Harrison comments on this in “Bacon and Sculpture”, p.34, the original quotation is from David Sylvester’s Interviews with Francis Bacon, see below for full references).
Fragmentation imparts both meaning and emotion to objects. It represents the inexorable forces of decay and collapse in a literal sense, as well as figuratively in terms of human lives and relationships. The inevitability of fragmentation pokes fun at the permanence material culture is often supposed to represent, showing it to be a vain pretence.
There is also a sadness and a sense of loss among the broken and forgotten. Objects once lovingly crafted and jealously curated ultimately become lost, unremembered, and uncared for. This process of forgetting is ultimately linked to the vicissitudes of human life: the innocence of childhood is lost along with its material trappings, gifts given in love become painful reminders before they are cast out, death, either as an individual event or as a gradual accrual of loss in whole communities, inevitably contributes to the discarding and at least partial destruction of objects. Most frequently, something is simply broken by accident and rendered valueless. The archaeological recovery of these neglected, forgotten and fragmented objects invites us to imagine their orphaned time out in the cold, after their ancient ownership and before their adoption by our museums. Fragmentation implies an anonymous, meaningless, and timeless period.
Francis Bacon’s paintings do something similar to their human subjects. To a greater or lesser extent they alienate the composed and comprehensible body into an ambiguous mass of fleshy clay. The psychological root of fragmentation and alienation most often cited in accounts of Bacon’s work are the horrors of the Second World War he lived through and his own turbulent life (e.g. see Hammer 2012). Tom Lubbock wrote that Bacon takes us “into strange regions of flesh and matter and flux” (Lubbock 2010). He also commented that Sand Dune (above) represents the transformation of flesh into undulating topography. In terms of genre, the picture is half nude, half landscape. It evokes the return of human clay into the geological clay from which it climbed, like the entropy that drives fragmenting or composting objects backwards into their raw, unworked states. There are fragments of body in the painting: perhaps a knee, a shoulder, a buttock, in approximate anatomical order. But they are all de-composing, they are dissociating, becoming lost and on the verge of meaninglessness. Perhaps that’s where the strange melancholy of Bacon’s paintings comes from, and perhaps there is some connection here with his fascination with ancient relics and the dissipating, dissolving processes of decay they embody.
Although ancient fragments are steeped in the melancholy of loss, there is beauty in the way they inspire creative thought. They force us to build a partial, selective, and edited story; partly edited by us (the narrators) and partly edited by the random ravages of time. We don’t have to deal with the whole ugly mess of human life, the enormity and ambiguity of which makes little sense even at the best of times, to the sharpest of minds. The partial nature of fragmented objects will only ever allow us to construct a partial, reimagined version of the past. The past is lost forever, and that’s why it fascinates us. In our scramble to recover it we wrestle with our own mortality, the fragmentation of our own bodies, possessions and relationships.
Fragmented archaeological objects are fetishised. They are set on podiums in museums, designated identities with labels, ordered carefully and obsessively in filing cabinets, databases and catalogues. Bacon’s subjects are often similarly laid out like specimens for our inspection: lonely figures against chromatic backgrounds. The soft, blending textures of his subjects risks their complete dissipation, and perhaps that’s why he sometimes gave them a cuboid frame to restrain them (his so-called ‘space frames’), like in Sand Dune (above). Martin Hammer (2013, 11) suggests that these frames, as well as the gilded literal frames in which Bacon often mounted his paintings imply a kind of pseudo-formalism – an at least partly sincere link between Bacon’s creations and works of the old masters. The frame provides an exhibition space, like a glass case in a museum.
But there’s a tension in this. Just as Bacon places his strikingly modern paintings in a restraining, traditional context, fragmented objects are placed on pedestals behind glass as if they were treasured works of art, rather than the often quite banal, everyday objects that most of them are. Bacon’s subjects are forced and restrained by similar contextualisations, just like the object in the museum is captured by its curator, no longer out in the cold and devoid of meaning, but guided or even forced into a particular set of meanings. Francis Bacon rejected the suggestion that his paintings had any specific intended meaning. But that cannot quite be true, the symbolism in his work is rampant, whether he was aware of it or not (and I suspect he probably was). Just as Bacon’s framing restrains the potential chaos of his subjects, the fragmentation of the object in the museum case is arrested, giving a false impression of timelessness. It is false because fragmentation has only been temporarily paused: things, inevitably, fall apart.
