The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 101

Issue 101

July / Aug 2008



Early Scottish gardens unturfed

Axes could be 0.5m years old

In the press

Listing lobby was no hot air

Kent Anglo-Saxon cemetery could be royal

Poetry to assist transfer of Hadrian's Wall collection

In Brief & Phase 2


The Copper Age
Special: did Britain have a fourth age?

Portable Antiquities
The Scheme must go on

Drawing Stonehenge
A major fieldwork project is explored by six artists

Severn estuary
Martin Bell describes the unique world of ancient mudflats

Gin Drinker's Line
Insights into WWII Hong Kong defence system

A Professional Mockery
Gary Lock on difficulties in obtaining "grey lierature"

on the web

Recommended websites
Caroline Wickham-Jones explores the realms of archaeological fiction and a look at Barwick-in-Elmet Historical Society's website


your views and responses

CBA correspondent

Campaigns, comment and communications from the CBA
Mike Heyworth says it's time to think big – The CBA at Discover Archaeology LIVE, London Olympia


An exhibition to make you think (and a bog body)

Mick's travels & more travels

Mick Aston goes to Glamorgan in search of monasteries, and Jon Cannon tours south-east Wales

in view

New columnist Greg Bailey probes a coming major TV series – BBC's Bonekickers

my archaeology - NEW!

Neil MacGregor: The accidental archaeologist and new director of the British Museum


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


Drawing Time

Since 2004 archaeological excavation on an unprecedented scale has been taking place around Stonehenge – and now also at the site itself. In the excitement of the moment, it is easy to forget that such work is rare and privileged. Last summer Helen Wickstead brought together six artists to create an unusual record of unusual times.

"But why do you draw?"

This is a question I am often asked on excavations. Compared to the high tech surveying and prospection equipment used on site, a humble pencil seems a bit, well, unscientific. "Why don't you just photograph it?" Surely, this would be a more objective way of recording what's been found?

It is one of the curious features of archaeology that while drafting film has virtually disappeared from the daily life of architects, engineers and many designers; most archaeologists' offices contain reams and reams of drawings, rolled, stacked and hanging, crisp and pristine or rain-soaked and smeared with mud. Drawings accumulate wherever field archaeologists practice.

Fifteen years ago, as a novice digger, I worked on an excavation in the vanguard of archaeology's supposed new paperless age. Half of each feature was to be drawn in the traditional manner, the other half to be recorded using the latest surveying equipment and downloaded (thrilling new word!) into a computer. I never saw the final results of this experiment, but I remember the disappointment of leaving my amputated drawing to take a few readings instead. There is something very satisfying about a finished drawing. Although satellite mapping has replaced pencil and paper in some areas of survey, archaeology's paperless age has still not arrived. Even when using a plastic implement on a digital screen, archaeologists still find drawing essential. So what is it that drawing does for archaeologists that other means of recording, such as photography, cannot?

A few years ago I was asked to explain archaeological field drawings to an artist. She was fascinated, not only by what was depicted, but by the way it was drawn. As I decoded the rules behind the drawings I was struck by their oddness. Archaeological drawings contain their own language. Drawing makes the archaeologist interpret in ways that photography cannot. Each drawing had been carefully staged by the drama of the excavation. Without the drawing, I realised, it would have been difficult to dig in the right way. This is what drawing does for archaeologists. It is drawing that helps us create temporal order. Marking a line clearly defines each unit of time, each event in the life of the site, from what precedes and follows it. This separation of layers is the principle of stratigraphy – the principle that allows us to work out how old each part of the site is in relation to everything else, and to distinguish ancient events. The word stratigraphy means, literally, the drawing of layers.

Last year I approached the head of Kingston University's Department of Drawing Research. We planned a visual experiment which would investigate archaeological drawing in relation to the ways that artists draw. Drawing specialists were selected, each of whom used drawing to create temporal orders (or disorders). The stage was set for a uniquely productive collision, setting archaeological processes against the strange and intriguing practices of visual artists.

