Artists and archaeologists – what we learned

I have a self-imposed time limit of six months from dissertation hand-in on sneaking back into the Institute of Archaeology. Or I’ll become, you know, one of those people who sort of hang around institutions and can’t move on. Happily I’m only two months into that grace period, so let dysfunction be unconfined! And so it was that I rolled up to the Sharing the Field conference on Saturday last, beautifully Storified here (small digression: I am the last person in the universe to realise that Storify is actually very neat and allows you to intercut explanatory text with the tweets; it’s just that most people don’t). Partly due to the comprehensive round-up in the Storify and partly in an act of mercy to the reader, there follow only a couple (no, really) of selective observations.

The first thing we learned, from Robyn Mason of RealSim, is that seventeenth-century Galway looked exactly like Skyrim. (Incidentally, this is the second archaeology conference I have been to lately that mentioned Dr Who and computer games more or less in its opening moments, the first written up fabulously here et seq.). Not really, of course. RealSim’s 3D virtual model of seventeenth-century Galway designed for smartphones was visibly built by people who play a lot of Skyrim, but it actually models a very detailed map with a fascinating embedded political history. The Q&A to this paper drew out a number of interesting possibilities for the enhancement and usage of the sim, and most were focussed – as the creators are – on the heritage communication and public archaeology side of things. There have apparently been suggestions from archaeologists about including detailed findspot and stratigraphy information, but this would have inevitable impacts on usability and accessibility, and so one possible approach is perhaps to build different versions – heritage consumer and heritage pro, I guess.

What we didn’t get into very heavily were the possibilities for archaeological research, which left me wanting to find out more. Robyn noted that her own virtual footslogging round the town had led her to a new interpretation of the archaeology of a particular bridge, and there was a good question (can’t remember from whom, sorry) on the potential to represent time depths and change in Galway which particularly feeds into the question of using these things for research. I’ve been turning over in my head for a while the idea of a huge visual simulation of the process of Neolithic and Chalcolithic sedentarization and built environment creation in the Near East and trying to figure out what the variables might be, and when I say “turning over in my head” I mean “wishing someone else who knows a lot more would build it so that I can play with it”. I’ve no idea at all whether anyone is working on this project or anything similar, but thanks to my excitable tweeting during this paper I have at least learned that one current IoA PhD student is doing his research in the general area of augmented reality in archaeological practice, so perhaps there are people out there I can pester about this apart from my long-suffering software-programming partner (what a tactical error that career was on his part).

The second thing we learned – or I did – is that I understand nothing about art as a process and an experience, and as such I am very grateful to have been exposed to a lot of more informed people talking it. I tend to sit there, being baffled by what someone is saying about experience, and metaphor, and representation, and wonder why they have decided to do what they’re doing, and why it is that I don’t understand this decision, and what pair of synapses it is that have failed to grow in my brain and are sitting there all stubby and underformed while a load of chemicals hurl themselves lemminglike into the neural soup between. I am a cold fish, in other words. And it was with this doleful self-knowledge in mind that I was interested to hear the suggestion – from Caitlin Easterby of Red Earth environmental arts group, who co-organized the conference – that data can come between archaeologists and a landscape, interfering with their intuitive understanding of it, whereas artists have more freedom to respond to the intuitive, and to present an intuitive vision to the public.

This is an intriguing suggestion. On one level I think it is absolutely true. Speaking for myself, my body is, as Ken Robinson puts it, basically a means of getting my head to meetings. I have only recently been reading about intuition (or Kahneman’s “system 1”), its uses and its limitations as against the “system 2” of conscious, deliberative thought, and it is clear that archaeological analysis is essentially a system 2 operation just like any other academic endeavour, so any self-conscious “thinking” you start to do about a landscape is going to be conducted in your non-intuitive mode. But as Kahneman’s account makes clear, not only do we use system 2 a whole lot less than we think we do, but also system 2 is constantly being informed and prompted by system 1. This is presumably why cold, hard facts about an era, or a site, or a landscape can feel as warm and alive and enriching as the process which Kent Flannery (I think) characterises wonderfully somewhere as “looking at a pot and emoting”. At least, they can to me. They are jumping off points for my imagination. I can’t see inside anyone else’s head, of course, and it may well be that my understanding of landscape is emotionally and psychologically impoverished by my desire to know Things about it, such as can be known, rather than just responding to the environment purely as an embodied being. Perhaps I have a whole untapped resource of intuitive embodied understanding locked up in me which will slowly unfold over the years – I certainly hope so, that would make life more fun. I am mindful also that there is a whole spectrum of practically-minded archaeologists who learn in embodied ways far more than I do.

But I would also question the degree to which anyone moves through a landscape purely as an embodied being. Like it or not, that is not the deal with being human. If it was, everybody would be able to meditate easily, and meditation is hard. One bone of contention that came up after Rachel Henson’s paper – featuring a fantastic little film about the experience of walking Box Hill, and encountering the various wildlife there – was the use of music in art which drew its inspiration from embodied experiences. Surely, the bone-maker suggested, the background music was not authentic to the experience of walking along. As it happens I think the question somewhat missed the point anyway, because Rachel’s core projects are these beautiful, tactile and extremely practical flickbooks of stills representing each step of a journey through a landscape (I was fortunate to have the opportunity to riffle through them in the pub later) which are intended to be used as guides and companions on the user’s journey, whereas the film was obviously for sitting in a darkened room and watching away from the landscape in question, just as we did at the conference.

My wider problem with that bone of contention is its implication that there is a sort of essential purity about immersive, sensuous experience of a landscape, and that music is an intervention that sullies it. Again, I do not think this is what being human is about, and surely both art and archaeology are trying to elucidate what it means to be human. As we were discussing in the pub at lunchtime later, some of us listen to music when we go walking, and we experience landscape and music together – is that not visceral? Is it not human? Some of us run in landscapes, and experience a different pace from the walker or the idler. All of us always walk in social contexts, even though we might be intending, at times, to escape or forget them (“I’m going for a walk.”) And anybody, at any point in human history, might wander through a landscape singing, arguing, keeping an eye on the known troublemakers among their sheep, nursing their broken heart or plotting their revenge on a sheep-rustling neighbour, all activities which combine system 1 and system 2 thinking and probably take a lot of cues from embodied experience, but are never entirely about embodiment. To experience a landscape in that deliberate fully immersive, senses-on-full-throttle way is only one way of doing it, it’s actually extremely difficult to do, and I don’t believe it is a way that needs to be privileged above others for us to “understand” a landscape. And certainly we should resist the temptation to make attributions of this kind of purity to landscape-walkers of previous eras. There’s a pretty fine line, it strikes me, between observing that previous cultures may have been more ecologically and agriculturally aware of the physical and symbolic layers of landscapes, and buying into a sort of bucolic version of the noble savage myth.

Which brings me back to the point about archaeologists and their intuitive understanding, or lack thereof. I guess my suspicion is that this is part of a modern narrative about ivory towers and the disconnect between modern Westerners and their natural physical environments, which are valid concerns and topics of conversation, but which run the risk of setting “intellectual” understanding into a false opposition with intuitive or embodied understanding. Not only is there not really any such thing as a purely intuitive understanding, because stripping away “facts” from a landscape doesn’t mean system 2 can’t work in it, and adding “facts” doesn’t suppress system 1; but an embodied understanding without facts, if you could achieve such a thing, is only one perspective on a landscape, and who wants to limit themselves to one?

I learned plenty of other things which may dribble out in time, but for now I really want to say thank you to the conference organizers for making that experience so fun, and making it free.

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