How to See Time: A Visual Culture Perspective

Posted on January 15, 2020


This part of my series of posts on conference presentations I have filmed. This one is from the TAG conference:

Session info

Time exerts a powerful influence on visual culture. Whether a whole landscape shaped by human agency, architecture, portable objects, or artwork, all visual media have a temporal context to which they belong, and all are affected by the subsequent passage of time. This session proposes to explore the ways that time can be made visual, captured, or reflected in archaeological materials, and how we as archaeologists interrogate visual materials. The visual appearance of archaeological material – shape, size, colour, texture – are used to place objects in their temporal context, through typological dating. Yet the relationship between archaeological visual culture and time can be much more nuanced and complex. The passage of time can affect the physical form of visual materials, their meaning, significance or value, or their reception by contemporary audiences. A visual culture perspective provides a critical approach which complements archaeological practice by deconstructing the politics of viewing, facilitating a less subjective interpretation of archaeological materials. The papers here explore the relationship between visual material and archaeology and how we can use time as a tool for understanding visual materials. Possible areas for inquiry include, but are not limited to:

• References in visual material to the past, such as replication or repetition of ideas from the past, or the incorporation of antique materials into new media.

• Changing attitudes to visual culture by later generations, including reinterpretation and/or misinterpretation.

• Evidence of extended interaction with and/or modification of visual media, across multiple timescales.

• Ways of depicting, measuring, or understanding the passage of time (both linear and non-linear) through visual means.

• How we present the breadth of time to the public at heritage sites and museums, especially in relation to prehistory.

• Visible indications of the passage of time.

Organisers: Felicity McDowall (Durham University), Lisa-Elen Meyering (Durham University), and Katie Haworth (Durham University)

Discarded Matter: How do museums dematerialize objects?

In 2007 Hedley Swain noted that people usually encounter archaeology for the first time in so-called ‘Uber- Museums’. The British Museum, Louvre, or Vatican Museums stand as the most significant examples of these encyclopaedic museums. Those institutions are dominated by aestheticized model of displaying, which in case of presenting archaeology equals mainly with typological ordering of artefacts. Typology as a scientific method has a significant origin and in the first modern museums it served as a way of legitimizing archaeology as an academic discipline. From the beginning it was immersed in visuality and representation. Artefacts presented through lens of typological order were and are still merely illustrations of order, signs on the time-axis. Now, after two centuries of typological regime in encyclopaedic museums, places where the first adventure with archaeology starts, it is essential to reflect upon its accordance with visitors’ demands and with the trends in contemporary archaeological theory. The main goal of my presentation will be to critically reflect upon the representational character of archaeological displays in huge museums (Louvre and British Museum), taking into account the material, not solely visual, essence of artefacts.

Monika Stobiecka (University of Warsaw)

Presenting Stone Age Time in Museum Displays

This talk is based on my PhD research, looking at the narratives used to convey the Mesolithic to the public. A key aspect of narrative is temporality. Among the media I looked at were museum displays. The Mesolithic is often treated as a largely ahistorical period, in which little happened to differentiate the Early and Late phases. However, the Mesolithic does have both a time depth and an intimate relationship with the temporal cycles of the environment. Modern discoveries are even adding glimpses of a historicity to the period. I will present two examples of museum displays (one in the UK, the other in Denmark) which show contrasts in their attitude to Mesolithic temporality. One manages to avoid temporal clarity through reinforcing stereotypes about prehistoric life as ‘Stone Age’. The other uses seasonality to take the visitor on a journey through time deeply connected to human interactions with the environment. Both are deeply bound up with their materiality, but in different ways. I will suggest that conveying time in museums must be delivered through a sensory engagement with material evidence and its display.

Donald Henson (University of York)

Scanning Over Time: Digital documentation of Shetland’s Iron Age brochs

In summer 2017, the Iron Age broch of Mousa in Shetland was digitally documented in its entirety by the author, Historic Environment Scotland, and the University of Bradford. Using laser scanning and Structure-from-Motion photogrammetry, the site was captured at a set moment in time. This was the first comprehensive survey of the broch in modern times, using cutting-edge non-invasive methods to produce an accurate, detailed 3D dataset of the broch’s present condition. Mousa was investigated and cleared substantially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and many antiquarian site drawings continue to be used as the most detailed visual record of the broch. Whilst these seem archaic in contrast to the techniques used in this new survey, they are in fact a complementary archive, similarly capturing Mousa broch at their time. Brought together, the modern and historic datasets will help to understand how the site of Mousa has changed over time. This paper presents the results of this new survey, and how the combination of using different media of their time will help to reveal the effects of weathering, modifications, and consolidation of Mousa broch since the late 19th century and to better understand the history of the site.

Li Sou (University of Bradford)

Let’s do the Timed-warp Again: Visualising Medieval cloth production time

Experimental archaeology plays an important role in understanding the time it takes to produce crafted objects. This paper will take the approach of examining production time in relation to artefacts, based on findings from an experiment exploring Medieval textile production. This experiment was designed to interpret the impact of technology on production time during the weaving process, and illuminated possibilities for interrogating the way in which time is reflected in crafted objects. The cloth produced during this experiment is itself a visual (and tactile) representation of the time put into producing it. Experimental and observational exploration of craft practices can lead to an understanding of how an object reflects the processes of its maker and the dichotomy of visible time saved, versus invisible time spent while manufacturing an object. The implications of production time in the study of artefacts are significant, as time put into labour often reflects larger social and economic factors. The possibilities for this area of study will be discussed using the aforementioned experiment as a case study.

