Archaeological Photography

An unexpected minefield

So I previously mentioned archaeological photographs- so what are they? And how are they different from normal photographs? Without further ado here are the key elements of a very thorough archaeological photograph:

  • A north arrow (as precise as possible but doesn’t need to be perfect)
  • A scale, usually in the form of a ranging rod (a pole with stripes to give scale) or a tiny scale for artifacts (with a stripe every 1 cm)
  • The site code and context, along with the date, usually all on the same board
  • And the most annoying of all- it needs to be as flat on as possible, not at an angle (or ‘oblique’) because it changes any measurements on the photo

These Here is a slightly rough-shod version of one, recording a sealed off door at Kings Manor (York):


Source: Author

Now this obviously doesn’t have a site code or date, but the ranging rod and north arrow are present and the angle is as flat as possible. Archaeological photographs can also just contain a scale, and sometimes that scale can be just the presence of a human (Morgan, 2016) (Chadha, 2002, 388-389) this isn’t nearly reliable as an actual scale, but can add a human element to excavation. Compare this to a far more dynamic and interesting photograph of the same building:


Source: Author

The reality is though in an archaeology report of a building or dig site this would be completely useless- how do you tell the scale of the building? Which face of the building is this? If the photo got lost would you ever be able to link it back to the investigation? It doesn’t matter that know its the entrance to the second courtyard, facing south, if none of that information is conveyed through the image. So much like archaeological drawings, photos in archaeology exist to convey as much information as possible in a single image- so they can be linked to the other information from the investigation they’re in, and also so the information can be re-used later by people from outside the investigation with as little confusion as possible. That’s not to say a perfectly executed archaeological photograph is a perfect record however, as digital photographs are surprisingly easy to lose or be corrupted, while physical black and white film photographs are surprisingly easy to maintain and archive and can therefore outlast their modern counterparts (Morgan, 2016).

That’s not to say ‘normal’ photographs have no place in archaeology- they can sometimes show aspects of a historical building or area that might not be so obvious while it’s being photographed up close. Like this (incredibly dreary) photo of the York Minster, still towering over certain parts of the city- which shows how imposing it would have been during the medieval era.church3

Source: Author

So in summary, different types of photographs fit different roles, with more strictly ‘archaeological’ ones suiting journals and books, and more aesthetically pleasing photographs acting more as an emotional connection to archaeological and historical places.

(Chadha, A., 2002. Visions of discipline: Sir Mortimer Wheeler and the archaeological method in India (1944-1948). Journal of Social Archaeology, 2, pp.378–401.

Morgan, C., 2016. Analog to Digital: Transitions in Theory and Practice in Archaeological Photography at Çatalhöyük. Internet Archaeology, (42). )

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