Animated GIFs as Expressive Visual Narratives and Expository Devices in Archaeology

The animated Graphics Interchange Format (GIF) has a comparatively long, and mostly invisible, presence in digital media. The GIF was created by CompuServe in 1987 as a 'standard defining a mechanism for the storage and transmission of raster-based graphics information' (Compuserve Incorporated 1987). In 1989, CompuServe released an enhanced version of the GIF that supported animation delays (Compuserve Incorporated 1990). The ability to store multiple images in one file and then play them back in the style of stop-motion animation allowed these simple, low-resolution animations to be viewed on the World Wide Web. These animations were wildly popular on early websites and have persisted for over a quarter of a century, even as technology has changed and file formats have multiplied. Joshua Kopstein (2010) traces the history of GIFs as 'versatile, digital zoetropes' that can be used to examine moments of time as suspended, looping movement and as an artefact of the speed and technological complexity available at the time they were made. Tom Moody, an internet artist, states: 'animated GIFs have evolved into a kind of ubiquitous "mini-cinema", entirely native to the personal computer and the World Wide Web...they are the purest expression of the democratic web and along with JPEGs and PNGs comprise its most authentic visual language' (2009).

As a 'somewhat retro and somewhat activist' format, GIFs appeal to artists as 'an anti-corporate commitment to technology' as most makers of GIFs do not identify as artists (McKay 2009). Animated GIFs blur the boundaries between still images and short films as well as between art and non-art. McKay explores the qualities of the GIF, linking the intensity of effect to the restrictions of file size and download times and resultant 'jerkiness' that contrasts with the smoothness of cinematic animation. Yet these technological restrictions are becoming less of a consideration with greater bandwidth becoming more widely available. GIFs are intimately tied to technological affordances; changes in the format are already apparent with longer image cycles and larger file sizes pushing the looping sequence into a short movie.

The punctum of the GIF is strictly enforced by the maker of the image; there is no mystery to the question: What do GIFs want? (sensu Mitchell 1996). Animated GIFs reinforce their imagery through looping, a perhaps unintentional citation of digital music, bringing rhythm and motion to a formerly inert entity. Many GIFs do not cite photography or videography at all, but are animated from computer graphics, and some GIFs combine drawing, text, and photography. As a digital artefact, GIFs are a fascinating blend of still image and motion. GIFs are a persistent feature of self-expression on the World Wide Web, exceedingly difficult to categorise, and only recently examined by scholars of visual media. As Highfield and Leaver (2016) observe, research on visual social media lags behind analyses of textual social media, and consequently there are no specific data available regarding the use or efficacy of visual media for scientific outreach. It should be noted that we are specifically examining GIFs that are informed by and made from the results of research, rather than 'reaction GIFs' that are unrelated to the research topic but are used to visually annotate text. Science communication strategies that use reaction GIFs are the subject of a critique from Andrew Bissette (2014), who voices concerns regarding 'seductive detail' that is not relevant to the educational goal. Gonzalez (2014) clarifies the difference between GIFs as unrelated, attention-grabbing annotation and as relevant and meaningful illustrations that 'enhance a reader's understanding of, or appreciation for, a subject'.

Figure 1
Figure 1: GIF detailing fieldwork in Qatar overlaid with context recording diagrams.

Animated GIFs have served a relatively limited function within archaeology. Though formal journal publication has moved almost entirely online, the transition is primarily skeuomorphic and few publications are able to accommodate animated GIFs. Internet Archaeology is one exception, with GIFs illustrating the functionality of archaeology-related digital tools (e.g. Beardah and Baxter 1996, fig.14 and fig.17, Tudhope et al. 2011, animation, Atkin 2015, fig.6), the phasing of a site (Haslam 2003, fig.8), and landscape changes over time (Robinson 2013, animation 2, Bristow 2001, fig.5.1-1, Robinson 2013, animation 1). Animated GIFs are also not generally accepted into archaeological digital data archives; the single instance deposited in the Archaeology Data Service required the authors to break the GIFs down into their constituent images (see Clevis et al. 2008).

Figure 2
Figure 2: Overlapping coloured shading used to denote contexts.

