The camera never lies, or so the saying goes, unless it happens to be the archaeological site camera, in which case it’s bums, well and truly, on fire.
Not that site photos are faked or airbrushed. In fact they are quite the opposite, aiming for a heightened level of objectivity – a sanitised vision designed to enable future generations to reinterpret the evidence in a different light. The soil is cleaned back and the crumbs dusted away, perhaps even dampened down. Tools are carefully removed and the archaeologists themselves edge discretely out of shot, waiting for clouds to pass whilst their colleagues point and click.
But what record does this leave of the people who actually dug the site? What were they called? What did they think? Where are they now?
If excavation is an exercise in retrieval rather than in interpretation, it doesn’t matter what the excavators thought, just so long as they prepared a coherent site archive allowing eminently more respectable ‘armchair’ colleagues to analyse and interpret their findings. In his book Critical Approaches to Fieldwork, Gavin Lucas questions the politics of this disappearing act. He argues that excavators ‘are silenced in the name of representation, the production of knowledge,’ (p.13) a position echoed in a recent Conference paper by Lesley McFadyen and the excavators of Bronze Age ring-ditch in Cambridgeshire.
“Do you know what it is like to always focus the camera in the shadows that reside after you deliberately push a colleague out of the frame, making them wipe out their footprints and pick up their work tools in the process of leaving. What kind of archaeology are those forced experiences for and who is it for? Why are we so professional about creating an archaeology devoid of us?”
If this is the case, and diggers do get ignored in the final analysis, then there’s a rumble in the facebook jungle and it’s hell bent on redressing the democratic balance. The Photographic Archive of Irish Archaeology is a project set up by Ed Lyne to document what another writer has called ‘The Invisible Diggers,’ and it’s the unseen footage that really makes this project so interesting: the youthful lecturer who would one day become the establishment; the end of site party that would end in infamy; and the lost soul diggers who would never be seen of again. From pre-tiger austerity to the boomtown heyday and back again, the photos offer a tantalising glimpse of a long lost world, with comments and tag names that crucially allow the tale to grow in the telling.
From the page description:
Along with the official photos – the ones that appear in the reports, articles, journals and books – there have always been the unofficial photos; the site crew pictures, unplanned working shots, site cabin photos, nights out, conferences, gatherings, student trips, site tours, random guests, you name it. These provide in many ways an equally interesting and often more engaging account of the journey that Irish archaeology has been on since the rise of our discipline.
‘Work is the curse of the drinking man,’ wrote Oscar Wilde, and having flicked through some of these photos I can certainly drink to that! Like others posting and commenting on these photos, perhaps I’m just nostalgic for an Ireland that has gone the way of the dodo. Whether that’s the case or not, I wish everyone all the best of luck with this project. Mines a pint of Murphys and keep ‘em coming…