Lifting the lid… an art history perspective

Happy New Year! The first post of 2017 is written by guest blogger Nathan Geyer, a second year undergraduate History of Art student from St Catherine’s College . Nathan has been working with HEIR on an internship placement. It has been fascinating to see the synergy between art history and the archives here at the Institute of Archaeology…

Like most archives, the basement of the Institute of Archaeology at Oxford is full of boxes. When I arrived, I was given my own box to assess, digitize, and research. The mystery box, recently given to the archive by the Ashmolean Museum’s Cast Gallery, contained various glass plate lantern slides with a range of images, mostly showing classical sculpture of Greece and Rome. Grouped together in a single box, these slides provide a disparate snapshot of the idea of antiquity and classical art history taught at Oxford University in the late 19th century, most probably having been projected in lectures for students of classics.

Whilst some of the objects photographed in these images were canonical relics of antiquity quite familiar to me (the Parthenon Marbles, the Moschophoros etc.), others were less so, and have proved themselves to be somewhat enigmatic. Abstracted from their original pedagogic context, these slides have taken on a degree of visual autonomy, and leafing through them, all the information I had to depend upon was the fragmentary textual labels and defunct catalogue numbers. The mystery of these objects intrigued me, as they often seemed to break away from the idea of archaeological photography as evidence in positivistic historical narratives, and towards a kind of aesthetic archaeology, as I discovered new visual experiences in the photographic archive.

Perhaps the most compelling mystery was this image, labelled ‘Naukratis, flute player’:


This textual information is significantly more substantial than many of the other photos in the box, and I was consequently sent on a paper trail that allowed me to situate the photographed artefact in several different places in time and space. First, that of the Greek-Egyptian settlement of Naukratis in the Nile Delta from which the object was discovered, where it was probably made in late 6th century BC. Secondly, the time of its discovery in the late 19th century, as part of the numerous excavations at Naukratis following its discovery by Flinders Petrie in 1884. Outside of these two historical space-times is the object’s real location today, in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology in London, which I was able to identify by comparing the image in Oxford with photographs taken by the Petrie Museum and the British Museum respectively.

Compared with these images, the Oxford photograph pales in comparison as regards to detail and clarity, yet in spite of this, it was made into a lantern slide, and was consequently deemed of good enough quality to teach with. Whilst this possibly demonstrates the difficulty of access to images and artefacts for academics during the late 19th/early 20th century when the slide was made, today, the online image databases of the British Museum and Petrie Museum are easily accessible, and we might perhaps question the use of such antiquated photographs. Yet, the image at the Institute of Archaeology, Oxford is arguably far more fascinating, as an invaluable trace of photographic and archaeological history in itself.

Rather than seeing a photograph like this solely as an analogue for the artefact photographed, its wealth of interest lies in its visual status as a physical object in a box in the archive, and as a digital image where the rephotography process enables us to see it in great detail, exploring and relishing in its beauty and imperfections. I find the ‘ghost images’ created by the juddering camera during the long exposure time quite extraordinary to look at, and the soft contours and undulating shades of pale grey are equally evocative, as they statuette almost takes on the appearance of an apparition, emanating light.

flute-player-head-copyDespite the fact the photographer would have presumably not anticipated these aesthetic effects, we cannot ignore their presence before our eyes, and should acknowledge and confront their affect upon us as viewers in the archive. Furthermore, considering how these photographic effects would have impacted upon the students’ and professors’ experience of the image in projections is an intriguing question, which we can only guess at.

What I can feel more secure in describing is how the image has affected me, and what it has recalled as I have looked and thought about it. Strangely, what the image evokes for me personally is neither ancient civilisation in Egypt or Greece, nor early photography, but abstract art, specifically Josef Albers’ series of paintings Homage to the Square, as the effect of the multi-layered overexposure is a remarkable precedent to Albers’ experiments with nested squares and restricted colour palettes.

flute%20player%20pedestal-copyIn spite of the fact that Albers (probably) never saw this image, nor was the unknown photographer trying to explore the aesthetic qualities of the square (at least as far as I am aware), I feel that denying such visual evocations, however historically incongruous, would be dishonest, as they are an essential part of the archival experience. By lifting the lid of the box from the Ashmolean, the photographs were allowed to escape into my imagination, entering into a field of free associations, marking new origin points of historical, geographic and (more unexpectedly) aesthetic journeys. It’s worth having a look through these boxes.

Nathan Geyer, January, 2017

Further Reading

Petrie 1886. W.M. Flinders Petrie. Naukratis I, 1884-5. London

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