I spent part of yesterday in the osteology labs while the MSc students studied evidence of trauma on skeletons. Here bones are looked at and examined by students who vary in their engagement with the materials from scientific impassivity of the bones as subjects to emotive empathy for the individuals as living people.

This session confirmed something I’ve been thinking. That tools mediate who archaeologists are and with an absence of tools the results of photography are less convincing images of archaeologists as practitioners. The osteology students were solely using pencils and paper. This resulted for me in something of a gap between archaeologist and material. The session was just a group of people looking at bones. Tools help to give reason and purpose to the activity. As photographic subjects, the presence of tools creates the actuality of ‘doing archaeology’ and are the linking elements between the subject (person) and object (material) that then creates the overall subject of the photograph. Even if the archaeologists are absent from the image and only the tools are photographed, images of tools on their own still suggest the practice of archaeology by hinting at what is absent. Take the tools away and the subject is somehow diminished. This suggests that material culture is essential to action and identity.

I ended up being drawn to the cataloging of the collection – the extension of inscribing order on archaeological materials to the realm of the dead. Can rows of skulls and ribs with inked catalogue numbers fail to hint at some of the darker deeds from humanity’s past?


About Bill Bevan

Bill Bevan is an archaeologist, writer, photographer and heritage interpreter.
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