Louder Than Orange: a chromosonic sense of archaeological usewear photography

Our second entry in The Senses and Aesthetics of Archaeological Science comes from Brian Boyd, at Columbia University. Responses follow from co-editors of the issue, Andrew Roddick and Colleen Morgan.


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Louder Than Orange: a chromosonic sense of archaeological usewear photography

 Brian Boyd

You are looking at a series of colour photographs of the surfaces and edges of worked bone artefacts (pointed objects) from the Late Epipalaeolithic (Late Natufian) levels at Hayonim Terrace, Western Galilee (Israel). They were made and used around 11 thousand years ago. The artefacts that is, not the photographs. The photographs were taken during 1994 and 1995 in the East Building of the McDonald Institute, University of Cambridge, using a Leica Wild Photmakroskop M400 stereo microscope with a Schott KL1500-T light source, to which was attached a Leica Wild MPS52 camera operated by a Wild MPS46 Photautomat. The light source used was an Instralux 6000. The film used was Fuji Reala (ASA 100). The purpose of this microscopy and photography was to identify microscopic traces of the manufacture and use of the objects. You can read all about this research in detail HERE.

Directly beneath the photographs you are reading a series of observations, interpretations and speculations based upon the results of the microscopic and photographic analyses.

Together, the above photographs and descriptions were presented as a visual contribution to an exhibit mounted at the May 2014 Theoretical Archaeology Group conference (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) titled “The Archaeologist as Artist: research photography in a new context”, organized by Kaeleigh Herstad and Elizabeth Konwest. I called the piece “The Points of No Return”, in reference to articles by Ofer Bar-Yosef and Anna Belfer-Cohen in which they argued that the Epipalaeolithic Natufian “culture” was the “point of no return” on the social evolutionary trajectory towards settled agricultural life in the Levant around 10,000 years ago (Bar-Yosef & Belfer-Cohen 1989, 2000).

But the real point of the piece was to think about the use of colour in usewear photography of archaeological artefacts. Microwear photographs are usually black and white. Obviously the financial restrictions of most publications is a major issue here, but there are other interesting theoretical considerations to explore. Do colour usewear images give us something more than black and white/greyscale photographs in terms of analytical and interpretive value? On viewing the photographs, several TAG participants thought they were abstract pictures of landscapes, perhaps computer-enhanced aerial shots of ancient fields and river terraces. This got me thinking about colour studies in archaeology.

In the 1980s, we were told “archaeologists don’t attempt a technicolor version of man’s early life” (Binford 1983). So what does this early life look like once all the colours have been drained away? Another TAG session (Stanford 2009) on “The color of things”, and Jones & MacGregor’s Colouring the Past (2002), worked to address this problem. Both however highlight the conventional archaeological focus on colour – the use of pigments, dyes, colour in material culture studies, the colour of things, objects. Only occasionally do these studies go beyond the material and into the realms of what art historians, philosophers, industrial and organic chemists have long dealt with: the social lives of colours, the “mysteries” of colour.

Maybe in recent “sensory archaeology” we see a similar reaction to that of Wittgenstein – “colours spur us to philosophize”; a move away from the “boring” questions about colour (Taussig 2009) or a “chromophobia” (Batchelor 2000) towards a concern with perception, cognition, semiosis, language and signs, and so on.

Colour allows something else into the picture, or the narrative: the language available – saturation, luminosity. At the technological level – the tips and shafts of those bone points were often burned/heated to achieve a desired hardness, robustness, strength. They were worked not until they reached a certain temperature, but a certain colour. When an object reached that exact colour it was ready to be used, a brownish-black. If it starts to go white it’s too late, too brittle. In the discussion to Jones & MacGregor (2002), Chris Scarre called for not only colouring the past, but also making it sound. The sound/noise of manufacture/production: scraping, sharpening, polishing. The two media are entwined in a sound/colour relationship, witness C.S. Peirce’s “red trumpets”, Winston Smith’s (Orwell’s) “yellow note”. Kristin Hersh’s “louder than orange”. A chromosonic sense of objects emerges.

