On the Nature of Archaeological Knowledge, Photography, Narrative, and Time

Archaeological imaginary has largely been dependent on visual mediums. Photography, in particular, has accompanied archaeology since the early years of the discipline, managing to create within its frame a particular archaeological narrative and designating a particular archaeological time. Despite its inherent capability of mediating the past, photography’s apparent objectivity has meant that it has largely endured as the chief medium of recording with a quasi-scientific attempt at representational precision. Yet, the popularised archaeological aesthetic has not been set by the careful curation of objects against a neutral background. Rather, it has been dominated by the more erratic conventions of early twentieth-century fieldwork photography, wherein the moment of discovery and the distant past collide, thereby prioritising the symbolic over the technological realm. Importantly, examining the modes in which cultures have been visually represented and interpreted may elucidate the core epistemology from which archaeology has further evolved. 

Figure 1 . The Palmyrene Gate, Dura-Europos (Yale University Art Gallery Dura-Europos collection B22, retrieved from ed. Lesley Mcfadyen and Dan Hicks). 

In the field, archaeological photography has been complicit in fostering ‘visions of primitiveness and otherness’ and perpetuating the European colonial project. Spanning ten seasons of fieldwork under French Mandate between the years of 1928 and 1937, the archival photos of excavation at Dura-Europos – a Hellenistic foundation held by the Parthians and then the Romans in modern-day Syria – serve as a perfect example. Their decision with respect to how local workmen are depicted is of particular interest and serves to illuminate broader ideological motivations. As described by J.D Baird, they are often posed in the background of pictures as passive props, standing in but not inhabiting the archaeological remains. Disinherited from their possible positions as local experts and active contributors, they are to be viewed simply as subaltern in the ‘construction of the picturesque’. At the same time, the use of workmen to model ancient textiles works to conflate contemporary and ancient people, thereby performing a retrojection of local populations in an effort to portray them as being part of a ruined and decaying civilisation. Such a visual vocabulary ultimately works to conceive of a false temporal distance ‘between the cultures of the archaeologists and the workers.’ More than simply in-situ representation, the catalogue facilitates an arbitrary judgement of perceived ‘evolutionary’ developments, crossing both spatial and temporal boundaries, to naturalise an ideology of cultural superiority – based entirely upon aesthetic values. 

Photography, like archaeology, is a child of modernity and thus, inextricably linked to its cultural processes and historiographical concerns. Importantly, both ‘share a common desire to apprehend past events,’ wherein temporality is often understood purely as chronology. Overall, we have long been reliant upon a notion of time as linear and uniform rather than multi-durational. Challenging this framework and creating a parallel understanding of the layers of temporal complexity – tendentially concealed through the work of formal archaeological knowledge systems, yet inherent to its very material and practice – allows us to productively re-evaluate and actively engage with our discipline in the present. This does not necessarily imply rebelling against modern conceptions of time and space but rather making these explicit in an attempt to fracture our understanding of the past as a ‘series of still frames.’ However, by evaluating photographic traditions and the archaeological use of historical photographs, we may, as described by Samuel Derbyshire, break from ‘Western-rooted accounts of time and associated conceptualisations of social change and history’ – a favourable pursuit in the name of anti-colonial theory and praxis. 

Figure 2. Shadow of archaeologist Richard Atkinson (Ashmolean Museum, AD12946_ATKa_neg612, retrieved from ed. Lesley Mcfadyen and Dan Hicks). 

We typically speak of the photograph in a unidimensional fashion, reducing its character to an aesthetic technology capable of ‘capturing the past.’ The terms of service, its analysis, is clear: a slice of time incapable of escaping its deictic nature, a form indistinguishable from its referent. When photographing archaeological objects following best archival practice, for example, a clear stylistic coherence is sought in an attempt to create an ‘objective’ catalogue. The process is repetitive, functional – a crucial technological apparatus allowing future scholars to productively access stratigraphic-like knowledge. Yet, when capturing ‘native’ populations in conjunction with archaeological ruins, the very medium seems to collapse recent (in archaeological terms) history into a broader narrative of evolutionary time, seemingly creating a temporal entanglement. If both are positioned as being positioned as products ‘of the past’, how can one be flesh and the other ruin, and importantly, how can the former co-exist with the colonial photographer? It, consequentially, becomes clear that the archaeological narrative – grasping at technological innovation for canonisation – is one of presenting development both temporally and spatially, with the concept of the ‘West’ as its nexus. Such an analysis already readily disrupts the idea of images as inherently static but does not yet have much radical potential in order to re-evaluate our process of archaeological knowledge creation.