The art project was able to join up with major research excavations in Wiltshire. The Stonehenge Riverside Project, with six directors from five English universities, began in 2003. The 2007 season was then the largest, with over 270 people working on seven different excavation sites. It was the perfect place for this experiment. Archaeology and Art meet in the Stonehenge landscape. Significant artists, from romantics like Constable and Turner, to moderns like Henry Moore, have drawn Stonehenge. Representations of Stonehenge go back to 1340 [see feature, Jan/Feb 2007], and the very earliest drawings from this landscape are inscribed on neolithic chalk plaques. There could not be a richer environment for an encounter between archaeologists and artists.

As classic sites of British prehistory – the Stonehenge Cursus, Woodhenge and Durrington Walls – were revisited archaeologically last summer, six artists were on hand to document and reflect on this activity. They were let loose on the excavations. Each was resident in a different space, where the locations in which they worked and the archaeological activities they encountered shaped their practice. The project continues, so, at present, it is only possible to look over the artists' shoulders as they develop their ideas. The work that is emerging is captivating and challenging. Drawings catch, suspend, collect and separate moments in time. Methods echo archaeological techniques but are applied in entirely new ways. The results uncover aspects of time that conventional archaeology overlooks, creating strange new monuments and alternative sites of interest.

Mark Anstee commemorated the Stonehenge Cursus in a 14-day performance drawing, ending with a ceremonial excarnation within the Larkhill military zone

Mark Anstee performs live in museums and galleries, producing large-scale temporary drawings in the exhibition space. His previous works include armies of tiny figures drawn on a vast wall at the Flanders Fields Museum, Belgium, and a giant slipway, like an eternal travellator, upon which Anstee hung for 50 days while he drew thousands of miniature crusaders. Anstee's drawings contain numerous individually drawn figures. Each motif is different but shares an iconic form, referencing heroic painting, tomb sculpture or hieroglyphs. As the figures gradually accumulate a massive monument or memorial is generated.

The Stonehenge Cursus, where Anstee was resident in 2007, is a huge neolithic monument, around 3km in length. It lies to the north of Stonehenge close to Larkhill Barracks in what is today a military training zone. One interpretation of cursus monuments is that they served as processional ways for the neolithic dead. Dead bodies may even have been excarnated (left to rot until the bones were exposed) within some of these sites. Today, to the non-specialist the cursus is largely invisible. It is best seen from the air or using geophysical imaging techniques. Parts of it are difficult to access.

Anstee embarked on a 14-day "performance drawing", commemorating the cursus and calling it to mind across the Stonehenge landscape. The performance culminated in a ceremonial excarnation within the Larkhill military zone.

Rebecca Davies was resident on excavations around the Cuckoo Stone, a lone sarsen near Woodhenge, which excavation suggested had once been standing.

Rebecca Davies captures and suspends moments in time. Her drawings are often transposed through light boxes generating a layered effect. A series of such boxes was commissioned for the new Wembley Stadium, within which momentous, but fleeting, occasions – the scoring of a winning goal, the commotion of a victorious crowd – were encapsulated by carefully recording their traces. Using photographs, she traced the waving of flags or the billowing of the goal net. Her drawings invoke an occurrence through its absences, using the slight and overlooked to indicate events.

Davies was resident on excavations around the Cuckoo Stone, an isolated sarsen within sight of Woodhenge, which excavation suggested had been moved in the distant past. Through close study of the archaeologists at work, she was able to document and compile the moments that slipped by unnoticed in the their labours. She developed her own on-site drawing techniques, parallel to, but different from archaeological drawings. Indexing time by recording traces seems very familiar to archaeologists: Davies's work reveals moments that lie undiscovered within their practices.

Leo Duff explored the links between drawing and excavation, the shapes of tools and the process of layers.

Leo Duff explores environments using illustration. Interested in the construction and deconstruction of buildings, her recent projects meditate on the emplacement and displacement of stone. Stonehenge is a very appropriate site for one whose work meditates on these themes.

