Review column: John Schofield on archaeology, art and the contemporary past

The review column is a new feature here on the EJA blog. We hope the columns will be of interest to our readers and, hopefully, create some debate. Our first guest author is John Schofield with an essay on archaeology, art and the contemporary past.

Art and archaeological practice are closer than some might think. Some artists work with archaeological material, and interpret archaeological sites through a diversity of approaches and media. Equally, art can become archaeology – Francis Bacon’s studio was ‘excavated’ after his death. Even the processes overlap: archaeological fieldwork as performance; the similarity of ‘incavation’, intervention and excavation. Here it is argued that the role of the archaeologist, indeed the very definition of archaeology – to characterize and contextualize material records of the past – can usefully be expanded to include the contributions of artists.


‘Today we are all archaeologists.’ (Michael Shanks, commenting on Holtorf 2005).

Convention limits archaeology to the study of material remains from the remote past – from antiquity. Recently this definition has been expanded to include contemporary archaeology, which takes the definition of archaeological practice and theory to a logical next stage: the archaeology of us. Buchli and Lucas (2001) talk about contemporary archaeology challenging the ‘taken for granteds’ of modern life; while Graves Brown (2000) speaks of archaeological practice and theories serving as a critique of the world we ourselves have created. Interestingly, in 1966 an Institute of Contemporary Archaeology was established by the Boyle Family, a family of collaborative artists based in London, to give context and identity to their work ‘Dig’ (, albeit as a ‘light-heated institution with no particular membership’ (Elliott 2003, 15-16).

Coincident with the emergence of this broader definition of archaeology, archaeologists have become increasingly trans-disciplinary in their approach towards material culture. The limited attention paid to artistic practice and archaeology however is therefore surprising, notwithstanding Renfrew’s (2003) wide-ranging and influential study of modern art and archaeology, work by artists such as Anne and Patrick Poirier who have been doing art about archaeology and art history for over three decades, and the active interest of Finn (2004), Holtorf (2004, 2005), Jameson et al. (2003) and others. Artists working with, and providing interpretations of, archaeological sites and landscape can demonstrate how these different approaches, taken together, can build understanding of the world around us in at least three ways (examples of which are included in a longer version of this essay, available online).

1 Art as an archaeological record; the idea that we create as well as consume material culture, and the past as a renewable resource.
2 Archaeological investigation as performance;
3 Art as interpretation, as narrative, and as characterisation.

In each area of application the close similarity of art and archaeological practice is emphasised. For example, Bourriaud (2002, cited at defines art as an activity consisting in producing relationships with the world with the help of signs, forms, actions and objects, and refers to the contemporary artist as a semionaut, inventing trajectories between signs. Both statements are equally true of archaeology. Equally, what is significant in archaeology is the process of doing it, more so than the results of the endeavour. To cite Bourriaud once more: present day art does not present the outcome of a labour. It is the labour itself, or the labour to be.

Regarding context, a significant British artistic movement in recent years concerned the Artist Placement Group (APG) (Broekman and Berry 2002). Emerging in London, APG’s recognition of social context and the merits of conceptual art informs many artists operating today outside of gallery spaces, in an expanding and important field where dialogue and process are dominant; where the function of art is decision-making. The APG’s view that ‘context is half the work’ applies to numerous of the examples that follow, demonstrating the depth of the Group’s influence. Needless to say, context is fundamental to the archaeological process and to reading and interpreting material culture.

I suggest that archaeologists and heritage managers can usefully include artistic work as a legitimate and constructive means of interpreting these more contemporary heritage places, and further that the recording of such places by artists can sometimes capture their character – their aura – better than any visual record produced by archaeologists or historians. The reason for this:

“[Artists] come to us through the eyes, and sometimes the other senses, offering us direct perceptions from which we may sometimes come to share their insights. The visual explorations … offer a fundamental resource for anyone who wants to make … sense of the world. … It is not that this resource offers new answers, or that it will directly tell us how we should understand the world. On the contrary, it offers us new, often paradoxical experiences, which show us how we have understood, or only imperfectly mastered, what we think we know” (Renfrew 2003, 7-8).

Contemporary artists and archaeologists are not so far apart in their approach to recording and understanding the world around them, and these overlaps and correspondences can in fact create an innovative and effective methodology for interpreting the heritage; they bring materiality, its visual and auditory signatures and signifiers, to a wider and more diverse audience than is often otherwise the case, and challenge that audience in new and provocative (sometimes shocking) ways. Importantly though, and this comes out most strongly in the third category presented here – art as interpretation – artists may be better able to capture and document the contemporary character of these places (their Zeitgeist) than archaeologists and historic geographers could ever achieve. This is because they share with archaeologists an acceptance of reality combined with an eye for detail, but examined and represented through the developed senses their training, experience and instinct provide. Art is subjective, and individual, and may be it is this very subjectivity and individuality that gives artists the freedom to capture the character of place in the way they do.