Archaeological debates in regard to the nature of our disciple have usually been of a relatively dichotomous nature. The focus either rests on unidirectional improvement in data collection and scientific methods – in an attempt to create some form of proxy-objective archaeological narrative – or an argument for knowledge being apprehended solely in the moments of interpretation. Simply stated, archaeology is typically seen as the study of the past firmly situated in the present. As argued by Dan Hicks, the primary role of documentation and the material production of knowledge are, consequentially, placed aside or seen simply as a process of deposition. Restructuring our understanding of archaeological time is synonymous with recognising the metamorphous quality of all of the environments related to the discipline: technological, material, natural, socio-cultural. We are not here to provide the truth, but to seek archaeological knowledge as it emerges from multiple, different spatial and temporal terrains. Overall, we have favoured, as expressed by Antonia Thomas, ‘the moment of creation over the duration of appreciation.’

The Eurocentric colonial memory of any culture or people deemed ‘Other,’ whose traditions we have attempted to retrieve and frame within a larger Imperial narrative, are contained within the technological body of the ‘canon.’ It should not be problematic to assume that such a focus on ‘the moment of creation’ further pre-disposes a disciplinary-wide view of museums and archives purely as sites of deposition: scholarly pursuits aimed at layering knowledge already produced. Arguably, such a methodological tradition further separates the archaeologist from their discipline, its historical failures, and, consequentially, prevents the field from engaging with the methodological concerns which underpin the very conception of knowledge. In the present day, with the so-called ‘archival turn’ of archaeology, there concerns might seem trite, but it is nonetheless important to address them again. The discipline has, in the grand scheme of things, been too reliant on ‘the fiction that we refer to as the archaeological record’, failing to recognise – in an analogous manner to photography – archaeology as interminable process.

Countering the discipline’s possible reductionism, it may be more productive to redefine the nature of archaeological knowledge itself as the active product of re-visitation and inquiry into our own scholarly deposition. In this way, archival analysis is not seen simply as an after-effect of knowledge produced at the ‘trowel’s edge’ but the nexus of archaeology’s inherent multiplicity, involving more times and places than we were previously concerned with. Importantly, in the case of colonial era photography, such a re-framing allows the analysis of such and its multitemporal dimension to be seen not as a conversation about the discipline but archaeology per-se. This has profound implications for how the past is come to be understood and represented. We are, thus, held responsible for our own material practices and can proactively shine a light onto the consequent traces – such as the multi-temporal dynamics of production, power, labour, and politics. Revisiting our own landscape, we bring into question and begin to free ourselves from the quasi-technocratic frameworks – still permeating the discipline both in a practical and conceptual fashion– which created the Eurocentric colonial memory of any culture or people deemed ‘Other,’ whose traditions we have attempted to retrieve and frame within a larger Imperial narrative.

In this sense, an archaeological photograph does not exist as a simple remnant from the disciplinary past, nor is it a ‘frozen moment of time’. It is part of a broader, more dynamic movement within the archive where the photograph can exist as a multi-durational artefact, wherein their temporal and contextual contingencies can be intersectionally explored. When revisiting the images from the excavation at Dura-Europos, such ‘time-slips’ can be readily seen: the shadow of the photographer looming over a local inhabitant as they pose next to ruins, the archaeologists as experts looking directly at the camera whilst workers excavate in the trench below. What are the implications of, for example, recognising the temporal complexity of power and labour which runs through archaeological material and practice? How can the nature of the photograph inadvertently reveal how the archaeological project in its ‘knowledge-building’ functioned as a type of colonial violence per-se? How, when embracing a concept of duration, do these forces still affect the discipline from its most primary theoretical concerns to its most overarching assumptions? How can we more widely incorporate indigenous ontologies to productively work with and serve communities? There are still many more questions that can be asked, all of which deserve thorough analysis and, perhaps, philosophical re-contextualisation. Overall, we must recognise that our interests cannot lie solely in how the ‘past’ can exist, in material or ephemera, in our present. Rather, we should focus on how subject and object can serve as joint interlocutors of a study of revisiting – a coalescence of time, a coexistence of space.

Written by Sofia Parkinson Klimaschewski


Baird, J.A. “Photographing Dura-Europos, 1928–1937: An Archaeology of the Archive.” American Journal of Archaeology 115, no. 3 (2011): 427–46.

Baird, J. A. “Exposing archaeology: Time in archaeological photographs” J.A. Baird in Archaeology And Photography: Time, Objectivity and Archive, ed. Lesley Mcfadyen and Dan Hicks (London: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2020), 73-95.

Derbyshire, Samuel. “Photography, archaeology and visual repatriation” in Archaeology And Photography: Time, Objectivity and Archive, ed. Lesley Mcfadyen and Dan Hicks (London: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2020), 166-192.

Hicks, Dan. “The Temporality of the Landscape Revisited.” Norwegian Archaeological Review 49, no.1 (2016): 5-22.

Hicks, Dan. “Reply to Comments: Meshwork Fatigue.” Norwegian Archaeological Review 49, no.1 (2016): 33-39.

Thomas, Antonia. “Duration and representation in archaeology and photography” in Archaeology And Photography: Time, Objectivity and Archive, ed. Lesley Mcfadyen and Dan Hicks (London: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2020), 117-137.

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