In another Ask an Archaeologist meets Ask an Artist, Prehistories questioned Dr Aaron Watson about his engagement with archaeology, art and landscape.
What is your specialism?
I explore archaeological ideas and experiences through painting, photography, film, animation and collage. My background is in archaeology, and sometimes I work with established conventions for visual representation – maps, plans and excavation photos etc. But what interests me most is the potential for experimentation. When I encounter artefacts, sites and landscapes they often possess qualities that I am unable to capture in words and pictures alone, and which cannot even be recorded by sophisticated technologies like laser scanning. I’m talking about rather subjective characteristics such as temperature, sound, movement or the way light reflects from surfaces. Then there is the time of day and the weather, all of which transform experience. I’ve found that creative approaches to recording and representation can make space for unexpected visions of the past in the present. Sometimes I go with my imagination, and sometimes I am commissioned to communicate in a specific way; the outputs include installation, exhibition, publication and visualisation.
Why did you become an archaeologist?
I grew up in the Derbyshire Dales, a land of wild moors and extraordinary rock formations. Some of my earliest memories are of visits to stone circles and barrows amidst this landscape; places like Arbor Low. I think I must have responded very instinctively to their special atmosphere and aesthetic – an emotional response that existed without any knowledge of archaeology. Then the world moved on, and I was presented with a choice between archaeology at university or going to art college. Looking back, I can’t answer why I made the choice I did. But I do know that academic training has been essential to what I do. Not in the sense that it brings me any closer to the past – archaeological ideas inevitably seem to reflect the present. But the evidence methodological and theoretical research can yield is often suggestive of a past that is stranger and more inspiring than I could ever have envisaged during my childhood walks across the moors.
Which archaeologist (past or present) would you invite onto an excavation?
I think it would have to be one of the early antiquarians – John Aubrey perhaps. I haven’t done a lot of reading about it, but I have a notion that the 17th and 18th century landscape was being reconfigured by Enlightenment thinking; a crucible within which archaeology as we know it was forged. The early antiquarians seem to have been learning to disentangle what we now describe as archaeological ‘sites’ from the background of the natural landscape. We take this for granted now, but the distinction between things made by people and things made by geological processes was not always defined. I’ve also read anthropological accounts that describe how people around the world understand their surroundings in diverse ways that can be difficult to decipher. Prior to the natural sciences, understandings of rocks, animals or weather must also have been very different. Antiquarians brought the modern discipline of archaeology into being and it would be fascinating to speak with of someone working on that quarry face.
While I’m using a laptop right now, I would have to say landscape. I find it a difficult word to define yet it provides the context within which all my actions take place, from inner city to mountain summit. Whenever museums, archives, libraries (or even trowels and laptops) fail to deliver; inspiration can be found out there in the wider world.
What is your dream find?
I’ve been fortunate to stumble across wonderful things. An unrecorded passage grave was a highlight while fieldwalking near Inverness. Trowelling down onto unknown cup and ring carvings during excavations near Kilmartin and on Ben Lawers was also evocative. What I find most compelling are less tangible experiences. For example, many years ago I unexpectedly heard subtle echoes reflecting from a stone circle, and this ultimately led to an ongoing research project that changed my understanding of the role of sound and acoustics in prehistory. But in terms of artefacts, a carved stone ball or ground stone axe would be rather fun.
Time travel, yes or no? (Give reasons)
Time travel might seem to be the greatest opportunity (or challenge) to someone who creates visual reconstructions of the past. If I could go back there and take photos would visualisation be necessary at all? Setting aside the hazards of time travel that I’ve been reliably informed about through science fiction (temporal paradoxes etc), would a fieldtrip through time change my interpretation? On one level it certainly would, as the archaeological record can only represent a tiny fraction of what people did in the past. But on another level I would still only be a modern tourist with particular ways of seeing. I have to acknowledge that the visualisations I create are informed by archaeology, but are ultimately reflections of the society in which I live. The real challenge is to confront my own preconceptions and expectations. The past, and therefore the present, might turn out to be even less familiar than we could possibly imagine.
If you had to relocate to the past, which era would you move to?
Well, sweeping aside the previous answer, curiosity would inevitably lead me to the Neolithic. Everything there would be fascinating, but I hope the itinerary might include a chance to witness a vast construction project such as Silbury Hill or Maeshowe. But I’d also like to see smaller acts; the creation of cup and ring marks, or activities within Skara Brae or Barnhouse. Simply meeting the people would be extraordinary; not only how they dress and speak, but subtleties such as posture and movement.
There have been many, and for various reasons. In no particular order they include Kurt Schwitters for collage, and the Merz Barn in the Lake District. Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso for finding radical ways to represent time and space through Cubism, and David Hockney for translating these ideas into photography and other mediums. I’ve always been intrigued by Boyle Family’s intricate mixed media studies, which seem fundamentally archaeological. Finally, I’m always drawn back to Richard Long’s evocative landscape works.
What are you working on at the moment?
A variety of photography, film, and illustration commissions – and some collaborative projects in between. Over the past year or so I’ve been involved with experimental fieldwork at Skara Brae and Links of Noltland in Orkney, as well as capturing sensory experiences of Palaeolithic art in the caves of northern Spain. I’ve also embarked upon a community arts and archaeology project hosted by Kilmartin Museum in Argyll. This is a collaboration with composer John Was to explore cup and ring markings through sculpture, music and multimedia. Once I get around to updating it, there’ll be further info on my website: http://www.monumental.uk.com
This text was intermittently compiled during train journeys to Durham, London and Edinburgh, and completed atop an outcrop overlooking Great Langdale.
Thank you, Aaron for answering our questions.
Do head over to Aaron’s Monumental site and check out more of his artwork.