Imaging and Imagining the Neanderthal: The Role of Technical Drawings in Archaeology

By Reybrouck, David van | Antiquity, March 1998 | Go to article overview

Imaging and Imagining the Neanderthal: The Role of Technical Drawings in Archaeology


Reybrouck, David van, Antiquity


Reconstruction drawings intended to illustrate the realities of prehistoric life can be fatuously revealing of preconceptions in the minds of the modern illustrator and of the researcher who briefs the illustrator. But are the less interpretative drawings whose purpose is to record the material evidence more neutral in their look? Nineteenth-century technical illustrations of the Neanderthal skull are unintentionally revealing of attitude.

Representations

At the height of his career, the Dutch-English painter Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (18361912), famous for his minute depictions of life in antiquity, worried about the quality of reproductions of his work in popular art magazines (Verhoogt 1996). In correspondence with lithographers, engravers and etchers, AlmaTadema appears as a touchy stickler for accuracy, meticulously pointing out all discrepancies between his paintings and the reproductions. Before Walter Benjamin's 'age of mechanical reproduction', a poor reprint meant, beyond a financial setback, a blow to the artist's fame. With editions reaching several hundred thousand copies, the reprints in art magazines could build or ruin a painter's career. Alma-Tadema's artistic taste and commercial instinct rightly assumed that to a certain extent reproductions replaced the originals.

Much the same holds true for fossils. Because of their fragility, they were and still are mostly known through representations such as drawings, plaster casts and photographs. The casts of the disappeared Choukoutien fossils are now as valuable as their originals once were. But even with still-existing fossils, the representations are there to re-present, i.e. to render present what is absent (Latour 1988). They allow the reader to 'virtually witness' (Shapin 1984) the original form. Representations of fossils therefore do not need only to be accurate, but also to convince the reader that they are so. In this article, I investigate how 19th-century technical depictions of the Neanderthal skull stood in for the fossil evidence while at the same time conveying a strong theoretical statement.

Pictorial reconstructions

Clive Gamble's statement that 'archaeology does not yet take its visual language very seriously' (Gamble 1992: 363) has been a call to arms, judging from the number of subsequent publications. Images from the past, especially of the Palaeolithic, have become sources for a critical historiography of archaeology (Burtt 1987; Cohen 1994: 25-44; Gamble 1992; Hurcombe 1995; Moser 1992; 1996; Moser & Gamble 1997; Stoczkowski 1990; 1997; Stringer & Gamble 1993: 18-33; Trinkaus & Shipman 1993: 399410), with Molyneaux's (1997) collection of papers on visual representation in archaeology a tentative apex in this field. A wider movement in history and sociology of science also studies the pervasiveness of visualizations in scientific knowledge (Fyfe & Law 1988; Lynch & Woolgar 1990; Rudwick 1992).

Thus far, pictorial reconstructions have received most attention. These 'scenes from deep time' (Rudwick 1992), equipping prehistoric people with clothes and tools and staging them in a pristine landscape, mostly appear in newspapers, children's books, museum displays and other popular media. As pictorial reconstructions always go beyond what archaeological data reveal, the illustrator is obliged to depict aspects about which the material evidence is silent. In Molyneaux's volume, Simon James (1997) gives an intriguing account of the decisions he was forced to take in his Boxgrove reconstruction. He concludes: 'Palaeolithic archaeology, being relatively "uninhibited" by data, has maximal scope for speculation, error, controversy, and the projection of one's own prejudices' (1997: 45).

The historical analyses of these images have mostly focused on underlying preconceptions. Gender archaeologists have repeatedly pointed to the traditional sex roles assumed in these drawings: men are nearly always shown hunting or flint-knapping; women seem to do little other than preparing skins or some other crouching activity (Burtt 1987; Hurcombe 1995). …

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