Treasure Exhibition

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While staying in Sussex, I had the chance to visit my Treasure comic, which is on display at the Redoubt Fortress Museum in Eastbourne.

The comic is part of an exhibition on treasure, presenting artefacts, books and images from local collections.

There was plenty there to keep a prehistorian happy.

A palaeolithic flint axe…

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A bronze age socketed axe…

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Dr A’s favourite, an Iron Age chalk head:

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This was a thoughtful, beautifully designed exhibition, asking visitors to come to their own definition of treasure.

And it was great to see my comic printed on professional display panels – really big!

P1000303Dr H; Photos: Mr X

Ask an Archaeologist: Aaron Watson

In another Ask an Archaeologist meets Ask an Artist, Prehistories questioned Dr Aaron Watson about his engagement with archaeology, art and landscape.

Ask an Archaeologist
Aaron Watson
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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.

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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.
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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.

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Choose one of the following: trowel; museum; archive; library; landscape; laptop.

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.

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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.

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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.

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Is there a work of art (e.g. novel, painting, music, film, etc) that has influenced you as an archaeologist?

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.

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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

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This text was intermittently compiled during train journeys to Durham, London and Edinburgh, and completed atop an outcrop overlooking Great Langdale.

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Thank you, Aaron for answering our questions. 

Do head over to Aaron’s Monumental site and check out more of his artwork.

Read more Ask an Archaeologist features here: https://prehistories.wordpress.com/category/ask-an-archaeologist/

Ask an Archaeologist

Archaeologist and archaeological illustrator John Swogger answers our questions.

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Ask An Archaeologist: John Swogger

What is your specialism?

I specialise in archaeological illustration, which is about recording and presenting archaeology visually. I do everything from measured drawings of artefacts, monuments, and entire sites to reconstruction paintings showing how places, people and things used to look like in the past. Some of my illustrations end up in specialist archaeological publications and site reports, others – like my archaeological comics – end up in museums, guidebooks and magazines.

 

Why did you become an archaeologist?

I was always interested in archaeology, even when I was really young. I used to make Egyptian tombs in the garden, fill them with mummies, pots and pieces of furniture I’d made, and leave them for months at a time before digging them up again. I suppose actually becoming an archaeologist was inevitable after that! When I went to University, I realised that archaeology was actually as much about understanding the present as it was understanding the past. If you understand the way archaeology pieces together the past, you realise you’re also able to understand those same things in the present:  politics, economics, culture, history, art, etc.

Which archaeologist (past or present) would you invite onto an excavation?

Mortimer Wheeler. He created the kind of public archaeology we know today, and helped us recognise that the past matters to everyone, not just to archaeologists. Without him, we’d have no Time Team, no Discovery Channel, and Jorvik Centre. I think he’d be fascinated by the way public understanding of archaeology has changed over the years, and despite all archaeology’s problems, be extremely encouraged by the number of people who are interested in the past and who value it.

Choose one of the following: trowel; museum; archive; library; landscape; laptop.

Trowel, definitely. Archaeology is about studying the past through the bits and pieces left behind. Without a trowel, nothing would end up in museums, archives or libraries. Knowing how, where, when and why to excavate is the beginning of all good archaeology.

What is your dream find?

Time is not kind to a lot of ordinary materials. Organic materials such as wood, textile, string, leather and skin survive only in particular conditions – like the clothing on the Ice Man preserved in the ice and cold of the Alps, for example, or the skin and hair preserved on bog bodies in peat deposits. Occasionally, you get place like Akrotiri, Pompeii or Herculaneum where natural events like volcanoes preserve the imprints of objects like wooden chairs or loaves of bread. A “dream find” for me would be an entire site from a distant period like the Neolithic preserved in such a way. Imagine all the wooden objects, all the textiles, all the furs and skins that you would be able to recover from some sort of Neolithic Pompeii. I think finding a site like that would be truly astonishing, and quite probably make us think about periods like the Neolithic very differently.

Time travel, yes or no? (Give reasons)

Oh yes, absolutely. So much of the ordinary experience of even the recent past is very quickly forgotten. I grew up in a time without computers, without mobile phones, without the internet – and even I have trouble remembering what that was like. I think time-travel to even a very recent era in the past – say the 1980s – would radically alter the way we think about it. You’d be very quickly made aware of all those ordinary everyday details which don’t make it into the archaeological or historical record. Imagine what time-travel would do for our understanding of the very distant past. Of course, it might put archaeologists out of a job…

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If you had to relocate to the past, which era would you move to?

This is such an unfair question! How can you possibly pick one era out of the whole of human history! I’d want to go back and see what all the places I’ve ever worked in were like in the past: the Sudan during the Meroitic period, the Cistercian monastery of Bordesley Abbey in the thirteenth century, the riverside settlements along the Danube at the end of the Mesolithic, or the Roman marching camps along the Antonine Wall. An impossible choice! But if I absolutely had to pick one era, it would be the Neolithic in Anatolia (Central Turkey, c. 5,000BC). I worked for many years at the site of Catalhoyuk, which is a Neolithic site in Anatolia. This was the time that people were inventing the whole idea of not being hunter-gatherers and settling down into permanent communities. So much of what we take for granted as part of the modern world – villages, towns, professions, trades, government, religion, borders, etc. – started at sites like Catalhoyuk. Seeing these ideas first being tried out, and knowing what later generations would do with these ideas would be really interesting.

Is there a work of art (e.g. novel, painting, music, film, etc) that has influenced you as an archaeologist?

When I was learning to read, I couldn’t get enough of the Ladybird books on history and archaeology. The pictures in the books – particularly the paintings by a man named John T. Kenney – made the past seem genuinely alive. I know this is one of the things that made me interested in trying to do illustrations and paintings of the past myself.

What are you working on at the moment?

At the moment I’m working on four very different archaeological comics. The first is an educational comic for a museum in California, all about the native peoples that lived on the California coast and left these huge mounds of discarded clam-shells behind. The second is a graphic article about late ceramics in northwestern Mexico – this is going to be published in a specialist archaeology journal in the US. The third is a fictional web-comic about future archaeologists working on the moon, and will be published online later this year. The last project is one I’m working on with Dr H! It’s a graphic short story written by Dr H and illustrated by me. It’s about a girl during the Late Neolithic, and is set around the sites of Skara Brae and Stenness on Orkney. It’s called “One Girl Goes Hunting”, and we’re not sure when it’ll be published, but hopefully early next year.

Thanks John! You can see more of John’s work and read his articles on comics and archaeology on his blog:
Read more Ask an Archaeologist features here: https://prehistories.wordpress.com/category/ask-an-archaeologist/