De-animating GIFs is also a strategy for publication; Morgan (2012) uses animated GIFs to illustrate archaeological vision and field-drawing conventions, though these could only be included in the final publication as still images. The GIFs were created from photographs of fieldwork in Qatar combined with either single context field illustration conventions drawn on top of the image (Figure 1), or shaded to show depositional events (Figure 2). Compared to the GIFs, the de-animated images (Figure 3, Figure 4) are singularly ineffective, particularly in demonstrating their original intended purpose: to show the utility of the uncertain edge in archaeological field illustration. Morgan (2012) draws a parallel between the difficulty of teaching field archaeology in the classroom and demonstrating archaeological concepts through still photography. GIFs can mitigate this difficulty, as they are a unique form of remediation that can incorporate stills, moving images, illustrations, text, and computer graphics to reveal specialist archaeologist seeing. While not necessarily artistic or groundbreaking, these animated GIFs illustrate concepts that are difficult to describe in other media formats. That most academic publications cannot accommodate GIFs threatens to relegate an incredibly useful format for communication to unarchivable marginalia.

Figure 3
Figure 3: De-animated Figure 1 which demonstrates the GIF's ability to reduce uncertainity in archaeological field illustration.
Figure 4
Figure 4: De-animated Figure 2 which demonstrates the GIF's ability to reduce uncertainity in archaeological field illustration.

The direct illustration of sites and concepts is only one potential use of GIFs within the archaeological lexicon; GIFs can also be used creatively for narrative building and public outreach in archaeology. Online public outreach in the form of photography (Corley 2009), videography (Morgan 2014), and more generalised social media (Richardson 2013; Walker 2014) have been discussed in previous publications, yet the GIF is a hybrid that falls between these categories. GIFs are a visual expression of the 'short form', in that they are concise yet coherent representations of complex ideas. A recent, powerful GIF by climate scientist Ed Hawkins showed rising global temperatures from 1850-2016 and the widespread distribution of this GIF displays the efficacy of using a simple animation to communicate complex ideas that are still viewed as contentious among some audiences (see tweet by @ed_hawkins).

Spiralling global temperatures from 1850-2016 (full animation)

— Ed Hawkins (@ed_hawkins) 9 May 2016

Both specialist and non-specialist audiences can be reached through GIFs; the phased incisions on a Mesolithic pendant found at Star Carr (Milner et al. 2016) were turned into a GIF (Figure 5) and posted on Twitter, where it received 9,445 'impressions' with 472 people viewing the animation (Figure 6). A review of the users on Twitter who 'liked' and 'retweeted' the GIF revealed that more specialists (those who identified themselves as institutions, archaeologists, historians or geologists in their profiles) than non-specialists participated in the dissemination of the GIF, but that significant numbers of non-specialists also interacted with the tweet.

Figure 5
Figure 5: A GIF posted on Twitter illustrating a pendant found at Star Carr.

Through GIFs, key information can be conveyed without the use of expert-specific terminology or, indeed, any language at all. The looping play-back of the sequence of images allows repeated engagement with the concept, reinforcing the subject matter. Yet GIFs are not always the most appropriate medium – ideally they would help illustrate the core argument in a way that is compelling. The relative novelty of animated GIFs in academia is an added benefit, and can aid in delivering core messages quickly and memorably. Combined with social media, GIFs can quickly convey meaningful archaeological information that is easily distributed between many online platforms. What makes an animated GIF such an attractive medium in comparison to other illustrative means is that it displays a brief and animate – rather than still – moment. Rather than providing the viewer with a still image, leaving its immediate context to the viewer's imagination, the viewer is provided with a micro-narrative. The repetitive nature of the loop enables the creator of the GIF to further enhance the narrative effect, be this through a rhythmic loop, or one that appears to be seamlessly on-going (e.g. time lapse). While it is not in the scope of this article to assess the positives and negatives of a 'ready-made' plot, it does make it stand apart from other illustrative media.

Figure 6
Figure 6: A statistical breakdown of the Twitter response to the Star Carr pendant GIF.

The role of GIFs for conveying information, however, has its limits. It does not replace the in-depth level of information needed to substantiate and sustain the relevance of and interest in archaeological findings, and a degree of elaboration through written captions or short paragraphs would in most cases still be relevant. A strategic use of the GIF is therefore important to its effectiveness and significance. Two key roles emerge: an animated GIF can serve as a signpost to evoke interest in a particular topic – serving as a visual 'abstract' inviting the reader to learn more about the topic it advertises. Within the more detailed discussion of the topic GIFs can then illustrate key parts of information, succinctly summarising aspects that would otherwise need a lengthy description. This can include an explanation of complex stratigraphy and phasing, chronological changes or the reconstruction of an artefact by means of a time-lapse, or a quick contrasting of varying points of view. Creativity is critical in the composition of such GIFs, yet this must be deployed strategically. Ideally, a GIF has space for one key statement. Too much embellishment can distract from this core statement and obscure the message of the GIF.

