5. Moving forward

How then do these understandings of images help us in our reading of visualisations of archaeology in high-technology contexts? It is perhaps important to stress that the aim of aligning our visual with our textual conceptions of archaeology (attempting to make our images concur fully with our texts) is, to an extent, ill-founded, as it is the dialectical space that is available between these forms of expression that can be the most powerful in offering deeper understandings of the subject. Mitchell (1986) identified this culturally conceived space as being as strong as that which we create between culture and nature, words as created meanings and images as given meanings. "The image is the sign that pretends not to be a sign, masquerading as (or, for the believer, actually achieving) natural immediacy and presence." (Mitchell 1986, 1107)

What we can draw from this (as Mitchell does) is the idea that the essential element in developing understandings of images in disciplines such as archaeology is not to attempt to close this conceptual gap, to heal the rift between words and pictures, but to recognise its presence. Accepting that this space is powerful and can alter the ways in which images act and are perceived, moves us a long way towards setting images firmly within a context of a wider, socially meaningful, discourse. Allowing this premise to inform our readings of these constructions, and our inputs into their creation, should make it possible to enfranchise these images, as Gell (1996) had envisaged, recognising that they represent complex structures of intentionalities, motives, and meanings.

It is also essential to colour our developing understanding of this embodiment of social meanings within the image, with an understanding of the modes of representation through which these structures are mediated, including both the contexts of production and reproduction. In this instance, these mediating contexts, through their highly technological nature, seem to conspire to dislocate the images themselves from their distinctive social origins. This could be seen as a demonstration of how images can become, through the transforming nature of the media of their construction and dissemination, socially active in their own right, moving beyond the bounds established by their originators. But by their dislocated nature, these visualisations can be considered as emblematic of the complexity of meaning which lies beneath the surface of image use in archaeology - their major defining characteristic defies the truly complex sociology of their creation.

There is little justification in delineating the 'theory-laden' from the 'self-explanatory' (Moser 1992) in archaeology's visual spectrum. Such flimsy boundaries do little to help create more robust ways of understanding how the visual language of our discipline influences its discourse. Placing digitally produced images, particularly "high technology" 3D visualisations, in a spectrum of archaeological illustration reveals that the traditional boundaries in that spectrum are rooted in outmoded conceptions of meaning and interpretation. Until we successfully wrap that spectrum into an inclusive sphere, through which we can consider the products of our own culture with the same sophistication with which we consider the products of other cultures (past or present), the true character of one of archaeology's most powerful interpretative tools will elude us.


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Last updated: Fri Jun 23 2000