Techniques of sensing (and sensing techniques) in and out of the laboratory

Andrew Roddick

Moments before setting down to read Brian Boyd’s contribution I finished giving a lecture in my class “Religion and Power in the Past”. In this course we are exploring ritual and religion through archaeology, in essence flipping Hawkes’ well-known inferential ladder. For the past week and a half we have been considering the potential for a “sensory archaeology”. To encourage students to question the visual dominance of our narratives, we watch an extract from the film Perfume (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KvK4u8LryLI), a film which encourages the viewer to consider the multi-sensorial. (Is this is what the past looks like if the color has not been drained away, but also if the sounds and smells are re-inserted?) We then discuss Classen’s study of Andean and Amazonian sensory orders, before moving to some archaeological case studies including the sound and touch of South African rock art, auditory archaeology in the Britain and Peruvian highlands, and the tastes of colonial Africa.

Boyd similarly engages with a multi-sensorial past, from the chromatic richness of projectile points to the potential acoustic elements of their production. He specifically enters this discussion from the perspective of the microscope, a technological extension of the senses that “channels perception along modality-specific lines” (Howes 2013). Boyd shows how such a focus on the microscopic can blind us to obvious variation in color, and its related analytical and interpretive value. But even more interesting to me is his suggestion that we must push our analysis of tool production to a larger sensory realm, to consider also the sounds, and even tastes of particular material practices. Those of us working at the microscope might also consider, for instance, potters tasting and smelling their clays, a common practice in many potting regions today, and not altogether different from the practices of modern geologists, who sniff and taste rocks to seek out the presence of minerals such as sulfur, halite, sylvite, and kaolonite.

potters' clay-1
The colors of potting clay in highland Bolivia…but what about their taste?

In a recent chapter, Krysta Ryzewski (2013) explores how the traces of sensory perceptions might be explored in crafted iron goods from historic Rhode Island. Much like Boyd, she suggests a sensory archaeology have real consequences for those exploring the microscopic, impacting not only our interpretations, but shifting the very questions we ask. For instance, “what happens to conventional models of the chaîne opératoire (Leroi-Gourhan 1964) of forging an iron tool when the archaeologist is asked to account for concurrent sensory variables” (Ryzewski 2013: 359)? Drawing on Ingold’s “textility of making” (2010), she discuss the sensory aspects of iron working: “How material properties are harnessed by the ironworker and made to interact in the process of making—as the iron is exposed to heat, to repeated blows from the hammer, and to flux and as decisions are made by the experienced crafts-person—exemplifies the relations between material properties, sensory clues, and the reading of these clues by the craftsperson. All of these decisions must mix with each other effectively in the generative process of making an iron object successfully.” (Ryzewski 2013: 360)

Boyd makes an important step in critically reflecting on the multi-sensorial aspects of his projectile points, at both the macro and micro-scale. Ryzewski argues that micrographs of various iron artifacts reveal microstructures, but also larger sensorial engagements. Ryzewski suggests that the details gained through the microscope must be re-inserted into practice. She explores such a step by combining her laboratory analyses with experimental work, taking part in a form of apprenticeship in practice (see also Keller and Keller 1996; Lave 2011): “[T]o understand how the crafts-person follows materials in his or her work, so too must those who study that work also study the material. In other words, as the archaeologist joins and follows forces and lows of material that bring the form of work into being through countless sensory mediations, the micrograph, in this case, invites the viewer to join the craftsperson and the archaeologist as a fellow traveler.” (Ryzewski 2013: 364) Much as Ouzman (2001) asks about the relationship of rock engravings in South Africa to the nearby “gong rocks”, perhaps we too need to widen our understanding of a truly contextual archaeological science, to consider the larger landscape of practice and senses associated with production. To understand the sensorial and embodied experiences of production, we must send our findings back out from the laboratory.

