Archaeological Illustration – It’s All Lies!

Last night I attended a great lecture given by Kelvin Wilson, an archaeological illustrator. The lecture changed the way I look at ‘reconstructions’ of the past and archaeological illustrations. The following is what I got from his talk. First off, archaeological illustrators get you to see the past as THEY see it. It is their interpretation of the information they are provided with. Kelvin’s website is as follows and contains a gallery of some of his fantastic images and a small shop…

First off, Kelvin made it clear throughout that the images you see of ‘reconstructions’ of the past in museums, magazine, publications and books etc are all INTERPRETATIONS of the past. They are not true. They may contain elements that are true, e.g. an accurate representation of a belt buckle, but ultimately they are showing you what the illustrator chose to show you. The goal of most illustrators is to create an image that gets you to like the past. If the image sells well because people like it then the past sells well.

Kelvin suggested that archaeological illustration has gone through certain phases and current illustrators can be fit into one of these categories:

  • the Narrators – they want to tell you a story of the past and so interpret the facts they are given
  • the Educators – they want to educate you about as much of the past as possible therefore they stick to the facts.
  • the Technicians – they want to get as close as possible to a ‘true’ representation of the past.

The illustrations of the past are biased by the aims of the artist. BUT the briefs provided by the archaeologists are also biased in terms of the information gained from a site – we are never presented with the full picture through excavation. Often, archaeologists want the ‘star finds’ to be illustrated all in the same picture, sometimes ignoring the fact that these items might not have belonged to the same person or might have been used at slightly different times.

Kelvin quite strongly made the point that computerised 3D ‘reconstructions’ are no more accurate than illustrations. There tends to be the assumption by academics and the general public alike that if its made on a computer it must be more accurate. This is not the case. 3D artists make the same decisions and go through a similar process in constructing an image to an illustrator. The computer is just another tool, another brush or pencil.

Kelvin ended on a fantastic image. It was of a man in a rather boring street but it was a photographic style image of an eighteenth century street. Kelvin noted the fact that those he showed it to were always unnerved by it given that it was showing a supposed photograph of a street in a time before photography had been invented. He stated his hope one day to create an image of Roman soldiers in this photographic style. I for one would love to see that. It seems like it would make the archaeology even more lifelike in some way. I look forward to the image!

What must be remembered is that archaeological illustrations are NOT REAL representations of past events. They are the illustrators interpretation of object and evidence from a past time.

Thanks must go to Kelvin for an illuminating lecture. I’ll never look at archaeological illustrations in the same way again!


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