Tuesday, February 17, 2015


Sheila Bonde, Stephen Houston (ed.), Re-presenting the Past: Archaeology through Text and Image. Joukowsky Institute publication, 2. Oxford; Oakville, CT: Oxbow Books, 2013. Pp. xiv, 215. ISBN 9781782972310. $40.00 (pb).

Reviewed by John K. Papadopoulos, University of California, Los Angeles (JKP@humnet.ucla.edu )

Version at BMCR home site

[The reviewer apologizes for his tardiness in preparing this review.]

This edited volume, originally conceived as a symposium connected to a seminar, was a long time in the making. The theoretical underpinnings of the volume, together with how it came into being, are outlined in Chapter 1 by the editors. Representation—or Re-presentation—in archaeology, whether written or graphic, is crucial, since the archaeological past exists only through intermediaries that vary widely in form and nature. Moreover, representation in archaeology in one form or another, and in this case specifically the issue of illustrative representation, goes back to at least 1717. As Stuart Piggott wrote in the opening sentence of his engaging book Antiquity Depicted: "In the first minute-book of the Society of Antiquaries of London, in 1717, William Stukeley, its first secretary, wrote: 'Without drawing or designing the Study of Antiquities or any other Science is lame and imperfect."1

Indeed, antiquarian illustration in Britain in the 18th and early 19th centuries is well dealt with by Sam Smiles in Chapter 2, entitled "Imagining British History: Patriotism, Professional Arts Practice, and the Quest for Perfection." In this paper, Smiles engages with the reflexivity of archaeological image-making, its sensitivity to modes of representing the past and its critical self-awareness. As he outlines so well, images possess "the power not simply to record but to invent and, as such, to attempt the retrieval of cultures that have vanished," and he illustrates the point with two oil paintings and an etching representing King Lear weeping over the dead body of Cordelia (Fig. 2.1), the institution of the Order of the Garter (Fig. 2.2), and Robert Havell's fabulous "A Briton of the Interior" (Fig. 2.3).

In keeping with the intellectual interests of one of the editors, the third chapter, by Sheila Bonde and Clark Maines, is a well-illustrated overview of what the authors have previously written on, namely the various modes of representing monasteries. In "Re-presenting the Monastery: From Ordo to Google Earth," the authors, rather than tracing a historical survey, examine two genres of monastic representation: the panoptic and the synecdochal; the former being an image or text that aims at a comprehensive view of the monastery or monastic life, the latter being when a portion of the monastery, like the church, stands for the whole. Another paper dealing with the representation of things medieval is Thomas Devaney's "Re-presenting the Medieval Festivals of JaĆ©n through Text, Enactment and Image" (Chapter 8). This is a very focused piece on a spectacle, arranged by the Constable of Castile, Don Miguel Lucas de Iranzo, in which—to cut a long story short—the Christian and Muslim faiths are pitted against one another in a sporting event involving the two teams of knights hurling light spears at one another, with the losing team having to convert to the religion of the victor. The result was predictable: the Christians staood victorious and the Muslim King of Morocco was ceremoniously baptized, together with his knights, while the Prophet Mohammed was unceremoniously thrown to the ground and then, with his Qur'an in hand, dunked into a fountain behind the church, a more theatrical form of baptism. What Devaney does is to recount the ways in which both contemporary and modern authors represented the Constable of Castile's spectacle of December 26, 1462. Much of this essay engages with the nuts and bolts of earlier scholarship of the spectacle, not least by Teofilo Ruiz, Angus MacKay, Philippe Buc, and Max Harris.