In the field Duff explored how drawing might relate to the processes of excavation. Digging as a process is referenced in the techniques that she used to make her pictures. She became interested in the shapes left by tools, both in the ground and on paper, and in the processes of producing layers. Exposed to archaeological methods, Duff's own work became in some senses stratigraphic.

Brian Fay worked at Woodhenge, analysing the surfaces of the concrete pipes (removed during excavation in 2006) set to mark neolithic postholes

Brian Fay draws traces left by the passage of time. His previous projects have included a series of "crack drawings" which trace the crazed surfaces of canonical paintings by Titian, da Vinci, Vermeer, Corot, Malevich and Mondrian. Another project recorded the dust and scratches left on celluloid copies of the Buster Keaton film One Week (1920).

Fay took up residence on an excavation that finished 80 years ago, at the classic site of Woodhenge. Here in the 1920s, Maud Cunnington discovered an extraordinary henge containing six concentric rings of pits that once held wooden posts. Today, the post settings are marked by concrete bollards colour-coded with paint. Visitors experience the neolithic monument through a deliberately minimalist reconstruction. They are encouraged to look through the reconstruction to the neolithic site it stands in for. The site hovers between times – involving both the "official" time of the neolithic monument, and the resolutely 20th century medium of concrete. The unloved bollards have their own history too, as paint blisters and aggregate erodes.

Julia Midgley interpreted excavation at different sites sometimes using archaeological graph paper and recording sheets.

Julia Midgley produces live action drawings through direct observation. Drawing with immense skill, at great speed, she captures snapshots of things in motion. Her drawings suspend moments in time, but also compress them together. On a single drawing the same character may appear several times caught in different poses as they move about the site.

At Stonehenge, Midgley moved between excavations following the changing scene. The drawings produced are documentary, but quite unlike a photographic record. They are an interpretation which defines and separates moments in time. The archaeological team recognised something in common with Midgley's project. Her drawing boards and materials were borrowed by the team for their own work. Returning the compliment, Midgley started to adapt the archaeologists' materials, drawing on graph paper and archaeological recording sheets. The work produced plays on the interaction between two kinds of archives – one artistic, one archaeological.

Janet Hodgson made film pieces that reordered the archaeological process and studied the social life of archaeologists, using Harris matrices and GPS mapping.

Janet Hodgson builds time machines. Her previous installations include Piltdown Bungalow – a hoax excavation trench which turned out to contain a complete contemporary bungalow – and Time Machine, a replica of HG Wells's fictional mechanism from the 1960 film, made from discarded packaging. In 2005 Hodgson produced The Pits in a shopping development built over an earlier excavation at Whitefriars, Canterbury, where it can still be viewed ( She took archaeological drawings from the excavation and sand-blasted them into the new development, repositioning each feature exactly where it had been discovered. Hodgson often works in film, where she "excavates" and reworks old film sequences, re-enacting scenes from film history in disorientating new contexts. Temporal landmarks are simulated and relocated. Like her installations, Hodgson's films generate the sensation of being lost in time.

On the Stonehenge excavations Hodgson made several film pieces that reordered the sequences assembled by archaeologists. Hole Pour was a looped piece in which an excavated feature mysteriously filled and emptied itself. TimeNap reworked film of an archaeologist's hands as they refitted pieces of struck flint. Hodgson also began a project which studied the social life of the archaeological team, turning archaeological tools onto archaeologists themselves. UberArc is a piece made using laser scan technology on the bodies of the Stonehenge site team. She also mapped and "excavated" the stratigraphy of social interactions in the trenches, producing personal Harris matrices (the charts commonly used to analyse site stratigraphy) for members of the team. This "excavation of an excavation" is a kind of drawing that plays with the technical mapping and plotting skills of archaeologists.

The residencies at Stonehenge Riverside were supported by The Caroline Humby-Teck Trust. Work from this project was exhibited at the World Archaeological Congress, Dublin, Jun 29–Jul 4, and will be at the Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester from Jul 25. Photographic documentation of the project was by Debbie Zoutewelle. The artists would like to thank all participants in the Stonehenge Riverside excavations 2007.

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