Howes, David
2013 The Expanding Field of Sensory Studies. http://www.sensorystudies.org/sensorial-investigations/the-expanding-field-of-sensory-studies/

Ingold, Timothy
2010 The Textility of Making. Cambridge Journal of Economics 34:91–102.

Keller, Charles M. and Janet Dixon Keller
1998   Cognition and Tool Use: The Blacksmith at Work Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Lave, Jean
2011   Apprenticeship in Critical Ethnographic Practice University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.

Ouzman, Sven
2001   Seeing Is Deceiving: Rock Art and the Non-visual. World Archaeology 33(2):237-256.

Ryzewski, Krysta
2013   The Production Process as Sensory Experience: Making and Seeing Iron in Colonial New Englad, In Making Sense of the Past: Toward a Sensory Archaeology. Edited by Jo Day, pp. 351-370. Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale.


Colleen Morgan

Zoom in/Zoom out - shot at Dhiban, Jordan, 2009.
Zoom in/Zoom out – shot at Dhiban, Jordan, 2009.

Archaeological photography has woven a bright ribbon through the last decade of my research; in my thesis I discussed photography as a way to understand the affordances of media making and the digital turn within archaeology, mixing theory and practice as part of a methodology based partly on critical making. The above photograph is an example of such work–the object of interested is highlighted in black and white, the serious, publication format for archaeological finds. The frame for the object is messy technicolor chaos, the kind that I would usually wave my hands about, insisting that it was tidied away before any kind of photography took place.

But I liked it, the small, “scientific,” desaturated moment surrounded by all of the don’ts in archaeological photography. The shadow, the context folder, dirt, the bucket full of finds, sample bags in a radiating halo, exhausted student archaeologist leaning against a broken ashlar–it’s a tongue-in-cheek comment on the context of this scientific photograph. Art historian Frederick Bohrer states that “at its most scientific, archaeology seeks to approach the photographic image as document, not to look at the photograph so much as to look through it to the object pictured” (2011:26). This photograph invites a telescoping view–instead of taking the importance of the black and white object, with the totemistic scale placed in parallel for granted, it can be re-situated as a pause in action, a moment cut from the whole cloth of archaeological process.

Brian Boyd invites us into the technicolor dream of usewear photography, paired with captions of “observations, interpretations and speculations” such as “the point that was heated and pierced a cattle hide” and the “point that points to invisible evidence.” The usewear photos, arranged in a grid, are meaningless without captions, and Boyd chooses to forgo the tricks of analyses and didactic locative information and jumps straight into the story of these objects, the moment that these objects came alive through microscopic damage.

Boyd then goes on to consider color in usewear images. As he states, “microwear photographs are usually in black and white” due to the financial restrictions of publications–though this is becoming less of an issue as publication goes digital. Why not have both color and black and white? Why not have a version that contains a roll-over caption, or an animated GIF of the object in motion, showing the usewear from each side? Or a QR code leading to a download of the 3D scan of the object, to be directly loaded into your 3D printer, so that you can run your fingers over the plasticky, simulacra divots and ridges?

Yet black and white photography connotes a collection of past moments in visual technology, moments that drifted through photography, to film, to television, each eventually erupting into color like Dorothy in Oz. So perhaps archaeologists could and use black and white as a preferred visual mode of representation to better convey both our affinity for the past and our previous interpretations of the past. When presented side by side, old interpretations of the past could gray-out, flicker and tear, supplanted by the new, the colorful, the high-definition versions that will eventually convey their age through technological affordances.

Bohrer, F. N. (2011). Photography and archaeology. London: Reaktion Books.

The Beauty and Frustration of Single Moments, Frozen in Time

Our first entry in The Senses and Aesthetics of Archaeological Science comes from Lisa-Marie Shillito, at the University of Edinburgh. Responses follow from co-editors of the issue, Andrew Roddick and Colleen Morgan.

