Limits of artistry in archaeological recording – finds photography

We have already talked about how important recording in general is ( and what difference it makes when the records are proper (

Today we will discuss another significant topic related to finds recording and it is… (snare drums) the ARTISTRY.

While the archaeological illustration often falls victim to the tendency of oversimplifying (we will talk about it in another article), taking photographs may go in the opposite direction.

It is a kind of customary thought that creating an archaeological illustration, despite its being a technical drawing, requires not just certain skills and knowledge, but also a bit of talent. And as such, not everyone can do it (which is also disputable, but we will not go into it here).

In case of photography, however, it often seems to be the contrary. Photographing appears to be so easy. After all, anyone can press the button, right, what’s a big deal? (Well, apparently the 1888 Kodak’s advert ‘You Press the Button, We Do the Rest’ had a tremendous impact also on future generations.)

Jokes aside, the truth is that the difference is always clearly visible when comparing the results of a button pressing and creating a photograph. Photography also demands ability, technical knowledge and a particular perspective. And from the very beginning it combined the practical purpose of depicting a subject with the artistic vision of showing it in a unique way.

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Main photographers’ tool and skill have been and always will be the light and the art of operating it. But there are several other professional tricks and it is always tempting to ‘upgrade’ our photographs with setting up innovative arranging, for example, or using deeper contrast or filters in post-production. All what can make photographs more ‘artistic’ and give them that special twist, characteristic to the particular individual behind the lenses. We could very well risk a statement that all photographers want to see themselves as creators. Studio product and object photographers are not free from this feeling and that includes archaeological artefacts photographers.

However, photographing archaeological artefacts is subjected to an aim much higher than a common artistic expression. It is the actual archaeological record. Where lighting is not just important as it would be in some other photography manner serving aesthetic purposes, but simply crucial. How the chiaroscuro is managed may either expose or entirely hide some significant features what makes the photograph to be judged not according to the ‘pretty/not great’ criterion, but ‘valuable’ or ‘completely useless’. Vices of disagreement could be heard here, claiming that a photograph, even an archaeological one, is a piece of art and a photographer has the right to create it as they please. Especially that any information, possibly missing from the picture, would be present and visible on the drawing. This is not entirely true, though. Naturally, there are photographs on which shape of an artefact can be artistically fading into the black background or be hidden behind other elements of a hoard or grave goods set. And that is perfectly fine. Such pictures should be taken to give the viewer other perspective and to intrigue them. Although, they should always need to be treated as an ‘added value’, an extra illustration, not the actual record.

Archaeological photographers need to remember that artistry should not veil the data. The recording preserves the beauty of the past (even if it is just symbolic beauty). And at the same time it needs to show this beauty. At Arte-Facts we offer perfectly balanced, correct artefact recording. We bring out the ART and we stick to the FACTS.

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Why ‘bad’ records are better than no records?

Is it obvious to you? Or rather sounds a bit controversial?

It does a bit to me, I admit. In my previous post ( I was trying to convince all the Readers that attaching significance to aesthetically pleasant and accurate visual records of artefacts and field documentation is important. I am not going to change my previous view here. Nevertheless, I would like to look at the problem of archaeological recording from a slightly different angle and stress out that, regardless if we like it or not, we need to answer ‘yes’ to the title question.

What ‘bad records’ mean then? It could be a drawing which is not neat, a scribbled one, or one on which not every stone is drawn. That could also be a badly lit or blurry photograph of an artefact or picture of a section with a bucket in the foreground.

Why such records are created? There are many reasons. Maybe we are careless in general? Maybe we think it doesn’t matter because we will describe everything correctly in our final report conclusion? Or because we are tired after a long day in a freezing drizzle? Possibly as well we may not even be aware of how it should be done properly, because no one has ever told us so. Or we have just a lot of work and very little time, as it often happens in commercial archaeology.

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“That’s not an excuse!’ a purist may exclaim. And they would be right, without a doubt. Due to specificity of the archaeological job which is the process of staged destruction of every site, what is done, can’t be undone. It is incontestable that a human factor will always be a weakest link in a chain. If someone makes a mistake in the field, it is their fault they hadn’t done it according to the rules of the art.