There are three chapters reflecting the interests of the other editor: the world of the ancient Maya. In Chapter 4, Stephen Houston himself discusses representation in "Ping-Pong, Polygons, Virgins: Graphic Representation of the Ancient Maya," both among the Maya themselves and those representing them. As Houston states so well: "Without a doubt, provisos about the power of images apply to the ancient Maya, among the most graphically inclined of peoples in their fondness for image-making and … among the most imagined and imaged in popular and scholarly media" (pp. 35-36). This short and cogent piece explores the Maya and their archaeological remains as representational targets, together with the very precise ways scholars have represented them visually. The second paper of the Maya trilogy, by Barbara Fash ("Virtual Time Machines: Nineteenth-century Photographs and Museum Re-presentation in Maya Archaeology"), examines computer technologies and 3D scanning of old photographic records and replications from a century or so ago. Her belief is that "Untouched photographs can be trusted more than many other documentary tools, as the most accurate method and honest tools to re-represent and revive the past," at least aspects of the recent past. Her focus in largely, though not exclusively, on glass plate negatives, and the digitization of the Copan hieroglyphic stairway project, as well as the reconstruction of the stairway in the Copan Sculpture Museum. The last of the Maya essays, by Cassandra Mesick deals with "Of Imaging and Imagining: Landscape Reconstruction at Piedras Negras." The paper continues the digitization theme, describing, in detail, how the site of Piedras Negras has been imaged and especially the role of new technologies in creating archaeological maps. Various techniques are showcased, but the result is, rather predictably, "look what I can do with ArcGIS."

Chapters 9 and 10 turn their attention to the heart of the Classical world. In the first of these, Christopher Witmore provides one of the most sophisticated discussions in the volume, spiraling back to the work of Martin Heidegger, Marshal McLuhan, and Bruno Latour, among many others. In "The World on a Flat Surface: Maps from the Archaeology of Greece and Beyond," Witmore focuses on something all archaeologists are familiar with: maps—so practical, so pervasive, so mundane. He cogently explores the tension between maps as flat projections of the material world and necessary modes of archaeological documentation and visualization: "Translate the material world onto a flat surface while maintaining something of its qualities without distortion and we have a key ingredient necessary not only for archaeology but also modern science" (p. 128). On the same page he notes: "It is remarkable, given the necessity of maps for the work of archaeology, that so little has been written on what it is they actually do in the context of archaeological knowledge production," (emphasis Witmore's), though he does point to some important recent contributions to the endeavor. By focusing on maps of the Greek coastline, the city of Athens, and the Peloponnese, he presents maps as things that facilitate the transportation of select properties of the locales they depict. He moves from the properties of maps to the powers of maps, and ends with an installation, Looking for the San Andreas Fault, which offered a different take on maps, mobility, and manipulation. This essay is important reading not only for those interested in things Greek. In the final chapter of the volume, "To be or not to be in Past Spaces: Thoughts on Roman Immersive Reconstructions," Diane Favro provides an overview of a field in which she has been a leading light, immersive virtual-reality simulations, often with sounds and movements—we still await smells—and in the process provides interesting discussions of corporality, the anthropology of the senses, subversion, conversion, diversion, and more. Her focus is, of course, on things Roman, both in Rome itself and elsewhere.

In many ways, one of the most interesting papers in the entire volume (Chapter 7) is somewhat misplaced, as many of the things it covers belong either as an intellectual introduction to representation in archaeology, or else as a concluding chapter, wrapping up the discussion by returning to the intellectual underpinnings of the topic. In "A Political Economy of Visual Media in Archaeology" Michael Shanks and Timothy Webmoor shift the emphasis away from communication, iconology, and visuality, toward the manner in which visuality works in archaeology, "from visual media as material forms (graphics, maps, photographs) to the work that visual media perform in archaeology" (p. 85, emphasis mine). Shanks and Webmoor showcase the importance of media in archaeology; provide critiques of mimetic media; highlight correspondence and evaluation; discuss the case of Walter Scott and the anxiety of mediation; turn to maps as cognitive tools; and stress mediation, not representation, before ending with the potential of new digital media. Digital technology has certainly amplified the sheer amount of data now kept from an excavation, for example, but it is precisely this storage, retrieval and distribution, together with its creative re-mixing or fungibility, that are all magnified. Their concluding paragraph can serve as a fitting end of a volume on representation in archaeology:

"The politics of this participatory heritage involve questions of access and control, of intellectual property and stakeholder interest, as well as questions of authenticity and expertise. We do not consider it an exaggeration to connect the profound changes associated with the emergence of the modern public sphere in the eighteenth century with these contemporary challenges to our archaeological desire to represent the past."


1.   S. Piggott, Antiquity Depicted: Aspects of Archaeological Illustration, London 1978; see further J.K. Papadopoulos, The Art of Antiquity: Piet de Jong and the Athenian Agora, Athens and Princeton 2007, especially pp. 31-32.

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