Lisa-Marie Shillito

It wasn’t until I became a micromorphologist that I understood how beautiful even the most unremarkable bit of earth can be, or that I truly understood context. I’ve previously described thin section micromorphology as ‘excavation under the microscope’ – observing deposits, describing their physical characteristics, determining the stratigraphic relationship between components, and reconstructing the processes by which they have formed (Shillito 2013). The sediments themselves become part of material culture. Produced as they are directly by human activity, understanding their mode of formation can aid in the interpretation of the activities that produced them.

The moment where you peer down the lens of the microscope and a picture comes into focus, you may find yourself glimpsing at that elusive ‘frozen moment in time’, a true single depositional event, preserved for prosperity between layers of glass. The moment where you can see the single layer of paint that was applied to a wall and subsequently covered and covered again; you can see the hand of the person that so carefully replastered and painted those walls over and over. The moment where you look at a sequence of floors and see a layer of fine dust less than 1mm thick that accumulated beneath a mat, the everyday dirt that escaped the fastidious sweeping of floors. Beyond buildings we may see the tell-tale undulations and orientations of particles within soft midden sediments that indicate where a person (or creature) once walked, perhaps taking a short cut to a neighbour over the way or making a rest stop to relieve themselves (we see evidence of that too…).

The closer we look, the more we see; the very process of examining archaeological deposits under the microscope gives a new understanding of the past. It is only by examining deposits at the microscale that you can gain a true understanding of ‘single context’ and how the tiny traces from individual activities combine to form cumulative palimpsests (to use the terminology of Bailey 2007) even in cases where we may think we have a ‘single’ context in the field. That moment you realise that ‘in situ’ is a relative concept, and materials we assume are intact have often undergone a series of post-depositional disturbances that have consequences for how they can be interpreted. At one magnification we may be looking at an event that occurred within a single moment; change magnifications and suddenly the temporal resolution shifts.

The implications of Schiffer’s ideas on formation processes are frustratingly obvious at the microscale. How can we really link that date with that artefact, when even in the same layer some small creature has come along and mixed things up a little? And how do we even know this disturbance has happened without using the microarchaeological eye? These processes occur more often than not, yet without microarchaeology, they may go unrecognised. It has been suggested by Smith (1992) that we cannot isolate and analyse instantaneous occurrences in archaeology and even if we could (as is sometimes the case with micromorphology) how do we decide what to analyse? The picture becomes so complicated I wonder if we can ever have a ‘true’ understanding of the archaeological record. Of course the answer is always, ‘it depends’. We can observe deposits at higher and higher resolutions, but the resolution that is necessary depends on specific research objectives.

Unlike specialisms such as zooarchaeology and lithic analysis where you can handle the bones and stones, pointing to features, however subtle, and explain your interpretations, my speciality lies in the unseen, the hidden worlds, the intangible. Explaining is not as straightforward. Explaining the importance of microarchaeological research and being transparent in how you arrived at an interpretation requires the visual. Under the microscope stratigraphy becomes differentiated, the relationships between components within a deposit become apparent and the mechanisms by which materials ended up in their positions can be directly observed in a way that is simply not possible at the macroscale.

Like single context archaeology, one of microarchaeology’s greatest contributions lies in sites with well-preserved stratigraphy and architectural features (Morgan 2010), and its true value can only come from collaboration between specialisms, and considering the sediment as part of the assemblage along with all the other materials we uncover. The sediments can speak their own stories about people in the past, but they also provide important constraints on the myriad of possible interpretations of other artefact and ecofact assemblages, going some way towards reducing their equifinality. It can be disheartening being the specialist whose greatest contribution is in pointing out the taphonomic problems with a favoured interpretation. Luckily, the beauty of the world under the microscope (mostly) makes up for its frustrations.

