Writing the past in photographs

I spent some quality time this weekend with Fotis Ifantidis photo essay: archaeographies: excavating Neolithic Dispilio (Archaeopress 2013). The book’s title refers to the practice of writing (graph) the past. The author’s work has fascinated me for several years and his interest in photography contributed to my own effort (in collaboration with Ryan Stander) to bring together images and texts from my project on Cyprus. Ifantidis book present photographs taken during the excavation of the Neolithic site of Dispilio in northern Greece. The site, outside of the medieval town of Kastoria, has been a model for innovative practices in reconstruction, documentation of visitor experiences, and archaeological practices. Infantidis work is just the lastest product at this site.

I am hardly qualified to comment on the formal character or technical merit of the photographs other than to say that many of them are visually arresting. The imagery did capture the process of archaeography. A number of the photographs captured the relationship between the individual archaeologists and their field context. Infanidis does this in a number of different ways: he depicts expanses of soil with the archaeologists in the foreground. Tools, hands, and the site are situated in contrasting foci challenging the viewer to consider what is the most important object in the scene. In other photographs, stacks of excavation equipment, laboratory scenes, and artifacts in storage bags provide place the contemporary archaeologist and the archaeological context in the same frame emphasizing the continuity between the modern researcher and the Neolithic.

Infantidis manipulates scale as well as focus. Many of the shots are cropped to feature long (horizontally or vertically) shots of earth, scarps, and landscapes locates the archaeologist at a smaller scale than the objects that they study. The manipulation of scale in these photographs contextualizes the archaeological project in the tension between the archaeologist and the context of excavation. A similar approach occurs with the Neolithic objects found in the excavation. The archaeologists hands, eyes, and tools connect the ancient objects to the modern humans. Infanidis interest in personal adornment shows through in photographs that feature either the jewelry of archaeologists or the archaeologist in relation to decorated objects. Contextualizing decoration and adornment in human terms provides, at very least, a useful reminder that individuals existed in antiquity even if they’re were realized as they are today. The tendency cut off the faces of individuals in the photos or to keep their faces and bodies out of focus, problematizing the relationship between the individual, the archaeology, and the object.

(I have become fascinated by including dramatic skies in my photographs of North Dakota and then cropping these to force the viewer to engage the scale of the sky here. See here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here or in a more Infantidis-like way here.)

The book lacks texts other than a very brief (<250 word) introduction. This seems appropriate for a work that focuses on the excavation of the Neolithic. The absence of text pushes the viewer to look for arguments in the images and objects. The viewer becomes the reader of the text and puzzles out the juxtaposition of archaeologist, site, and objects to tell the story of excavations at Dispilio. Like the site itself, however, the story is not linear or cohesive, but made up of parts isolated on the page and only rarely connected through certain overlapping (stratified?) contexts. The broken (but remarkably well-preserved) wood posts, the dimpled ceramic vessels, the modern hands and tools of the excavators, and the disjointed scenes of the workrooms and everyday life on a dig provide fragments of a narrative that the viewer can only generalize. 

The use of black-and-white photographs gives the book a clean, modern, dramatic feel and this was surely the intention of the author. On the one hand, black and white photography has long played a role in archaeological documentation and it long helped to manage printing costs of publications. The black-and-white images also ensure that the focus is on the contrasts both in a technical sense and in the tension between the archaeologist and their context.  On the other hand, I can’t help but thinking how color remains central to the archaeologists world. The fabric of ceramics, the glint of a “foreign” object in the trench, and the color of soils (not to mention the contrast between the sea, the sky, the mountains, and vegetation) are fundamental to the experience of archaeology and our experience of the past. Maybe Infantidis’s point is that by writing archaeology we render the dynamic into a world of contrasts.

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