Picture perfect – a gallery of archaeologist’s art

Today we would like to take you through some art work created by our team over the years. But this isn’t for your local charity art auction – these images illustrate the archaeological process we undertake on a daily basis. Long time followers of the blog and Facebook page (and any other archaeologists keeping tabs out there) might be familiar with some aspects of this process. However, the extent of the work that goes into an archaeological site from A to D (or Z if a particularly tricky site) is not something we explore often. Part of the reason for this is it often requires quite a bit of boring paperwork and long explanations of legislation. In order to avoid the elements of the process which might put you to sleep, here is generalised version of the typical archaeological process with pretty pictures alongside.

Step 1: Assessment of the project area

Before a single trowel goes into the ground, proposed earthworks which have the potential to disturb any recorded or yet to be recorded pre-1900 archaeological sites must go through an archaeological assessment. This assessment forms part of the paperwork required to apply for an archaeological authority (the legal document that allows earthworks to take place while protecting and/or mitigating damage for any archaeological material exposed) from Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga. The risk of encountering archaeological sites, the possible sites types located in the project area and the impact of the works on potential sites are all included in the assessment. In order to assess these aspects, our historical researchers go to great lengths to source and uncover as much of the historical background of the property section or area which will be subjected to works. Much of this work focuses on historical sites of the 19th century as these types of sites form most of the work we undertake. If the historian is lucky they might encounter well-documented suburbs, families and buildings – making this part of the process relatively straight forward. Other projects may require many hours of painstaking research into archives, attempts to reconcile contradictory land parcels and transfers, exclamations over insufficient records and over-consumption of tea and coffee.

In the images below, we have a couple of colourful illustrations drawn by one of the resident historians. These drawings were done to assist the process of teasing out where the relevant historical occupation is located on a larger section. In an ideal world, this information would be neatly filed away in an easily accessible online resource – although in that world the robots may have already taken over our jobs if things were that easy.

An overlay of a land parcel subdivision on an aerial photograph with additional annotations…all to get to the bottom of where the house was located. Image: L. Mearns.

A colour coded sketch of a town section – useful for working out how subdivisions correspond to certificates of title. Image: L. Mearns.

Step 2: Field work

Granted the authority process went smoothly and the paperwork is all in order, it’s time for the works to begin. Our job as field archaeologists mostly deals with mitigation for works that have to take place such as demolition of buildings, new building construction, service repairs and so on. The fantastic work undertaken in the assessment process means the field archaeologist is pretty well prepared for what could be encountered during the works. Projects which have visible, often above ground archaeological sites (such as historic buildings or other structures) usually involve pre-recording of the archaeology before any work impacting the site. The images below show some of the notes and illustrations taken by one of our field archaeologists during the recording of a rather ornate building.

A rather elegant sketch of an ornate window. Useful for later reference and adding a touch of class to the field notebook. Image: K. Webb

This one could almost adorn an illuminated manuscript. Almost. Image: K. Webb.

I think someone missed their higher calling as an artist – look at that shading work on this sketch of a window dating to 1879. Image: K. Webb.

But until we perfect our ground penetrating sunglasses, we can never be too sure what will or won’t be uncovered below ground. Recording of below ground features, whether early Māori ovens, rubbish pits or brick barrel drains, must be recorded according to standard archaeological practice. This process often involves to-scale drawings such as site plans showing the locations of the recorded features, specific illustrations of complicated or noteworthy features and detailed drawings of layers of soil and features (known as stratigraphic drawings). The images below were drawn onsite during works and show examples of each type of drawing mentioned above.

A rather large but very neat site plan of historic house site, showing the location of the earthworks and recorded archaeological features. Every pile in its place! Image: R. Geary Nichol.

When your feature is so large it takes nine separate pieces of paper to record. This was one large brick floor recorded on a central city project. Image: H. Williams.

This stratigraphic drawing (featuring multiple layers of cultural material, large ovens and scattered artefacts) is a bit of a work in progress but demonstrates how complicated this recording can be. Image: T. Anderson and H. McCreary.

Step 3: Interpretation and reporting

At this stage all the works associated with the project are complete and the archaeologist can relax in the sun (or the June snow as it were) with a cold beer and contemplate the meaning of life, the universe and everything. Or at least that’s the fantasy after extensive recording and excavation in the field. The reality is that an archaeologist’s work is never done! All the artefacts, drawings and notes need to be ordered, analysed and turned into a report. Aside from being a requirement under the archaeological authority, the production of a report stands as a record of the work that was done, the archaeology that was exposed and the interpretations of the archaeologist/artefact analyst/other specialists. Such a record not only enriches our understanding of the past but also becomes a part of the historical record of the site in its own right (and is hopefully of great use to future researchers). Depending on the extent of the archaeological material found during the works, the report can be as labour intensive as the previous steps of archaeological process, requiring digitisation of the drawings produced onsite, detective-like interpretation of the features and analysis of the artefacts (sometimes hundreds, if not thousands of them!). The artefact analysis in particular is an important part of the process as we can often draw a lot of information about the date, spatial relationship of features and occupation from the artefacts found. This information can confirm, add to or contradict the historical research, and sometimes the archaeologist’s onsite interpretations. These post-field aspects of a recorded site are like a puzzle – we try to put the big picture together with the pieces that are available to us. Sometimes it’s a 50 or 100 piece puzzle, sometimes it feels more like the most difficult puzzle in the world – we don’t really get to choose.

Sometimes this interpretation process needs a few visual aids. The images below have been drawn by our artefact analysts to help understand the relationship between different archaeological deposits on a site and to assist with recognising the different features of an artefact.

Working out the spatial relationship between different archaeological deposits from the information recorded onsite and from the artefact analysis. Multiple depositions can be quite the headache. Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

A lot of different colours and patterns went into this interpretation sketch. Sometimes it takes a bit of creative colouring to make sense of the archaeology and brighten our day. Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

Who knew there were so many different parts to a shoe, aside from a cobbler I guess. Image: J. Garland.

Lovely teacup handle types. Image: J. Garland.

We hope you’ve enjoyed your digital sojourn through our gallery of archaeological creations and have learned a bit more about the work we do behind the scenes of all those glamorous photographs. We may even be able to start a side business creating high end art after this…or at least deserve some of the gallery wine and cheese.

 

Megan Hickey

One thought on “Picture perfect – a gallery of archaeologist’s art

  1. Pingback: ‘Archaia’ and ‘Logos’, what even is archaeology? | Christchurch uncovered

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