Bailey, G. 2007. Time perspectives, palimpsests and the archaeology of time. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, vol 26, no. 2, pp. 198-223.

Colleen, M. 2010. Where is single context archaeology? [blog post] http://middlesavagery.wordpress.com/2010/02/23/where-is-single-context-archaeology/

Matthews, W. 1998. Report on sampling strategies, microstratigraphy and micromorphology of depositional sequences, and associated ethnoarchaeology at Çatalhöyük Çatalhöyük Archive Report. http://www.catalhoyuk.com/archive_reports/1998/ar98_06.html

Schiffer, M.B. 1987. Formation Processes of the Archaeological Record. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque

Shillito, L-M. 2013. Archaeology Under the Microscope. The Post Hole. http://www.theposthole.org/read/article/213

Smith, M.E. 1992. Braudel’s temporal rhythms and chronology theory in archaeology in A. Bernard Knapp (ed) Archaeology, Annales, and Ethnohistory. Cambridge University Press pp.23-34.

Tracing the Past under the Microscope

Andrew Roddick

Lisa Marie’s reflections highlight the analytical quandaries, the frustrations, but also the new interpretive and aesthetic worlds that open up through the microscopic gaze. This exploration of the unseen and intangible might be considered as an exploration of the trace, an archaeological element of an entirely different scale than the impressive houses and mounds at Çatalhöyük. Rosemary Joyce (2006: 15) contrasts the trace, which is subtle and contextual, with the monumental, which are those realms of material culture with external hierarchies of value meant to convey sets of meanings over time.  Joyce argues our job is to work at “rematerializ[ing] traces of practices in the past” (Joyce 2012: 121). Such rematerializing requires the specialized tools, learned techniques, and careful theoretical insight and reflection, all essential to our modern disciplinary practice.

As a ceramicist I have been thinking recently about the relationship between my craft of archaeology and those craft producers in the deeper past who produced the vessels I study, and the traces I follow. Just as potters transformed into clay into a vessel through learned technical practice, the pottery is transformed again as it enters my laboratory. I must first decide which traces of the past I’m interested in following, as this choice will determine the next step of the transformation; the sample must be cut either vertically, horizontally or tangentially, each of which will produce distinct traces.  Each step in following these traces also introduces new problems: Are these micro structural traces evidence of clay mixing, or simply bioturbation? These mundane objects introduce monumental issues at the microscale. But like Lisa Marie, these moments are disrupted by aesthetic appreciation, producing a kind of pause similar to that of a sun setting over an important monumental heritage site. Exhibits by archaeological scientists such as David Killick (http://uanews.org/story/art-and-science-converge-state-museum-exhibit) suggests there may be reason to invite a much larger public to peer down the microscope with us, demonstrating the beauty behind even behind the dirt beneath your mat, or the awe in an old clay pot.

Joyce R. A. 2006. The monumental and the trace: archaeological conservation and the materiality of the past. In Agnew N and Bridgland J (editor) Of the Past, for the Future: Integrating Archaeology and Conservation. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 13-18.

Joyce R. A. 2012. Life With Things: Archaeology and Materiality. In Shankland D (ed.) Archaeology and Anthropology: Past, Present and Future. Proceedings of the British Association of Social Anthropologists. London: Berg Publishers, 119-132.

El tiempo lo aguanta todo by Leyla Cárdenas
El tiempo lo aguanta todo by Leyla Cárdenas

The Microarchaeological Eye

Colleen Morgan

What is a context/archaeological unit? How can archaeologists deal with stratigraphic deposits that are too fine to feel, that disappear under the trowel? I find myself alternately defending the craft of archaeological excavation and now, wondering if field archaeologists are actually equipped to excavate at all. Lisa-Marie Shillito’s microlayers: fingerprints, the stroke of a paintbrush, the dust under the mat, a breath, the barest whisper of a deposit, are terrifyingly ephemeral. How soon until we are able to excavate a painting stroke by stroke, unmaking masterpieces in reverse? Recent work in 3D printing fine art paintings by Tim Zaman may make this possible in the near future.

