During the middle of the 19th century photography became integral to scientific observation. Photography was thought to be capable of providing detailed, accurate and objective depictions of whatever was in front of the camera, giving science a totally transparent window on reality. Today, however, critics and art historians have learnt to deconstruct the easily-doctored pictorial and semiotic devices that constitute a photograph. For some time now, photography’s pretensions to scientific objectivity have been under scrutiny. Within the discipline of visual studies there now seems to be a general consensus as to the heuristic and epistemological limits of documentary images. It is accepted that they are incapable of faithfully recording any but a few superficial dimensions of reality. Images that pretend to illustrate nature or reality are nowadays often viewed as little more than subjective interpretations of a constructed and arbitrary vision prescribed by some unacknowledged political, institutional or ideological agenda.
Archaeologists are also questioning the objective pretensions of photography in relation to their own methods of research and documentation (Shanks 1997). In this article I discuss the particular form of representation known as a ‘reconstruction’ – better known in French as une reconstitution. The reconstruction procedure is the final stage of the archaeologist’s work and has the aim not only of documenting data relating to the dig in question but also of summarising and putting into perspective any general conclusions the archaeologist may have arrived at concerning the anatomy and/or social structure of the people whose culture is being investigated. Reconstruction images are linked to the science’s obligation to communicate and therefore require a certain professional sacrifice on the part of the scientist. The scientist must modify his or her specialist discourse and, working essentially as an amateur, must employ a popular communication medium (visual/plastic representation) in the public arena. The images I discuss are photographic images which attempt to document, via reconstruction, the morphology of prehistoric human subjects. They are of two main categories, being photographs of either (a) real people disguised as prehistoric people, or (b) dermoplastic silicon sculptures of prehistoric people. In both cases, the photographic image may be aimed either at entertaining or at informing the viewer, and sometimes both.
Associating photography and the study of prehistory may seem a little odd. However, the ambition of both practices is to document events in time. The prehistorian (or palaeontologist or palaeo-anthropologist) collects scientific evidence for events that probably occurred and it is his or her business to construct images of a probable past scenarios. The photographer, also, selects a historical time frame to document and capture – not a distant and hypothetical past, but a present that will, in the future, become the past. His or her work consists of fabricating proof of a particular perceived moment in reality. Although the photographer does not need to reconstruct his or her subject matter, both photographer and prehistorian attempt to fix a moment in time. The primary temporal dimension for the photographer could be thought to be the immediate present and that of the prehistorian, the distant past. In fact, both reflect a specific asynchronous historical present where the present and the past coexist.
The term ‘historical present’ refers here to the truism that all present moments become historical in time. Ultimately history is all-encompassing and it is logical that each present moment, each micro or macro event, eventually becomes ingurgitated by the tentacles of time. Each historical document, in contrast to the prehistorical document, is fabricated in a particular moment of time by a certain human intention and is constrained to operate inside or alongside a certain conceptual paradigm that is linked to a historically relative socio-cultural environment. Neither historians nor the illustrators of prehistoric peoples can avoid making moral judgments; indeed, they ought to make them. But they should be aware of their biases, and write or document history in such a way that their biases do not create a distorted depiction of the past. History is as much engaged with documenting the present as it is with documenting the past. It presupposes a form of (necessary; we discuss why later) presentism.
Prehistorians and photographers both teach us about history, about how to write history, by fossilising memories in a visual form. They recreate probable scenes and scenarios, and probable environments, portraits and social contexts and help people retain a sense of continuity with the past – and thus retain a sense of social cohesion and identity. Indeed, ‘documenting reality’ is a murky business. Yet it is perhaps the approximative nature of the artist’s non-verifiable decision-making that makes the scenes become meaningful to us.
The term prehistoric photography, as a name for photographs of reconstructions of prehistoric people, deliberately implies anachronism. The term anachronism became popular among French image theorists around the year 2000, when Georges-Didi Huberman published the book Devant le temps: Histoire de l’art et anachronisme des images. In this work, Huberman suggests that historical images can be analysed from a contemporary perspective, in which the historian does not pretend to be immersed in the original context in which the work was created but consciously analyses each image with the tools and experience of the present. Indeed, a great number of reconstruction images of prehistoric man reflect the socio-cultural environment in which they were made more than a putative prehistoric reality. During the course of this article I discuss a) the subject of ‘deep time’ (Ridwick 1992), b) reconstructed portraits of prehistoric human beings, and c) photography’s important role in the fabrication of images of our primordial, archetypal ancestor, prehistoric man. In the process, I will discuss a change in the western perception of time, a change due mainly to the geologist’s discovery that the Earth is considerably more ancient than had been thought.
Prehistory and photography are both fields in which elements of science (observation and deduction) and fiction (speculation and aesthetics) are juxtaposed. Both were invented in the mid-19th century and both provide new, almost infinite, possibilities for the imagination. And prehistory and photography both reflect the naïve beliefs about time and the earth’s duration that were entertained during the 19th century – an era when the ideology of progress from the simple to the complex (an essentially linear schema inherited by the naturalist Lamarck) held sway. The conception of geological time was to drastically modify the notion of duration, as was the notion of immediate time in the case of photography.
