What makes a photograph archaeological?

camera pen sketch

Archaeological photography varies depending on a range of factors, including the subject, the photographer’s goals, and type of publication for which it is intended (Carter 2015). Therefore it is very difficult to create an all-encompassing definition, without extensive generalisation, which ultimately removes the archaeological element.

Once again, I was given some tasks in my university workshop to help me explore this medium and attempt to define archaeological photography through two main tasks.

Task 1: Artefact photography

Roman pot sherd photograph

I tried to follow standard artefact photography practice in this photograph by arranging the sherds on a plain background with a scale, placing the rims towards the top, and the body sherd below. The sherds were also grouped, which is common for high quantity objects, as it saves time and resources.

Although photography is more accurate, it immediately felt more cursory than illustration, because important details on the photograph appeared muted, that would have otherwise been highlighted by an illustrator. For example, the band of decoration on the central sherd is barely noticeable on the photograph. However a raking light, where an object is ‘illuminated from one side only’ (National Gallery 2017), can remedy this by emphasising engraved or raised details.

side-by-side comparison of overhead vs. low-angle lighting.
Comparison of overhead and raking light. (HSSC Archaeology 2015).

Similar to artefact illustration, artefact photographs like mine are most common in books or articles discussing the finds from a site, and are primarily accessed by other archaeologists but also students. Online sources such as the Portable Antiquities Scheme database, also hold an abundance of artefact photographs, that widens this audience to include interested member of the public .

Task 2: What makes a photograph archaeological?

My second task was to take one archaeological and one non-archaeological photograph in King’s Manor, York, to help me define archaeological photography.

In my first photograph of the stone coffins, I applied some of the guidance from my lectures, and tried to stand parallel to the subject, with even lighting conditions. As a symbol of scientific practice in archaeology (Carter 2015) I also chose to include a scale, as I wanted to create a more scientific record- although to improve I could have also added a north arrow.

Despite this, I have also included the extra photograph of the carving surrounding one of the doors at King’s Manor, to show that not every archaeological photograph must follow this formula. Instead, this photograph is more similar to those taken during buildings surveys, as it provides a visual record of the decorative ‘internal detail’ (Lane 2016, 19) of the building which could suggest how the doorway was used and developed.

Whilst taking the non-archaeological photograph, I was surprised by the range of ways non-archaeological subjects could be interpreted from an archaeological perspective as long as they had a provenance. For example, with some detective work, the photograph of the bronze calf not only provides a record of its condition, but also its approximate location and orientation. In similar situations, this could be incorporated into a site plan where surviving records were more limited.

As mentioned above, these photographs are most like those taken during buildings surveys, as they record internal and external features of the building. As a result, they are mainly accessed by other archaeologists but also by conservation organisations.

camera pen sketch


Carter, C., (2015). The Development of the Scientific Aesthetic in Archaeological Site Photography?. Bulletin of the History of Archaeology. 25(2), p.Art. 4. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/bha.258

HSSC Archaeology. Castle Museum Archaeology. (2015). Photographing Artifacts. [online] Available at: https://hsscarchaeology.wordpress.com/2015/06/09/photographing-artifacts/ [Accessed 1 Nov. 2017].

Lane, R. (2016) Understanding Historic Buildings. Historic England.

National Gallery. (2017). Raking Light [online]. Available at: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/glossary/raking-light [Accessed 1/11/2017]

Creative Commons License
Archaeoskills is licensed by Katharine Waring under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s