Figure 7: Illustrating Norse perceptions of Orkney's prehistoric monuments. Far away from home
Figure 7: Illustrating Norse perceptions of Orkney's prehistoric monuments. Far away from home

Scholma-Mason has recently used GIFs in public outreach as a means of visualising research about Norse perceptions of Orkney's prehistoric monuments (Figures 7–9). This research draws on folklore and the way it represents particular archaeological sites (Scholma-Mason 2017). GIFs offer a good medium for storytelling. They can visually explain specific aspects of the tales, while still remaining relatable to the viewer by emphasising the human experience, regardless of time or place. This includes the essence of experiencing the unknown, maintaining an identity in a new place, and explaining unfamiliar phenomena. Regardless of time or place, these are emotions the majority of people can relate to in various ways. The largely exaggerated narrative conveyed in these GIFs is an important difference from previously mentioned GIFs that aim to deliver a factual overview of archaeological concepts such as context and stratigraphy. This further underlines that there are various ways in which GIFs can be beneficial in illustrating archaeological discussions.

Figure 8: Illustrating Norse perceptions of Orkney's prehistoric monuments
Figure 8: Illustrating Norse perceptions of Orkney's prehistoric monuments. Standing stone

Figure 8 is based on existing folklore from Orkney, where various monoliths are reputed to have either once been living beings (Muir 1998, 27; Marwick 1975, 59), or to periodically come to life and pose a threat to anyone witnessing their transformation (Muir 1998, 25, 26). The change in atmosphere in this scene aims to illustrate how such concepts can significantly alter the way people view their surroundings.

Figure 9: Illustrating Norse perceptions of Orkney's prehistoric monuments
Figure 9: Illustrating Norse perceptions of Orkney's prehistoric monuments. Running away from mound

Figure 9 animation shows two people running away from a mound and its dweller. This, too, is based on existing folklore from Orkney (e.g. Muir 1998, 55-6, 112, 115-16, 125-6; Marwick 1975, 30-46). Crucially, people's attitudes towards ancient sites will not have been static throughout time (e.g. Bradley and Williams 1998). This scene is an exaggerated portrayal that primarily aims to draw attention to and introduce the general concept of respect towards liminal spaces. These GIFs dramatically narrate folkloric research in archaeology, presenting complex arguments and research in a relatively simple form.

Scholma-Mason primarily uses still comics to visualise her work, which have a very different effect, even though comics, too, provide a ready-made plot. The difference between a still comic and a GIF is that the various images that make up the comic can be studied at the same time, being displayed next to (or underneath) each other on paper or on screen, yet not changing or disappearing. The GIF, too, could be dissected into its various separate stills and these could be laid out next to each other physically. In its active use as a GIF 'in action', however, the various images that make up the moving narrative are seen in collaboration. Only a longer study of several repetitions of the loop would allow the viewer to get a full grasp of all of its components.

The Norse-themed GIFs provided in this article were originally part of a brief animated film clip. Several sequences of this clip, however, appeared to be more effective as GIFs. This is primarily in light of the chance to repeatedly watch the same scene in a loop rather than as part of a short clip with quickly changing sequences. In order to grasp their message more fully and make it more easily comprehensible to the viewer, it made sense to extract key sequences and convert them into GIF files that give the viewer a chance to focus on the same portrayed event various times. The work that underlies these GIFs is an examination of folklore and place-names as a means of approaching past mentalities in addition to archaeological evidence. While a major part of this research has a folkloric basis, the overall aim is to examine the human experience as an addition to existing archaeological landscape studies. As a result of this, the GIFs are of a more 'narrative' nature. In addition to Morgan's (2012) technical archaeological GIFs, this illustrates that even within the subject of archaeology there is more than one way of employing animated GIFs to convey scholarly content.


The authors have experimented with expository and narrative GIFs, but more experimentation with this flexible format would expand the possibilities for digital public outreach in archaeology. In presenting this GIF essay we hope to expand the visual vocabulary of archaeology to encompass a broader range of expression. This short essay is only the beginning, and we look forward to more experimentation with the format. Conveying archaeological information in varied media diversifies our audiences and further develops our ability to experiment with representations of archaeological concepts. While there is no completely format-safe way to conduct these experiments with digital artefacts, our failures, outdated displays and outmoded formats push us into productively reconfiguring archaeological knowledge and interpretations. Additionally, though there are relatively few places where GIFs can be published, they can be widely disseminated for greater impact among non-specialist audiences. While GIFs are almost 30 years old, they remain a relative outlier in formal publication. We argue that their utility in destabilising categories between images and short films makes them ideally suited for creative experimentation and outreach in archaeology.


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