But if they hadn’t, the only thing that can be done is correcting the records in the post-ex. A level missing in the context sheet can be found on a drawing. A dirty plan with someone’s half readable description can be easily transferred and edited digitally. Bricks can be multiplied. A shade on the picture can be brightened, an unwanted bucket ‘patched’ off. Naturally, a blurry picture can never be sharpened to the extent, that it would look as properly made photograph. Yet, it will always contain INFORMATION.

Any information is better than no information. If someone claims: ‘either you do something perfectly or not at all’, without considering the circumstances, they are just clearly wrong. ‘Bad records’ are not an insult to the profession, as some archaeologists may see it. A phone picture of a cracked bowl only held in one piece by the fill inside, with someone’s hand supporting it most likely should not be suitable for a cover of a publication. It will definitely help a conservator, who will be glueing it later, though. A photograph of a vessel taken by a trainee, who forgot how to set the focus most likely will not end up on a poster promoting an exhibition. But may help to spot the particular artefact in the store, without checking all the labels. In a situation like these and many others, imperfect records are still very useful and should never be omitted or deleted.

And what when you need ‘pretty’ records for publicity? Well, that’s easy. You can always hire a professional finds photographer and illustrator. Check out our portfolio at

Are ‘pretty’ archaeological records really that important?

‘Aaaaah, so you’re digging holes and taking all the old stuff out, right??’

This is one of the most common comments we archaeologists hear after revealing our profession in discussions. Depending on our level of propriety and respect to the interlocutor, we either roll our eyes or not and, in a tone of condescension or excitement, start to EXPLAIN. ‘Well, yes, it is work in the field, and we do need to dig, but it is not just holes because they need to have certain dimensions and shape, and it’s not just taking out stuff, because it is all about RECORDING’.

Archaeology is recording. This sentence every archaeologist has so strongly imprinted in their heads, that they don’t even remember when they heard it for the first time. The truth is, however, that archaeological recording does not mean the same for every archaeologist. Or rather, it is not treated in the same way.

The recording is indeed crucial in archaeology. If the past is buried somewhere, and we dig it out destroying the environment, we need to record the stages. The only link between modern people and the past are the records. I deliberately used the general form ‘people’, as the records we create as archaeologists are not just for us, they are for everyone. There will always be language differences we can’t avoid, of course. But even if someone does not understand the texts itself, they definitely would be able to understand the location, all the maps and plans and the visual representation of finds, and these are the base of any research.

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While the necessity of the presence of such records might and definitely should sound obvious for any archaeologist, the actual quality of such documentation is often quite neglected. We all understand the fast pace environment we are forced to work in during commercial excavation, but we also always need to remember, that preparing proper site archive is the core of our job. And yes, of course, a bad record is better than no record (I will write about in another post), but good documentation makes a professional. And if someone wants to be considered a competent archaeologist, they need to remember, that a few scans of plans and phone snapshots of finds on a kitchen table with a ruler won’t do the job. Whatever one finds during excavations and writes in the report.

I am exaggerating and teasing you a bit here, I admit. Fortunately, such situations are becoming rarer. I just wanted to stress out the importance of accurate digitalisation. There are two main reasons why a digitally edited site or trench plan, a site range exactly presented on a map, field photographic documentation, and a correct post-excavation finds recording are so significant.

The first one I have already mentioned above. It just looks professional. When it looks good, it’s shareable (which is so important in our digital world), so one’s work as a scientist can have a wider outreach. It creates the impression that you care for what you do and want to do it properly. It also shows that you understand why creating a field and post-ex records are for.

Which brings me to the second, weighty argument for an accurate, clear, not pixilated digital archaeological documentation, particularly of finds records. This is the actual sake of archaeology. Archaeological finds in their greatest majority are rather fragile and even with all precautions and care, they may undergo the process of gradual destruction (not to speak of situation, when the care is not sufficient). Their precise representation on illustration and photography preserves their appearance and enables it to be shared among scholars to study and compare. Lack of specific depiction of all the details of a find can lead to some misinterpretations or even to overlooking some significant reference.

I hope I managed to convince you that ‘pretty’ documentation is important. It’s not just about the neatness and the delight looking at it gives you. Most importantly it is the accuracy of the actual records and the amount of importation about the past, which it provides.

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