A new perception of time
The metaphor of time as an arrow has exercised a profound influence on Western thinking (see Gould 1988). Seen as a product of a teleological schema, a specific origin culminating in a specific end, time is conceptualised as irreversible. It can host only unrepeatable historical events. In this mode of representing time, each moment occupies its own place in a temporal series. To tell the history of a particular extended event, all the relevant moments must be taken in a particular sequence, and analysed as tending in a determined direction. This concept of directional accumulative time, as opposed to cyclic time, was to prove triumphant for the scientific ideology of progress.
During the middle of the 19th century, notably with the works of the French amateur archaeologist Boucher de Perthes, a major conceptual revolution was underway. It was to permanently alter our perception of time. What changed our notion of time forever was the discovery of geological time. The discovery of a deep pre-historic forced the realisation that the first Man and Woman (Adam and Eve) were perhaps not created by God at nine o’clock in the morning 4004 BC – as was predicted by the Irish priest James Ussher (1581-1656) – and that human beings and all other living creatures were subject to far greater and more ancient temporal forces. It took a major intellectual leap, for example, to accept the fact that animals now extinct were once contemporary with ancient humans (Jockey 1999: 88).
Another important contributing factor in this modification of the Western conception of time was the invention of photography. From then on, any moment in time could be captured instantly, and in incredible detail, enabling depictions that the written word could only envy. The speed in which perceived reality could be transcribed with a camera was also vastly superior to that which any draughtsman was capable of. One of the immediate practical uses of photography was the recording of ancient inscriptions. Photography was notably praised for the amount of time it was able to economise (Bajac 2001). In 1839, Dominique François Arago, an advocate of the new Daguerre apparatus, notes the ease with which millions of Egyptian hieroglyphics could be recorded photographically: such a mass of visual data would otherwise take decades and legions of draughtsman to document. In this same inaugural presentation of photography to the French Academy of Sciences, Arago speaks of the daguerreotype as being a radically new form of image, symbolising an alliance between art and science.
Since the Frenchman Désiré Charnay obtained approval to photograph the archaeological site le mena in Mexico during the winter of 1859-1860, the photographic image has been used as a scientific instrument for documenting archaeological discoveries. During the first half of the 19th century, when historical painting was fashionable, historical events were usually reconstructed, in more or less romantic style, by painters. With the advent of photography, archaeological findings were recorded in photographic form and then subsequently incorporated back into the prevailing culture of history painting. History painting acquired a certain pretensions to ‘objective realism’ with this utilisation of photography (fig.1).
Moustier habitant five thousand years ago.
Tursac, collection Bernard
Although it was assumed in the past that the archaeological photograph is a transparent window into a historical reality, this rhetorical given is being revaluated today. It is now evident to those working in the field of archaeological documentation that there is no natural relationship between reality and its representation:
“Looking and the means of its record, are always situated. They are from a particular viewpoint, it can be argued, and techniques help constitute particular attitudes to the objects of record and note, particular relations between subject and object positions.” (Shanks 1997: 76)
The beginning of the 19th century saw considerable interest develop concerning ancient monuments, documents and other relics. The heuristic status of archaeological objects began to change. Out of a context of classical archaeology, in which the document represented a simple verification of the status quo, national archaeology began to form a new identity by analysing documents in themselves and not solely in relation to the ancient, pre-scientific, classical discourse. Where classical archaeology was to confirm or inform the speculative literature accumulated since the Antiquity, national archaeology was to bypass it and concentrate on unearthing new documents and materials at specific sites within local national boundaries. In this context of a renewed interest in ancient documents and monuments – including, notably, the then recently discovered relics of Ancient Egypt – European nation states each created their own origin myth, justified via the apparent objectivity of archaeology (Trigger 1996).
Just as the photograph was believed to constitute objective proof of a reality in the recent past, the archaeological document was believed to be objective proof of reality in the distant past. However, it is now recognised that neither photographs nor descriptions of archaeological relics can ever be purely disinterested and objective. Ideological and nationalist factors often motivate both kinds of ‘scientific’ documentation. It is interesting to note, for example, that many of the archaeological expeditions to Egypt – beginning in 1849 with the first photographically illustrated manual of Egyptian antiquities from the Middle East by Maxime du Camp (1822-1894): Egypte Nubie, Palestine et Syrie (1852) – were financed by the Louvre and by the British Museum. These expeditions represent institutionalised international piracy more convincingly than they represent the advancement of science. The photographs of exotic far-away places were evidently an important factor in the constitution of the romantic aesthetic establishing the poetics of ruins, where entire civilisations were imagined to have been destroyed by the ravages of time.
The new concepts of time and of history that geology and archaeology introduced during the 19th century were also evident in the practice of photography, especially as it related to scientific research. The new way of looking at time had originated in a secular political model, in which the Church and the State were to be disentangled and where scientific research was, ideally, to acquire a form of autonomy.