Hammer, R. 2012. Francis Bacon and Nazi Propaganda. London: Tate.
Hammer, R. 2013. Francis Bacon: Phaidon Focus. London: Phaidon.
Harrison, M. 2013. ‘Bacon and sculpture’, in Bacon/Moore, 31-47. Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.
Lubbock, T. 2010. ‘Sand Dune’, in The Independent, 30th April 2010, read the article in full here.
Sylvester, D. 1987. Interviews with Francis Bacon: the Brutality of Fact. London: Thames and Hudson.
Last Friday (8/11/2013), I attended the research seminar Re-Dating Early England at the Society of Antiquaries of London, a day of eight papers and a discussion session, organised to celebrate and explore the themes of two recent major publications: The Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Spong Hill IX: Chronology and Synthesis by Catherine Hills and Sam Lucy (the final volume in the Spong Hill series) and Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods of the Sixth and Seventh Centuries AD: a Chronological Framework, an edited volume by Alex Bayliss, John Hines, Karen Høilund Nielsen, Gerry McCormac and Christopher Scull (edited by John Hines and Alex Bayliss). Both have fundamental implications for our understanding of the chronology of 5th-7th-century Anglo-Saxon England.
The morning began with a welcome from Chris Scull, before the first session commenced with talks introducing each of those two new publications, the first by Catherine Hills and Sam Lucy, and the second by John Hines. After a break for coffee, we heard two talks focusing on statistical methodology, the first on absolute dating by radiocarbon, the second on relative dating by grave-associated artefact groups. In the first, Alex Bayliss explained how Bayesian analysis can be used to refine the probabilities of radiocarbon dating to a level of resolution useful for this relatively short period. Alex must have done a good job, as I surprised even myself by coming away with some understanding, albeit a basic one, of what had previously seemed a mysterious and dark art. Karen Høilund Nielsen provided an overview of the principles of seriation and the methods of correspondence analysis, a method that has become fundamental to establishing chronologies for this period and its many thousands of furnished graves, and one in which the speaker has for some time been leading the field.
Following lunch, we had two papers providing perspectives from the continent and a third on numismatics. Andreas Rau clearly communicated the quite complex methodological issues concerning the very earliest dates of ‘Germanic’ material in eastern England. Frank Siegmund’s contribution was perhaps the most thought-provoking of the day, dealing as it did not so much with the methods of chronological analysis, but with a novel manner of interpreting the different absolute lengths of chronological phases in terms of the ebb and flow of cultural change. Marion Archibald’s paper dealt with a seemingly quite critical disparity between the absolute dating suggested by Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods and those traditionally stated by numismatists.
The day closed with an open discussion session chaired by Andrew Reynolds. It was perhaps this session that raised the most pertinent question of the day. That is, now that we have the most secure chronological framework yet devised for early Anglo-Saxon England, what do we do with it? Unfortunately, this question seemed to stump the audience, including myself, who remained either silent or staunchly focused on methodological or relatively peripheral issues. This was perhaps inevitable after a day of papers whose focus was quite legitimately focused on methodology. Indeed, for a specialist like myself, this focus made the seminar among the most valuable I have attended. But it does beg the question, what next?
There is also a question, I believe, concerning the extent to which this chronological research will be used by Anglo-Saxon archaeologists in the decades to come. I have little doubt that they will be justly acknowledged and taken up by specialists, whose artefact-focused studies, like my own, have been crying out for an overarching chronological framework on which to peg their phasings. The question of ‘what next?’ for us is fairly obvious: we can refine our studies even further and justifiably place more confidence in our findings. Both of the above publications, for instance, have some impact on the absolute dates I suggested for cruciform brooches in my PhD thesis, which are confirmed at the latest end, and revised at the earliest. However, the real question concerns the extent of the effect they will have on more interpretative accounts. There has been a unfortunate tendency in more thematic, social archaeologies of the 5th and 6th centuries to treat these two centuries virtually synchronically. This is a result of necessity rather than ignorance. Until now, despite a couple of key volumes, chronological work on Anglo-Saxon archaeology has been relatively diffuse or obscure. We now have a challenge, I think, to incorporate those more theoretically inclined archaeologies with a methodological knowledge of the material on which they are grounded.
