2. A framework for understanding

What we need to work towards is a framework through we can approach an understanding of the full spectrum of the visual language used in archaeology. The first step in developing such a framework is to situate the visual products of the discipline within the networks of fraternal relationships that exist throughout the complete output of archaeological culture (e.g. books, reports, diagrams, images at all stages of production, the ideas that they convey, the theoretical devices used to create those ideas). It is important to conceptualise all these products as things imbued with potentially complex meanings, which we must understand as being instilled through unspecified intentionalities. These meanings are the product of both the individual creators and the social milieu through which they are created, and as such they are not the active or direct result of decisions made by those people involved. The meanings are created with and through the product, the context of interaction with the product being the key mediating factor.

In his consideration of anthropologically sourced traps displayed in Western gallery contexts - as art in an institutional sense - Alfred Gell (1996) provided a powerful analogical lever with which to lift these traditional ideas of archaeological images up to a more useful, contextualised level. What Gell outlined is a conception of material culture that pulls down those barriers erected by Western art critiques between 'functional' artefacts and 'meaningful' artworks, defining artworks as "objects that are scrutinised as vehicles of complicated ideas" (Gell 1996, 36).

'I would define as artwork any object or performance that potentially rewards such scrutiny because it embodies intentionalities that are complex, demanding of attention and perhaps difficult to reconstruct fully.' (Gell 1996, 36)

What Gell effectively described is a way of encompassing material that combines complex aesthetic codes with explicit functionality into both art historic and anthropological critiques in a seamless way. (For a valuable demonstration of this in an anthropological context, see Miller 2000.) This is, in effect, no more than a logical extension of a wide range of current archaeological theory, where the delineation of ritual and domestic material is seen to be of increasingly little relevance in the creation of meaningful understandings of the past.

This is the second theoretical step, to open the full spectrum of the production of archaeological practice to a range of art historical, anthropological, and cultural critiques. This is necessary to take account of the complex social interactions and embedded intentionalities from which such material results, and through which it acts. Art history, as a discipline, provides some of the most immediate and adept ways of pragmatising and describing such an interwoven narrative, see for instance Janet Wolff's The Social Production of Art, originally published in 1983 (Wolff 1993), and Harold Becker's Art Worlds (1982). Wolff creates a model in which definitions of art are situated within distinctly sociological contexts. Indistinct from any other cultural product, she transforms the terms 'creation', 'artist', and 'work of art' into 'cultural or artistic production', 'cultural producer', and 'artistic product', ensuring that the production of art is conceived of within the precepts of a Marxist political economy of production (Wolff 1993). Becker (1982) outlines a similar, if less politically explicit, model of art production as a series of interlocking spheres of production and producers. Artistic production (beyond the bounds of just the visual arts) is described by Becker in terms of social, economic, and intellectual circles.

Although Wolff initially seems to discount notions of individual artistic endeavour, she qualifies her model, citing such characteristics as indefinable and as having a primary influence on art production, her re-terming of the artistic process is 'no sacrilegious demotion of the aesthetic to the mundane' (Wolff 1993, 138). Becker, too, maintains the concept of art as a value, as something set aside from other forms of creation. It is, perhaps, these disciplinary value judgements that lead to frustrating conclusions in comparison with the spectrum of anthropological and archaeological studies that provide parallels (e.g. Appadurai 1986; Bourdieu 1971)

Perhaps therefore, and to paraphrase Alfred Gell, we need to enfranchise all illustrations produced in, or as, archaeology. Practical images, such as the plans, section drawings and photographs that we create through our every-day practice, should be seen as part of an inclusive spectrum of archaeological illustration, which itself sits within a continuum of archaeological production. It is important to stress that the nature of the production of everything within the spectrum of archaeological illustration, the discipline's visual vocabulary, is equally complex - no individual form of representation can be regarded as more or less value- or theory-laden than another.


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Last updated: Fri Jun 23 2000