I spent a few days in January in the company of artists at the Van Eyck Institute as part of NEARCH, and after the lectures were done, we compared art practice and archaeology practice. How are we funded? Who is our audience? This process of making our professions intelligible was fascinating, but now I think we might have missed the main point. Archaeologists are un-doers, unravellers of the skein of time, picking out the stitches, ruining the weft. Perhaps that is why some of us refuse to re-knit the past back together again, it is too personal, we are too inexperienced and can only produce a vague, warped parody of the original.

Still, I think about the gestures involved in unpainting a painting. The tiny, precise swipe of the removal of a stipple. The broad slash, peeling off a jagged stroke. What would the Harris Matrix of a Mondrian look like? Squares and lines and red on black? Would the reverse-Pollock matrix be a tangled cloud? How does our arcane, chronologic, geography of a site describe and inscribe the parameters of human action?

One of the artists, Leyla Cárdenas at the Jan Van Eyck Academy specialized in a kind of microstratigraphic excavation. She peeled apart layers of paint, pried apart wallpaper to make an exploded stratigraphy of sites. She is interested in palimpsest, in sections sawed through art. I wonder if there is a microarchaeological movement in art?

CFPo: The Senses and Aesthetics of Archaeological Science


Archaeological science is a critical area of current archaeological practice. Analyses of ancient DNA from the teeth of long-dead ancestors, isotopes found in the remains of broken pottery, and the chemical signatures from flakes of obsidian are radically altering our understanding of the past. Unlike the pervasive fieldwork-based narrative of archaeology, these major discoveries take place far away from the trenches in the clean, well-lit laboratories of major academic institutions. Yet these discoveries are no less impactful, causing in some cases radical shifts in the kinds of stories we tell. Indeed the archaeological scientist is, much like the fieldworker, engaged in the craft of archaeology (sensu Shanks and McGuire 1996).

In this issue of Then Dig we explore encounters with the past in the context of archaeological science. From the abstract expressionist appreciation of ceramic thin sections, to the treasure hunt for phytoliths under a microscope, to the severe precautionary costumes of the Clean Room, we investigate the aesthetic, the multisensorial, and the profound in archaeological science.

Authors might reflect on how the centering of the micro-scale and the abstract are brought to bear, and how the interplay between scientist and materials present the unexpected. We also encourage contributors to consider the embodied moments of lab work and discuss those findings that produce visceral reactions and new understandings of the past.


Dr. Andrew Roddick, McMaster University
Dr. Colleen Morgan, University of York

Submissions of no more than 750 words are due June 1st. Submissions in the form of images, music, video, and other multimedia are welcomed with full-throated enthusiasm. Your submission will be subjected to open peer review before being posted on Then Dig.

Please send your submissions to: colleen.morgan@york.ac.uk

Laboratory at the Museum of Natural History, University of Oregon, 1966

Laboratory at the Museum of Natural History (now the Museum of Natural and Cultural History), University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon (USA) 1966
Laboratory at the Museum of Natural History, University of Oregon, 1966

I’ve been looking to use one of John Atherton’s photos for a while. He has a lot of photos of archaeologists at work in both the USA and Africa. I chose this one as it gives me a sense of peering into the past.

I’m not entirely sure what we have this week, but I can say we have something on Korean archaeology tomorrow from Martin Bale and Mark Byington tomorrow. It also has an excellent photo of archaeologists at work. If all goes well I’ll also have a reliable broadband connection from tomorrow, which could revolutionise how I use the internet – like I’ll be able to use the internet and chase up emails.

Photo: Laboratory at the Museum of Natural History (now the Museum of Natural and Cultural History), University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon (USA) 1966 by John Atherton. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-SA licence.