A new essay by W. G. Sebald was published in the Guardian Review (20.04.2013) a few months ago, entitled On the occasion of a visit to the Ile Saint-Pierre (since then it’s been published in A Place in the Country, a new collection of translated essays). It describes Sebald’s visit to the Swiss lake peninsula in 1996 and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s exile and residence in the same place more than 200 years earlier. As regular readers may have grasped by now, I’m a bit of a fan of Sebald’s writing and particularly enjoy pondering its relevance to how we think about archaeology.
In an introduction to the essay, James Wood comments “Sebald was always asking us to reflect on how we access the past, how we rescue the dead, and how the writer performs that real, but necessarily fictional, reclamation”. To my ears, this desire to retreive and even re-animate lives long extinguished is also a profound statement of archaeology’s purpose.
Some of the beauty of Sebald’s writing lies in his fussy descriptive details. It is these details he seems to regard as the most valuable. One particularly telling passage in Sebald’s essay is his observations of the lack of attentiveness among fellow visitors to Rousseau’s preserved house:
[N]ot one of them bent down to look at the glass display case to try to decipher Rousseau’s handwriting, nor noticed the way that the bleached deal floorboards, almost two feet wide, are so worn down in the middle of the room, nor that in places the knots in the wood protrude by almost an inch. No one ran a hand over the stone basin worn smooth by age in the antechamber, or noticed the smell of soot which still lingers in the fireplace, nor paused to look out of the window with its view across the orchard and a meadow to the island’s southern shore.
The past comes to life in Sebald’s imagination and the whole experience is sensory: by sight, by touch and by smell. The past is insuppressable. It rises up to smother the senses of those who give it their attention. Much of the emotive nature of Sebald’s experience, however, is down to the detail. The floorboards are “two feet wide”, the knots in them “almost an inch” high, the boards are worn only in the middle of the room. It’s in these details – I’d rather call them phenomenal or substantial (in the most literal senses of the terms) than pedantic – that shadows of the past linger. Without these details, the house is nothing but a shell through which the less observant visitor drifts unaffected, unmoved, unimpressed.
Incidentally, this all reminded me of a wooden floor in a house I grew up in. The boards were marked by hundreds of tiny, circular dents, in a gradually emanating concentration focused in the centre of the room. They were caused by the repeated practicing of a cello, whose spike had been driven into the floor (perhaps unwittingly through a carpet?) for years. Their permanence left a residue of music in the room. Consequently, that space was always somehow inhabited by those past residents whose presence still lingered, fossilized in those entirely mundane scratches and dips.
The same processes create the archaeological sites we excavate. Repeated daily actions of past people are made permanent through their material consequences. But the same is true of individual objects, especially things like jewellery and dress items whose emotive potency lies in their details of wear and repair, use and eventual discard. Each scratch, each knock, each worn surface tells a story. A story only visible to inquistive eyes, intent on the detail.
Though his own pedantry is not overtly self-conscious, Sebald proceeds to admire Rousseau’s compulsion, as a strange relief from the burden of his writing labours, to catalogue in exhaustive detail every aspect of every plant on the Isle St-Pierre:
Thus the apparently innocent occupation – the deliberate resolve no longer to think and merely to look at nature – becomes, for the writer plagued by the chronic need to think and work, a demanding rationalistic project involving the compiling of lists, indices and catalogues…
Sound familiar? It certainly does to me, looking at my shelf with its generous metre of Anglo-Saxon brooch catalogues. I get a similar pleasure from merely cataloguing these items. Not only does it work towards a greater purpose, but it is enjoyable work in itself. Observing these items of ancient jewellery in all their beauty and detail is, after all, what attracted me to their study in the first place.
Hence, there is a link, albeit a romanticised one (though there is nothing wrong with that), between Sebald’s valuation of knowledge, Rousseau’s insuppressable pursuit of it, and the interests and methods of archaeologists. One might say that the link lies simply in scientific thought. All these things are after all broadly products of the Enlightenment. But I think there is more to it than that. There is something more valuable and more emotive about those direct links between the past and present that the smallest details of the mundane material world evoke. Some of the most emotionally and intellectually profound fragments of the past inhere in the smallest details that only the sharpest, most curious, dedicated and educated eye can reveal. It’s the intimacy with which we ‘rescue’ something of the dead that makes the practice of archaeology so beguiling.
