Perspectives on the Past: Archaeology, Museums, Science Studies

by Mirjam Brusius, Oxford University and Sydney Centre for the Foundations of Science, and Daniela Helbig, Unit for the History and Philosophy of Science, University of Sydney

The study of the human material past has not received as much attention from historians of science and science studies scholars as has natural history. But recent work within the history of archaeology and related fields suggests that science studies would strongly benefit from a more genuine engagement with the recent “material turn” in relation to the study of collecting, and of the ancient past. Not easily classified as “scientific” or “humanities” approaches, the material practices of studying the human past escape a problematization along the traditional lines of disciplinary distinctions that have dominated 20th-century historiography. Engagement with these practices raises questions regarding the reliance on historical methods such as archival research, and on empirical methods, e.g. anthropological field-work and oral histories, as well as the integration of scientifically produced data with historical modes of inquiry.

As part of this emerging conversation, a workshop hosted by the Unit for History and Philosophy of Science at Sydney University in October 2016 brought together participants from archaeology and science studies, archivists and museum curators. The workshop built upon recent work by the conveners, Daniela Helbig (Sydney) in conjunction with Mirjam Brusius (Oxford), and benefited greatly from the participation of distinguished local scholars such as art historian Kitty Hauser, who has written extensively on aerial photography and archaeology, archaeologist Roland Fletcher, head of the Sydney Angkor project remapping the site of Angkor through laser-based surveillance technologies, archivist, curator and historian of science Katrina Dean (University Archives Melbourne/University Library Cambridge), historian of science and museum studies scholar Roy MacLeod, and historian of medicine Warwick Anderson who has insisted on the pertinence of the materiality of objects in current debates about objectivity.

These photographs from 2010 show the then-director of the British Museum with the then-director of the National Museum of Iran as the Cyrus Cylinder (539 BC), a Babylonian account of the conquest of Babylon by the Persian King Cyrus, excavated by the British in the late 19th century in Mesopotamia, is handed over as a loan. Noteworthy are the box in which the object is securely stored, and the blue gloves of the Iranian curator: what is passed on with the object itself are the rules of preservation with which, according to European museological standards, the object must now be handled.

These photographs from 2010 show the then-director of the British Museum with the then-director of the National Museum of Iran as the Cyrus Cylinder (539 BC), a Babylonian account of the conquest of Babylon by the Persian King Cyrus, excavated by the British in the late 19th century in Mesopotamia, is handed over as a loan. Noteworthy are the box in which the object is securely stored, and the blue gloves of the Iranian curator: what is passed on with the object itself are the rules of preservation with which, according to European museological standards, the object must now be handled.

One focus of the workshop was the changing role of remote-sensing technologies in archaeology, from aerial photography around the First World War to LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), a laser-based mapping of ground features that has recently begun to be used by archaeologists. In those studies, the archaeologist’s primary object is a complex construction rather different from the excavated objects often associated with archaeological practice: a photograph, or a computer-generated visualization of ground features. The production of these epistemic image-objects involves aesthetic choices in the service of a broader argument, embodied in the resulting object itself. In contrast to the frequent association of 1930s aerial photography with a positivist image of a past to be literally uncovered, the relation between remote sensing data, excavated or otherwise collected artifacts, and other types of evidence in present-day archaeology offers rich examples of how scientific and hermeneutic-historical styles of argument interact.

Photographic plate from Antoine Poidebard's 1934 book La Trace de Rome dans le désert de Syrie, showing the Harbaqa dam in present-day Syria. Combining military aerial surveillance technologies with archaeology, Poidebard's aerial photographs are both a unique archive of the Syrian steppe, and artifacts documenting its colonial history. In the political context of the French Mandate to Syria and Lebanon, Poidebard’s visual technology reconstructed notions of space, and took part in the formation of political identities.

Photographic plate from Antoine Poidebard’s 1934 book La Trace de Rome dans le désert de Syrie, showing the Harbaqa dam in present-day Syria. Combining military aerial surveillance technologies with archaeology, Poidebard’s aerial photographs are both a unique archive of the Syrian steppe, and artifacts documenting its colonial history. In the political context of the French Mandate to Syria and Lebanon, Poidebard’s visual technology reconstructed notions of space, and took part in the formation of political identities.

The relation between the production of scientific objects and archaeological artifacts also informed the workshop’s second focal theme: the role of material artifacts in the context of heritage and preservation practices, in an Australian, and in a European and Middle Eastern geographical setting. Mirjam Brusius emphasized the diversity of practices of studying, curating, preserving and sometimes burying objects, and the connections between the preservation of objects and self preservation. Going beyond normative narratives of archaeology and “heritage,” constructs that emerged out of imperial projects in the 19th
and 20th centuries, her contribution questioned approaches that solely rely on institutionalized scholarship and Western ideals of modernity and progress. In her paper on the Australian naturalists Harriet and Helena Scott, Vanessa Finney, Manager of Archives at the Australian museum, problematized the active role of archivists in knowledge storage and retrieval, evoking further questions which also concern the institutions’ role in perpetuating or undermining colonial legacies.

The investigation of these practices served as a reminder that knowledge about the past is in itself a construct, highly determined by the technologies and scholarly practices put into play. Historians of science should not shy away from these topics; they could in fact make this point strongly. At the same time the field could benefit from a deeper engagement with the material past. As Warwick Anderson pointed out in his concluding comments, the questions raised during the workshop lend themselves to a variety of theorizations, some of which have been prefigured by histories of scientific field work; others open up new perspectives for science studies too. To conclude with one example, the various modes of sacralization of the object, and its moral economies of exchange have long been discussed extensively with regard to traditional archaeological artifacts. Archaeology’s new image-objects connect this emphasis with epistemically oriented analyses of scientific objectivity and research on visualization and photography, which has increasingly gained currency in the field. The archaeology of knowledge, in a Foucaultian sense, has more layers to be uncovered. We are planning to continue the discussion in the context of upcoming HSS meetings and are keen to hear from scholars interested in those questions.

A longer version of this report will be submitted to the journal History and Technology.

Further reading:

  • Special issue “Photography, Antiquity, Scholarship,” guest-edited by Mirjam Brusius and Theodor Dunkelgrün, History of Photography 40/3 (2016). (herein articles by Daniela Helbig and Mirjam Brusius)
  • Abu El-Haj, Nadia. Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-
    Fashioning in Israeli Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
  • Warwick Anderson, “Objectivity and its Discontents,” Social Studies of Science 43/4 (2013): 557-576.
  • Mirjam Brusius, “Towards a History of Preservation Practices: Archaeology, Heritage,
    and the History of Science,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 47 (2015): 574-
    579.
  • William Carruthers, “Introduction: Thinking about Histories of Egyptology,” in William
    Carruthers (ed.) Histories of Egyptology: Interdisciplinary Measures. Abingdon and
    New York: Routledge, 1–15.