Archæographies: Excavating Neolithic Dispilio. By Fotis Ifantidis. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2013. Paperback, 112 pp. ISBN: 9781905739622.
Archæographies features the photography of Fotis Ifantidis performed during the excavations at the lakeside Neolithic settlement of Dispilio in Greece. Several of these photographs have previously featured on Visualizing Neolithic (http://visualizingneolithic.com), a photography blog active since 2006. The photographs contained in Archæographies are all black-and-white and vary in size and layout; some photographs stretch across the gatefold and several pages feature montages. A majority of the titles refer simply the date on which the photograph was taken, and thumbnails of the images appear at the back of the book along a timeline by way of an index. Beyond these quantitative characteristics, the book contains what Ifantidis characterizes as the detritus of an excavation:
miniscule beads, wooden posts and their negative impressions, fragments of vessels, remnants of sheep, charred einkorn grains, assumptions and theoretical models, soiled pages of day books, “clean” spreadsheets, stories—big or small, past or present—bonds of people and friendships and thousands of photographs. (inside flap)
Out of the thousands of photographs taken at Dispilio, Ifantidis has selected examples that are, on the surface, aggressively non-archaeological. These photographs do not effectively document the archaeological record in a way that is acceptable as standard site photography: scales, when deployed, are haphazard, artifacts are scattered and in partial focus, and site overviews are messy and full of distracting tools or loose dirt. This is entirely intentional.
Photography is a formalized ritual within the field of archaeology (Bateman 2004); performing the correct actions with the appropriate epistemic markers (scale, chalkboard, north arrow) transforms “the moment of discovery into empirical evidence and inscribes on it a concreteness which may not be questioned” (Chadha 2002: 13). Travis Parno characterizes archaeological site photography as “attempts at sterile, dispassionate recordings representing, in an unbiased manner, the state of a site, unit, feature or artifact” (2010: 123). Similarly, Michael Shanks notes that photographs are “taken for granted in archaeology. They are treated as technical aids, helping to record or identify features and objects, or they may provide illustrative ambience, landscape backdrop, evocations of setting.” However, “there is little or no questioning of conventional uses of photography” (1997: 73). While digital photography has opened up the process considerably, both to more emotive, casual, and experiential photography (Morgan 2012) and to advanced recording strategies including photogrammetry and 3D modeling (for one example, see Olsen et al. 2013), these images are often considered extra-archival, supplemental to the main photographic archive.
Ifantidis celebrates these extra-archival images in Archæographies, with a collection of photographs that document the ephemeral, tangential notes from the excavations at Dispilio. In this he repositions the photographer not as a passive observer, but as an active participant in the investigation of the past. For example, “8/8/2012” (fig. 1) shows an excavation area, shaded by a make-shift tent with a few people working, a wheelbarrow, and the remains of the Neolithic posts from the lakeside village jutting from the ground. The tarps let in stripes of sunlight that segment the archaeology, a condition that is problematic for site photography. Moreover, there are large poles holding up the tent, further restricting the viewshed. Rather than eliding the obstacles, Ifantidis positions his camera behind one of the poles, at the nexus of light, providing a partial view into the excavations, with all obstructions in full view. He is at a remove from the work, behind a pole, obscured, and not in direct visual contact with the subjects of the photograph. Ifantidis invites the viewer to see a site as a photographer, as being full of obstacles and distractions; at the same time, he highlights his observational role by placing himself on the margins of the excavation.
This fragmented visual relationship with the archaeologists of Dispilio is one of the more thought-provoking aspects of this book. The visual record collected by Ifantidis treats archaeology, artifacts and people as equivalent actors in the construction of the past; “whole” humans, artifacts and features are rarely present, and their identity is rendered unimportant. An interesting parallel exists between “14/5/2011” (fig. 2), which depicts a young woman standing next to the archaeological trench with her head “cut off” by the framing of the photograph, and “9/7/2009” (fig. 3), which is a close-up of a fragment of a figurine with what appear to be breasts. A social semiotic reading of the composition of the photographs would focus on the segmentation of the figure, which removes our means of identification with the subject (Kress and van Leeuwen 2006).
This is perhaps the most problematic aspect of Archæographies; while the subject is rendered fragmentary, the photographer is a totalizing force. Ifantidis, as the author, portrays Dispilio through his single lens—there is little sense of multivocality or reflexivity in the imagery, or acknowledgement that archaeology is a collective construction. It is not apparent if Ifantidis is still exploring the space between “artwork and visual ethnographic commentary,” as stated in his joint publication with Hamilakis and Anagnostopoulos (Hamilakis et al. 2009), as the photography, on its own, does not elucidate the relationships between the subjects displayed. This could be a result of viewing only a small part of the photographic assemblage chosen for publication; the portraiture of the workmen mentioned in the earlier work (but mysteriously not included) would have been a welcome addition to Archæographies.
Situated as a long-running photography blog, Visualizing Neolithic, Ifantidis’s work shows a fantastic progression, an interest in shape and juxtaposition and a subtle humor that is puzzlingly absent from Archæographies. Still, presenting a book of archaeological photography, especially one that is as experimental as Archæographies, is a bold step and both Ifantidis and Archaeopress are to be commended for pushing traditional publication in the field.
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Chadha, A. 2002. “Visions of Discipline: Sir Mortimer Wheeler and the Archaeological Method in India (1944–1948),” Journal of Social Archaeology 2(3): 378–401.
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University of York, UK