Academic journal article Antiquity

'Visual Competence' in Archaeology: A Problem Hiding in Plain Sight

Academic journal article Antiquity

'Visual Competence' in Archaeology: A Problem Hiding in Plain Sight

Article excerpt

This paper is dedicated to the memory of Peter Connolly FSA (1935-2012), illustrator, author, experimental archaeologist and inspiration.

It is a truism that archaeology is a profoundly visual discipline; it is paradoxical, then, that so much of its output exhibits a poor level of what I opt to call visual competence. There are, of course, many glorious exceptions to the picture I will sketch out (pun probably intended). Yet as someone who returned to the UK university sector to teach archaeology after a decade as a jobbing illustrator and then museum educator and writer working closely with designers, I am as often dismayed as thrilled by the quality of images in many new archaeological publications, and in other documents and presentations created by archaeologists for specialist or public consumption. This is an international issue. What follows draws largely on UK experience as the central case study, but I have encountered the same phenomenon, and apparent causes, in teaching undergraduate and graduate students from a variety of Anglophone, European and other university systems, and through working on a range of projects in other countries. While I have not conducted systematic research, I have sought to cross-reference my impression that these problems are due to shortcomings in training, by canvassing the experiences of archaeologists around the world. As will be seen, their responses generally supported the picture presented here.

For obvious reasons, I must avoid citing specific egregious examples of bad practice, but many will have endured conference PowerPoint presentations with tiny images and illegible text. The reader will not have to look through many publications to encounter such common phenomena as: poorly drawn, incomprehensible location maps and site plans; object or site photographs without scales, perhaps reproduced as muddy halftones generated from colour photographs without the necessary editing for contrast; and such phenomena often appear in publications or presentations that generally look carelessly produced. As will be seen, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Certainly, such shortcomings are, in part, down to slipshod publishers, but also reflect a widespread neglect of visual matters among archaeologists, often extending to the very basics of document design. Some seem clueless about how to make, for example, the simplest poster or report visually effective or professional in appearance.

It is, naturally, hard to compare chalk and cheese, but, in my view, serious failings in the creation, use and presentation of visuals are more common, and deeper, than would ever be tolerated by, say, university examiners or editors encountering equivalent defects in writing and editing text. All this matters. It is not simply about 'superficial' issues of presentation: it is about fundamentals of effective practice in academic research that are far from superficial, and it is equally important for the wider communication of our discipline. Such visual deficiencies shout amateurs' to savvier outsiders accustomed to slick, commercially designed presentations--the people on whom most graduates will depend for employment, and from whom archaeologists in post must increasingly seek funding.

I argue, then, that archaeology as a discipline and profession has a real problem with what in a wider sense might be termed 'visuality' (Mirzoeff 2006, 2011), and, more precisely, 'visual competence' (Muller 2008; Pauwels 2008) or 'visual literacy' (e.g. Hug 2012; Hattwig et al. 2013). It is telling in itself that archaeology (and indeed wider scholarship) lacks an agreed term for this matter. It is doubly telling that 'visual literacy' relies on analogy with, and implicitly cedes priority to, skills required to handle text. As stated initially, I opt for the shorthand 'visual competence', employing 'competence' in the sense of the Oxford English Dictionary definition: "sufficiency of qualification; capacity to deal adequately with a subject". …

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