The Visual in Archaeology: Photographic Representation of Archaeological Practice in British India

Article excerpt


Photography was received with great enthusiasm by archaeologists from the first introduction of the technology in 1839. Within a year, daguerreotypes of ancient Egyptian monuments were in circulation, and by the 1880s detailed photographic records of archaeological field activities were being created. One early example is the meticulous photo-documentation of the excavations conducted between 1882 and 1886 of the Indian mounds in the Ohio River Valley of the United States. The excavations, directed by Frederick Ward Putnam with the help of his principal fieldworker Charles Metz, were aimed at establishing a scientific method for North American archaeology. Putnam's use of the camera to produce visual evidence of his methods is well documented in his letter to Metz in 1884 (quoted by Banta & Hinsley (1986: 76)):

By the way I wish you would continue to keep a section of the big [Turner] mound perfect, so that I can photograph it when I get there in May. I wish you could let a mass stand that would give me a full view from the top mound to the trench off the sector with the pits. Let a column stand where the trees are just back of the old altar ... so that the photo would show all the layers. Can't this be done?

Techniques of photographing ancient sites and artefacts were widely experimented with throughout the latter half of the 19th century, and methods for archaeological photography were soon established. As early as 1904, an entire chapter on the correct manner of taking photographs for archaeological purposes was written by Sir Flinders Petrie in his seminal work Methods and aims of archaeology. Until the 1970s, in many countries a course on archaeological photography was deemed compulsory. Photographs produced during archaeological practice were accepted as providing objective and reliable information. Their use as visual aids and documentary records highlighted their status as evidence. Archaeology's reliance on photography was based on the belief that the technology promised foolproof objectivity. However, even a cursory examination of the kinds of imagery produced for nearly one-and-a-half centuries reveal consistent manipulation of the photographic technology to tailor many kinds of `realities' and `objective' recordings.

The history of interaction between photography and archaeology is complex. The conditions within which photographs are taken, the choice of images for academic publications and non-academic consumption, the manner in which people and places are photographed and captioned, reveal wider political and social conditions that govern archaeological practice in different areas of the world. Gero & Root (1990: 19-37) illustrated this relationship between archaeology, photography and world politics in their article on the public presentation of archaeological practice in the National Geographic. The authors demonstrated how contemporary political ideologies of the United States determined what is photographed in excavations conducted by North Americans in the poorer countries of Latin America and Asia. They identified the many different ways in which imagery and texts were created and manipulated in the pages of the National Geographic to glorify and legitimize the technological and economic imperialism of the United States over `primitive societies' and `ancient civilizations' of the third world.

Following the lead given by Susan Sontag and John Tagg in the 1970s and '80s respectively, research on the history of photography, on the impact of this technology on 19th-century sciences, and on the nature of visual evidence produced through this medium in disciplines such as social anthropology, art history and sociology has shown that photographs are socially and politically constructed like all cultural representations. They are not merely taken, but made. A photograph is indexically linked to that which it records, and in most instances `the data allows more to be seen or analysed than [is] possible at the time of collection' (Banks & Morphy 1997: 17). …