Archaeology and the Visual – a conversation with Michael Shanks

Came across this today – a fascinating discussion with Michael Shanks about representing the past. I especially like his comments regarding maps (and by extension, Second Life) as a prothesis for understanding the past. A snippet below:

“TW: Why do archaeologists need to think about media? How is visualization implicated?

MS: The easy answer is that archaeologists need to publish what they find, otherwise the past is lost. But there is more to it. There is a distinctive experience of immediacy in archaeology – a notion of discovering the past in its material remains. A conservation ethic drives the global heritage industry – that the past should to be looked after as a legacy of cultural property, with such a past often even considered a human right. But it is, of course, the case that archaeologists do not discover the past. They work on what remains. And such work involves the translation of materiality into proxy mediating forms – texts, catalogs, images. Now while this discursive character is widely accepted in many disciplines, the archaeological nature of the relationship between past and present is less often recognized. By this I mean the material relationship of decay/loss and rescue/restitution at the core of contemporary historicity. Such an archaeological sensibility refers to matters of presence and absence, of trust and authenticity. It reaches far beyond the discipline. I consistently argue that there is an archaeological sensibility at the heart of modernism and modernity.

In this I would subordinate inscription and visualization to mediation. I hope the reason why will become clear – it is to do with the idea of medium as mode of engagement.


TW: But in practice, maps only work, only allow navigation and wayfinding, via relating directly this abstracted information beyond the immediate perceptual and cognitive capacity of a map-reader to what is immediately perceived on-the-ground. The perceiving map-reader becomes a conduit for coordinating information offered directly through perception – of features, plazas or pyramids – and indirectly through the schemata of the map. One cannot operate effectively without the other. This is a cyborg ontology. In this sense, maps are better understood as prostheses of the individual. We might say that visualization is less what we do with information – to convey, condense or distribute – and more how we intimately function through visual media.

MS: Rather than a virtual world, we have treated Second Life as such a prosthesis. Not a substitute, not a re-presentation of a world, but as an extension. An instrument of augmentation. A mediation of certain source materials – re-sources for mapping pasts….”