Thoughts and texts

Where archaeology and art converge: creativity

One aspect of both my academic and artistic research consists in exploring the creative nature of archaeology. I examine the implications of creativity, not only as a problem-solving mechanism but also as a research-furthering method in examinations and understandings of the past.

I propose that creativity is an inherent part of archaeological practice and research. As an increasing amount of investigations show, creativity is an inherent resource and mechanism used by all humans to solve problems or unpick complex situations (see Dissanayake 1992; Mithen 1998; Boden 2004). This practice, I argue, is one of the principal traits of archaeology. Indeed, in working with both fragments and absence – which are essentially what the past has left us with – archaeologists more than often resort to creativity in piecing together the past and in subsequently communicating an accessible image of it to present-day and future audiences. As Shanks and McGuire once said, as archaeologists, we “craft facts out of a chaotic welter of conflicting and confused observations” (1996: 78)

Concurrently, I also regard creative methods of analysis, such as archaeological experimentation and archaeologically-based artistic research as interesting, if not sometimes necessary, in furthering knowledge on the past. Creating experimental replicas of artefacts, or redrawing existing reconstructions of past images, for example, can address aspects pertaining to artefacts or sites which may have otherwise remained neglected, dormant or simply unnoticed. Creativity is thus also a medium through which combinations can be tested and possibilities explored. In an archaeological context, creativity is therefore a way of bringing into the present information which may not have been considered, addressed, discovered or perceived through the use of more conventional archaeological investigations.

Boden, M. 2004. The Creative Mind: Myths and Mechanisms. London and New York: Routledge.

Dissanayake, E. 1992. Homo Aestheticus. Where Art Comes from and Why. Washington: University of Washington Press.

Mithen, S. 1998. Creativity in Human Evolution and Prehistory. London and New York: Routledge.

Shanks, M. and McGuire, R. 1996. ‘The craft of archaeology’. American Antiquity 61 (1): 75–88.

Archaeological reality: a popular misunderstanding?

Another topic in which I am deeply interested is the archaeologist’s (sometimes romanticised) role as a guardian of the past (see Shanks and McGuire 1996; Hamilakis 1999; Gable and Handler 2007; Shanks 2012), of authenticity and of archaeological reality. As archaeologists, we are expected to care for the past, to collect it and display it. As well as protecting the past, we are expected to present it: to transform the fragments we excavate into intelligible information that both specialised and non-specialised audiences can grasp. But, I ask, is the process of fact-presenting entirely objective and even honest? However, the most important question to ask here, I believe, is: is the past is an objective place, a landscape from which the true essence of past life, feeling and thought can be recaptured?

I do not think so. Reflecting upon the individual’s relationship with the past, Foucault (1969) argued that history and archaeology are attempts at joining the scattered limbs of the past, and at  making sense of it by moulding them into a new shape. Foucault hence suggests that artefacts have a past which is gone forever, and which cannot be reawakened, but these artefacts can nonetheless be given a new existence through our own perceptions and actions. I argue that this is precisely what we archaeologists do: we piece together fragments of information to construct a reality comprehensible to us.

As a consequence, an important part of my artistic research is concerned with the extensive misrepresentation and misinterpretation of reconstructions of Minoan art as “originals”, and the impact these images have had on both the academic archaeological and the non-archaeological public spheres. Many of my artworks are therefore concerned with questioning and possibly readdressing a balance between the actual knowledge archaeologists possess about the past and speculative reconstructions of artefacts.

Foucault, M. 1969. L’Archéologie du Savoir. Paris: Gallimard.

Gable, E. and Handler, R. 2007. ‘After authenticity at an American heritage site’. In J. Simon and J. Knell (eds). Museums in a Material World. London: Routledge: 320–34.

Hamilakis, Y. 1999. ‘La trahison des archéologues? Archaeological practice as intellectual activity in Postmodernity’. Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 12(1): 60–79.

Shanks, M. and McGuire, R. 1996. ‘The craft of archaeology’. American Antiquity 61 (1): 75–88.

Fragments and decay

Archaeologists are surrounded by fragments, bits, pieces and shreds of what were once complete bodies, objects and sites. Archaeologists also become deeply involved with the process of fragmentation: sometimes observing it, provoking it and attempting to hinder it (when fragmentation equates with decay).

While many perceive breakage and decay as a sad reality, or an unfortunate hindrance to knowledge, I instead embrace these processes. Fragmentation and decay are effectively a form of change, through which bodies, objects and sites develop, alter, and adopt different qualities.

I am especially interested in two very important points: first, in the fact that breakage can be caused by agents or forces other than human, and second, that breakage can occur in several stages. We often assume that object fragmentation, especially the type observed in prehistoric strata, occurred as the result of deliberate human action taking place during a single event. However, it has become clear to me, following many years of studying broken objects, that numerous forms of breakage are possible, and that these hold different implications for subsequent archaeological interpretations.

Several of my works presented here (Details of Decay, Disjecta Membra) therefore explore the agency and temporal aspects of fragmentation and decay.

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