As Feversham and Schmidt so eloquently put it:

“Contemporary art – vital, provocative, of the moment – when forming a partnership with an historic building or place can act as a conduit to the interchange of time, memory and present history, challenging and de-naturalizing complacent assumptions, establishing a building in the public consciousness and investing it with contemporary relevance. This certainly constitutes a valid and powerful facet of conservation which transcends conventional preservation techniques, simultaneously stimulating debate and working with change rather than striving for immutability”
(1999, 166).

‘Vulcan: sublime, melancholic‘: Gair Dunlop at Bolwick Arts 2005 (Photo courtesy of Gair Dunlop.) This work describes the contradiction between the idyll of the English country house, and the impact of militarisation and new technologies upon it. It’s a work that considers the transformation of our awareness of overlapping structures and networks in the countryside. It links the defensive with the decorative, and with the transience of the structures of militarism.

Bourriaud, N. 2002 [1998]. Relational aesthetics. Dijon: Les Presses du Réel.
Broekman, P van M. and Berry, J. 2002. Countdown to Zero, Count up to Now. Mute Magazine 25 (28 November 2002). Viewed online.
Buchli, V. and Lucas, G. 2001. Archaeologies of the contemporary past. Routledge: London and New York.
Elliott, P. 2003. “Presenting reality: an introduction to the Boyle Family”. In Elliott, P., Hare, B. and Wilson, A. (eds), Boyle Family, 9-19. Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland.
Feversham, P. and Schmidt, L. 1999. The Berlin Wall Today. Berlin: Verlag Bauwesen.
Finn, C. 2004. Past Poetic: archaeology and the poetry of W.B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney. London: Duckworth.
Graves Brown, P. (ed) 2000. Matter, materiality and modern culture. Routledge: London and New York.
Holtorf, C. 2004. “Incavation – Excavation – Exhibition.” In Brodie, N. and Hills, C. (eds), Material engagements: studies in honour of Colin Renfrew, 45-53. Cambridge: MacDonald Institute Monographs.
Holtorf, C. 2005. From Stonehenge to Las Vegas: archaeology as popular culture. Oxford: AltaMira Press.
Jameson, J.H. Jnr., Ehrenhard, J.E. and Finn, C.A. (eds) 2003. Ancient Muses: Archaeology and the Arts. University of Alabama Press, Tuscalooosa and London.
Renfrew, C. 2003. Figuring it out: the parallel visions of artists and archaeologists. London: Thames and Hudson.
Wilson, E.O. 2003. Consilience: the unity of knowledge. London: Little, Brown and Co.

An extended version of this essay is available here. Feel free to comment on any aspect of this review column using the comments form below.

Also, if you’re interested in contributing a column on a topic of concern to European archaeology as a whole, do get in touch:

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2 Responses to Review column: John Schofield on archaeology, art and the contemporary past

  1. Kristian Kristiansen says:

    Art and archaeology- a brief comment. I, and I guess quite many archaeologists, would in principle agree with Mike Shanks (and Colin Renfrew), that art shares with archaeology a number of interpretative properties – a sensitivity to the unknown that both groups tries to explore – which may indeed open new doors to interpretation. However, I wish to point to a long establishesd tradition of cooperation between art/architecture and archaeology in the field of documentation. Artists were employed regulary during the 19th century before photographs common use, to document monuments and landscapes, in excavations, due to their sensitivity to colour and shapes, and this tradition is still alive in several countries in Europe. Now, this is not art in the free sense as discussed by Renfrew and Shanks, but I wonder if not this tradition would deserve some more reflection, I consider many of the landscape painting of monuments carried out for the National Museum in Copenhagen during the later 19th century both good documentation and art, they add something to the interpretation that is uniquely artistic. And so is true of many excavations of earlier times. What I wish top say is perhaps that art was never foreign to archaeology, and a way to apporacah it an receive more attendence is perhaps to start with its history in archaeology, and and move on from there. Then of course I would maintain, that archaeology shares many other similar “double relationships” with other fields, such as religion (history of religion and the contributions from modern shamans), social anthropology (compartive studies versus ethno-archaeology). So we are here touching upon a whole field of “double practices” that indeed would deserve to be more systematically discussed as a field in itself.

  2. Kristian Kristiansen says:

    PS In a new building for the public in Lejre Archeo-Historical Experiemntal centre in Denmark, visited by more that 50.000 people each year, it has be decideed to let an artist visualise pictures from the past on a large entrence wall in the visiting centre, combing past and present art. This may be an example of the use in art in heritage. It has also become more common to let artists carry out “artistic installations” as events to exemplify the potential of the past through artistic performance. A Swedish artists, Steffan Herrik, is inspired by Bronze Age rock art in his works. He has created several huge images of rock art on the ground that are then burned to exemplify their power. These works of art exists only during this burning event and its documentation (pictures in the article below), which has drawn much attention (Steffan Herrik: Klippetro og himmelsyn, published in G. Milstreu & H. Prøhl (eds.): Prehistoric Pictures as Archaeological Source. Tanumhede 2004/Gotarc Series C, No. 50, University of Gothenburg.