Gwendoline Pepper (University of York)

From Prehistoric Rock Art to Cubism: Social and cultural aspects of seeing time in space

One of the most interesting aspects of rock art is its power to visually communicate time and space. The implicit messages embedded in rock art compositions give us clues as to the perception of the passing of time, and the way the imagery of events indicates passing time through cyclicity and renewal. At the same time the duration of events can be seen in space as a ‘Cubist’-like projection, in which time stands still and the viewer is taken to a different space, creating a very sophisticated visual narrative where the viewer is led by the carver/artist to see what has happened in different parts of the landscape at the same time. The social and cultural aspects of such visual communication will be discussed in the context of prehistoric rock art of the White Sea, Northern Russia, and contemporary/our visual ways of seeing time and space. To visualise the presented ideas I will show short films based on the visual interpretation of the prehistoric rock art as a way of seeing time in space.

Liliana Janik (University of Cambridge)

Picturing Deer Valley: Images, visualisation, biography and heritage in a rock art landscape

Picture a hillside in the Arizona desert. You stand below an almost endless mound of black and orange boulders, and slowly realise that the orange bits are images. Zigzags and squiggles wriggle their way down the basalt. Quadrupeds kiss and chase each other across the slope. Weathered hands and feet fade back into the rock, and you understand that this place will probably outlive you.

Deer Valley Petroglyph Preserve sits within the Phoenix Metropolitan Area and is the site of more than 1500 petroglyphs, as well as stone tool production and small-scale settlement. The majority of the petroglyphs have been assigned to the Hohokam period (c. AD 300-1450), but the site must be understood within its broader temporal and landscape contexts. An ongoing project at Arizona State University traces the biography of Deer Valley through time. It asks how the creation of rock art reflected and affected people’s engagement with this landscape in prehistory, and considers the importance of the place to subsequent generations of Native and non-Native communities. This paper reflects on how visualisations produced using photogrammetry, RTI, and GIS re-situate this rock art within visitor experiences, and explores how a multi-scalar landscape approach challenges traditional narratives about the site.

Emily Fioccoprile (Arizona State University/University of Bradford)

‘To Render Sensible to the Eye’: New stories for old pictures between Late Antiquity and the Grand Tour

What do we mean by ‘seeing’? At the most basic, we are asking: what do eyes do (physically)? But also: What are eyes supposed to do (socially)? If we want to model viewership in the past to understand the relationship between historic and modern audiences, then we must necessarily theorise the past notions of ‘seeing’ that informed how visual material was created. In many periods of antiquity vision was not just a way to see things, but a way to know things. This paper will examine late antique (c. AD 400–600) basilicas in Ravenna, Italy to demonstrate past notions of viewing against current assumptions about them. We can see how these ideas changed over time so that by the Grand Tour ‘viewing’ was an exercise in scepticism rather than veneration. Grand Tour narratives about the church of Spirito Santo provide an interesting case study that reveals how visual cues in the building itself enabled it to become the setting for a new holy legend that did not exist in Late Antiquity. This paper draws conclusions about how viewers (both ancient and modern) have helped create public knowledge about both place and time through interacting with visual material.

Brittany Thomas (University of Leicester)

Through a Glass, Darkly: Identity, collective memory, and visual culture in Qatar

This paper explores the apparent stability of visual motifs in the context of rapid social change in Qatar. The transposition of visual elements associated with mobility and a past Bedouin way of life into settled, urban contexts is a recurrent theme in Qatari visual culture. We examine archaeological evidence, vernacular architecture, material culture, and modern iterations of both transportable and non-transportable transmitters of visual imagery. In addition, we explore the power of actions such as coffee making and falconry, which explicitly draw on imagery from the Bedouin past, and can be considered to have a strong performative dimension. The construction of this shared visual vocabulary can be understood to have taken place in the context of an extremely rapid and disorienting cultural transformation, encompassing both internal socio-political changes, and a huge influx of people and ideas from outside Qatar. We contextualise this visual lexicon in the framework of a deliberate and often top-down effort to cement a shared national identity, as the locus of political authority shifted from competing tribal groups to centralised government during the early part of the twentieth century. This complex interweaving of time and visual culture contributed to an often idealised sense of national identity.

Kirk Roberts (University of Cambridge/UCL Qatar) and Laura Morabito (UCL Qatar)

Doing Time: Ontogenesis, causality, and the life-matter predicament

In a recent critique of the New Materialist discourse anthropologist Tim Ingold (2014) raises concerns regarding the lack of life, growth, and movement in the approach. Instead, Ingold encourages researchers to explore the ‘variable dynamics of ontogenesis’ that is to say: the work that brings things into being (2014: 234). In this paper I draw from Karen Barad’s approach to ‘phenomena’ and Ingold’s focus on work, and present a video artwork that spotlights human-material interaction. The artwork focuses on the human-artist working with a large lump of malleable matter (2 kg of pink play dough). I contend that how we envisage ontogenesis hinges on the issue of causality. Barad’s (2003, 2007, 2012) agential realist approach collapses the causal gap by presenting entities as in-phenomena. Through examining theoretical approaches to human-material interactions such as Malfouris’ discussion of hylonoetic space (2014), Ingold’s morphogenetic approach (2013) and Barad’s intra-actions(2003), I aim to examine time as a ‘doing’ and highlight some questions archaeologists should consider when attempting to ‘see time’.

Eloise Govier (University if Wales Trinity St David)

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