A few days ago, my friend wrote a post about art in archaeology and whether it is artistic expression or an accurate representation of how things were at that time.
This is a question that has plagued archaeologists and art historians probably forever. Are the saddles on the Lewis Chessmen accurate in terms of how they are portrayed? Did Nefertiti or Caesar or any of the historically famous people actually look like the famous busts and statues we know so well? Did 16th century depictions of whaling match the actual act of whaling? Or did these artists represent these things in the ways that they did because it looked better?
There is no straightforward answer here. Sometimes art is accurate. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes the artist thinks they’re being accurate, but they’re totally missing the mark.
We know this is true of modern art, so why wouldn’t it be true of historical or ancient art?
Take 16th century depictions of whaling as an example. This is a woodcut of the process from 1574. People had heard of whaling, they knew what it was, but the artist who carved this woodcut has most likely never seen a whale. We can say that because that’s not how a whale looks.
We can also probably assume that people didn’t climb on top of the whale and play bagpipes or catch a whale using an anchor. The bagpipes seem a bit ridiculous and the anchor would be impractical at best. And because we know a lot of other things are inaccurate, we might assume that people didn’t climb up on the whale using a ladder and use axes to cut the blubber off. On the other hand, I’m not aware of 16th century accounts of whaling, so I can’t really say.
When it comes to beads, we have a different sort of artistic confusion. How do we know which characteristics of the beads were important to the people who used them? When I look at beads archaeologically, I look at differences in shape, even minor ones, such as the three shown here. But when I’m making something out of beads, the minor differences in shape don’t matter. Very slight variations in color don’t matter. So how can I expect them to matter archaeologically?
Really, I can’t. But since we have zero information about which characteristics were important, I can’t rule out the minor differences either. Just because I don’t find them important doesn’t mean no one else did either.
To me, though, the importance of artistic expression in archaeology is nicely summarized by Geertz’s famous study of the Balinese cockfights. After a lengthy summary and discussion of the practice in Bali during the 1950s, Geertz says that the cockfight “provides a metasocial commentary upon the whole matter of assorting human beings into fixed hierarchical ranks and then organizing the major part of collective existence around that assortment,” (Geertz 1973: 448).
Put simply, Geertz argued that the importance of the cockfight was that it was a depiction of daily life not necessarily as it was, but as the Balinese felt it should be. It was, he says, “a story they tell themselves about themselves.”
In my mind, much artistic expression isn’t how life is, but how the artist or the person commissioning the work feels it should be. The busts of well-known people like Caesar or Nefertiti may well be inaccurate, but it is how either those individuals or the artists creating the work felt they should be represented.
On the other hand, much artistic expression is also a depiction of how life is, or how that artist (or artists) perceives life to be. The Lewis Chessmen may well accurately depict saddles from that period in that region. Or they may depict how the artist thought saddles in that time and region looked. The 16th century woodcut of whaling certainly isn’t accurate to us, but it may have been to the artist.
We can’t use the Lewis Chessmen to tell us what saddles looked like in Viking Iceland. But we can use them to talk about how saddles were possibly perceived in these areas.
Our job as archaeologists and historians, I feel is to use these pieces of art and expression to understand the perceptions of people at the time, or at least the people either creating or commissioning the artwork. Is it highly subjective? Yes. Can we really fix that? I don’t think so. But we shouldn’t get annoyed at artwork or frustrated that it’s not giving us any answers. Instead, we need to change our expectations of the kinds of answers artwork can give and find different ways of getting information from it.
1973 The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.
Images used in this post are property of the author, save for that of Lewis Chessman (acquired from https://thehorseandthenorse.wordpress.com) and the 16th century woodcut (public domain).