“Do not cite Wikipedia” is lesson number one for many undergraduates. I’ve seen teachers become unnecessarily (if amusingly) apoplectic over this. Wikipedia should never be referenced because it’s an unstable source. But it is rarely a misleading one. Even on the occasions when it is, we are usually talking about some minor issue, frustrating to the specialist who’s work has gone unacknowledged, but not exactly a heresy. Most of the time, information on Wikipedia is pretty useful. Of course, it needs to be read critically with an awareness of how it is compiled, but the same could be said of any source, academic or not. Rather than complaining about the accuracy of a brilliant, free source of information that everyone is going to use anyway, I think academics have some responsibility to contribute constructively.
I’m particularly interested in the remove between the kind of knowledge authenticated by institutions and peer-review and that compiled by the generally unacknowledged authors of Wikipedia articles. Could it be the way that Wikipedia disrupts traditional hierarchies of knowledge that inspires dismissive treatment from the academy? Perhaps, but I digress. I’m more interested in how this knowledge differs than the politics. To assess this, I would like to explore the kind of information available on Wikipedia, as of August 2013, concerning my own specialism: early Anglo-Saxon archaeology (5th-7th century AD). I’ve never really looked at these pages, as I tend to use Wikipedia for material with which I am much less familiar, so I’m coming to this with fresh eyes.
The general page on Anglo-Saxon archaeology is not what I expected. It is divided into the following topics: hoards, art, numismatics, glass and architecture, but contains very little information itself. It has a section on burial, containing a slightly odd list of cemeteries; some important, some less so. There are the expected references to the presence of unproblematic groups of Angles and Saxons and a reference to the burial of animal skulls in graves, which, given the rarity of this practice, seems bizarre. There’s also a bit on deviant burials and a paragraph on the famous later barrow burials. There’s no misinformation here, but the contents seem rather too summary and non-representative. The reason for the imbalance and limited examples becomes evident upon noticing that the only reference on the page is “Hutton 1991”, presumably a book by Ronald Hutton called The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy. To my discredit, I have never encountered this book before, but it certainly isn’t a standard source for Anglo-Saxon archaeology.
Moving on to those subcategories. The ‘Anglo-Saxon hoards‘ page links to a section on a more general page about hoards in archaeology. ‘Anglo-Saxon Art‘ has a page all to itself, which though pretty good overall offers very little indeed for the 5th and 6th century. Admittedly, I find it slightly odd that Sutton Hoo, the Staffordshire Hoard and the Canterbury-St Martin’s Hoard are all subsumed under this category, as their significance is far wider than art. The ‘Anglo-Saxon Numismatics‘ page is disappointing (it links to a project page for the the Sylloge of the Coins of the British Isles, whatever that might be), offering nothing on either numismatics or archaeology (but this can be found elsewhere, it’s just the link that is wrong). I was initially surprised to see a page dedicated to Anglo-Saxon glass, given there is not one for metalwork or other craft products, but the page to which it links is actually pretty good offering some detail as well as general information and is well referenced. Finally, the link to Anglo-Saxon architecture has its own page, but provides only very summary information, with nothing derived from archaeology and perhaps unsurprisingly nothing earlier than the seventh century.
It seems, therefore, that one must dig a little deeper to find Anglo-Saxon archaeology on Wikipedia. I had hoped to find some more Anglo-Saxon archaeology through the Anglo-Saxon England page. To my disappointment, however, generic ‘archaeology’ is referenced only as a potential source for information about the period (the link takes us to that page above). There are a few familiar archaeological books among the references here, but at no point is information derived from archaeology referenced. The Anglo-Saxons article offers similarly historical fare, emphasising things like art, religion and language. Fine in its own right, but not archaeology. This is not necessarily a problem. I certainly don’t believe archaeology should have its nose in every subject. However, these are not explicitly historical pages and Anglo-Saxon archaeology, especially from the virtually ahistoric early centuries, really has made significant contributions to these general topics.
