Meeting archaeological assemblages halfway

Paul Reilly, University of Southampton

Keywords: art/archaeology; assemblages; visual paredata; reflexive RTI; surfaces

Look through any archaeological report and you will find many similarly composed images documenting, superficially, evidence of past activities uncovered by archaeologists (e.g., depositional layers, negative features, up-standing remains, artefacts, etc). Such standardised images are so familiar that it is easy to believe that they offer impartial, authentic and accurate portrayals of some archaeological reality: “this is what we found”. However, appearances can be very deceiving. In fact, we could argue that, sometimes, surfaces get in the way of “the archaeology”. Archaeology, after all, is not simply found. It emerges out of complex and dynamic assemblages of practitioners, apparatus, and interventions with traces, residues and effects from the past that persist in our material present. Paradoxically many participants integral to these assemblages are not recorded in these published images, which largely depict only glimpses of the unfolding archaeological dynamic from a specific perspective, and only during pauses in the action. Hidden in the intervals between each successive image are the practitioners, their apparatus, movements and modes of exploration, their improvisations, in other words their practice, and the vast majority of the material that has either already been cleared off, or is still buried below, the superficial surfaces on display. Can we introduce more reflexive depth into our images and better capture the unfolding nature of our practices within the multifaceted archaeological record? Perhaps.

Using two art/archaeology interdisciplinary case studies, we attempt to demonstrate how some of these missing, but vital, elements of assemblages can be captured to create reflexive records with invaluable auto-archived paradata (i.e. data about the circumstances in which the data and their metadata were arrived at) documenting often ignored aspects of our discrete and combined practices.
In the first case study we explore the intra-actions involved in recording an artefact using Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI). Key to the production of RTIs is the inclusion of a highly polished sphere in the assemblage. By taking a series of digital images in which only the strobe is moved, the surface geometry of the subject of study can be derived from analysis of the highlights on the sphere. We demonstrate how the reflections caught in the surface of the sphere capture a portrait of the entire assemblage. The entangled traces of light embedded in the RTI contain auto-archived visual paradata recording the circumstances, environment, relative position, poses, and the condition of all the actants and their intra-actions in this emerging polynomial assemblage as it unfolds from frame to frame, a feature we might refer to as ‘reflexive RTI’.
In a second project, we try to get under the skin of an archaeological deposit by means of ‘phygital enquiry’ into a 3D volume and the unfolding embodied practice of trowelling. Once again the total assemblage of actants, both physical and digital, is unpacked. In this study we foreground the meshwork of gestures and marks created by a trowel in the hand of a skillful archaeologist way-marking the path taken through a deposit. Here too reflexive RTI is applied to enhance the analysis.

The unconscious decisions of archaeologists intra-acting within an assemblage can be captured using what we might term symmetrical recording techniques in which visual paradata are auto-archived. Such reflexivity might encourage us to rethink the role and purpose of archaeological images by implicitly documenting their constructed nature and explicitly documenting the unfolding nature of archaeological records.

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