So where is the Anglo-Saxon archaeology on Wikipedia? I found my way in by searching for a page on Burial in Early Anglo-Saxon England, which offers an excellent account and should surely be referenced from the Anglo-Saxon archaeology page. Under the Wikipedia category of Anglo-Saxon burial practice to which this page links, there is once again a non-representative selection of sites (including Buckland, Finglesham, Fordcroft, Mill Hill, Polhill, Sarre, Shrubland Hall, Snape, Streethouse and Walkington Wold), practices (bed burial, burial mounds) and specific examples (St Cuthbert’s coffin, the Ridgeway Viking burial pit and the Trumpington bed burial). All these pages are actually very good by themselves. They demonstrate there is indeed the potential for detailed and specific information Wikipedia. Nevertheless, a more representative set of examples would be beneficial.
I cannot, however, locate a sister page on Anglo-Saxon settlement archaeology. Neither can I find any links to the major 20th century Anglo-Saxon archaeologists – Leeds, Myres, Hawkes, Evison etc. are all notably absent given their major contributions (Lethbridge is here, but not for his contributions to archaeology…).
Searching again for archaeology on general pages, I thought I might find some information on probably the most popular topic of the period: migration. The page on the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain is actually very good on its mixture of history and archaeology. Sure, some of the points are contentious, but the account here is relatively balanced. Nevertheless, it is perhaps notable that references to archaeological material on this page have all been taken from secondary references in primarily historical research. There’s also a major article on Anglo-Saxon paganism, which is good and well referenced and includes some references to burial from archaeology (mostly, it seems from Hutton 1991). Again, the focus is historical, but perhaps this is to be expected for such a topic.
Closer to home for me, is the dedicated page on Anglo-Saxon dress. Unfortunately, it is dominated by a section on masculine dress and offers very little on women, which is perhaps unexpected given the greater archaeological evidence for the latter. There is some archaeology here, but not an awful lot considering the wealth of archaeological information on jewellery.
So what, in the final assessment, is the state of early Anglo-Saxon archaeology on Wikipedia? This is only a brief overview, but the overall impression is mixed. While there is some good information, it lacks coherency and is not representative. Some topics (e.g. burial, migration) are dealt with in pretty good detail, but other equally important ones (settlement, material culture) are virtually absent. Ranges of examples are non-representative, with a few favourite sites given detail and others going unmentioned. The dedicated page to Anglo-Saxon archaeology is poorly linked and lacking in both scope and detail. Given the history of the disciplines, one would expect Anglo-Saxon Archaeology to play second fiddle to Anglo-Saxon History, but the extent to which the archaeology is subsumed by the history is surprising given the considerable archaeological contribution in recent decades.
However, my point here isn’t to criticise but to assess what we’re missing. I entirely appreciate the time that individuals have invested in putting these pages together. The problem here is clearly not with the people that have contributed, but with the people that haven’t. I must admit, I am as guilty of this as anyone else, which is why I thought this short round-up might be a step in the right direction. Hence, I offer the following suggestions from an outsider’s perspective. My views may well not accord with the format of Wikipedia, or the manner in which similar period-specific subjects are structured. Hopefully, that in itself might be of some value. If anyone was interested, my provisional suggestions would be:
- Overhaul of the Anglo-Saxon archaeology page, including a short disciplinary history outlining important contributors (linking to their own pages). Links to more general Anglo-Saxon archaeological topics such as burial (which already exists, but I might consider extending it to include later Anglo-Saxon periods), settlement and material culture would also be helpful
- Pages on at least a handful of the major early Anglo-Saxon archaeologists
- A dedicated page to Anglo-Saxon settlement archaeology
- A page dedicated to Anglo-Saxon material culture including ceramics, weaponry and decorative metalwork
- A greater range of dedicated examples of sites or specific objects
- More contributions from archaeology on the general Anglo-Saxon pages
All comments/disagreements gratefully received. I would be extremely surprised if anyone agreed with me entirely. After all, this is a big topic I’ve covered minimally and selectively. But I’d very much like to hear how your opinion may differ!
Finally, I would like to acknowledge the inspiration behind this blog post, which was a twitter conversation initiated by Pat Hadley (@PatHadley) back in April. While I attempted to give a general impression of the Anglo-Saxon pages then, I was enticed into compiling something in excess of 140 characters!
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.