History of archaeological digs and ‘reconstruction’
The first clues as to humanity’s extreme age were found by the English farmer John Frere, who in 1797, whilst extracting clay for the fabrication of bricks, discovered numerous flint stones lying amongst bones of extinct animals. Frere claimed that he had found weapons of an ancient civilisation that had not yet discovered metal and wrote an account of the discovery. However, he was not taken seriously. In 1820 the German palaeontologist Friedrich von Schlotheim found human teeth also associated with the bones of extinct animals and, like Frere, inferred the existence of an extremely ancient race of men. However, the scientific authority of the time, the Frenchman Georges Cuvier, refused to acknowledge his observations and, under much public pressure due to the revolutionary nature of what he was suggesting, Schlotheim gave up and withdrew his claims.
Later, in 1830, the Belgian doctor and anatomist Philippe-Charles Schmerling published the results of archaeological digs undertaken near Liege, beside the river Meuse. The digs had uncovered the remains of at least three human individuals of an unusual type that is known today as Neanderthal. He was not taken seriously either. However, despite these early failures, the profound antiquity of Man would eventually (in 1844) be proved by Boucher de Perthes, a French amateur archaeologist, in his book Antiquités Celtiques et antédiluviens. Once the flint tools associated with the bones of the extinct animals had been analysed, Perthes was able to show that ‘antediluvian’ man had lived in a world quite different from the one we know today (Cohen & Hublin 1999).
From this time on, prehistory took hold of the public imagination and great efforts were made to display archaeological finds and communicate archaeological theories. Images, photographic images in particular, began to play a very important part in the popularisation of prehistory, as they do to this day. During the second half of the 19th century it became fashionable for the many amateur prehistorians (mostly doctors) to be photographed posing triumphantly, as pioneers in the field, beside archaeological sites.
One of the first genuinely scientific studies into the morphology of prehistoric man was published by Gabrielle de Mortillet in 1883. It was based on his examination of the remains of a Neanderthal skeleton found in the Spy cave in Belgium. Prior to this, however, many popular representations of prehistoric man had been circulated and, by the time Mortillet released his scientific paper, an image of the Neanderthal (and prehistoric man in general) as a savage beast was firmly embedded in the public mind (Trinkaus & Shipman 1993). Since the late 19th century, there have been two distinct trends regarding reconstruction images of prehistoric man. One of these trends is in the direction of fantasising and mythologising for purposes of entertainment and, perhaps, ideology. The other trend is dedicated to the accurate documentation and communication of scientific data. However, even though the two types of images have different aims, they are nevertheless closely interrelated (Moser 1999).
One of the things that made George Cuvier famous was his numerous reconstructions of the anatomies of fossil animals, partial or complete skeletons of which were often at that time (in the early days of industrialisation) being discovered by accident – for instance, during the construction of roadways and quarries. Cuvier had the reputation of being able to recreate, solely from one fragment of bone, the entire anatomy of an extinct animal. He called his method ‘comparative anatomy’. The ‘reconstruction’ technique had been previously introduced by Voltaire in a famous passage in his 1745 novel Zadig. In this passage, Voltaire describes his main character Zadig deducing, solely from the footprints a dog had left on the forest floor, that the animal had just given birth. Zadig is able to infer, in addition, that the dog in question has long ears and a limp. All this information is derived from a few footprints (Voltaire 1997: 54). The idea is that Cuvier can, like the fictional Zadig, logically deduce anatomical features from extremely sparse bodily or skeletal remnants. The notion that a special logical and/or scientific procedure is in operation here is used as a narrative device in all of the ‘sciences of the past’. It helps rationalise the spectator’s inevitable tendency to imaginatively fill in gaps, left by the archaeologist, relating to the morphologies and environments of ancient life forms. Logical deduction is assumed to be employed by the prehistorian in much the same way as it is employed by the detective – represented in the public mind by the fictional Sherlock Holmes – who seeks to reconstruct a particular series of past events in order to solve a crime.
The above photograph, an extremely naïve reconstruction of a prehistoric woman, is engaging for many reasons. It is one of a series of 35 stereoscopes, approximately 5cm x 10cm, designed to be seen through a small light box at eye level. In addition to the easily visible boat ramp, the necklace and the archer’s bow are ridiculously anachronistic. The photograph has few pretensions to be communicating scientific data; it is merely adapting yet another exotic frame to that ever-popular subject matter, the female nude. Visitors to the Paris salon, where this photograph and others of the same series were displayed, commented on the ‘curious’ nature of the images. The photographs were subsequently reproduced in a popular health journal of the time, in an article describing the classical female body (Busch 2003). There is something noticeably academic about this particular prehistoric nude. The majority of the images Lemoin created were images of ideal women in Greek or Oriental settings – reconstructed in accord with the prevailing romanticised eroticism. This series of stereoscopes is unique among Lemoin’s photographs in imagining a Gallic version of the ideal. Here, prehistoric woman was idealised – unlike prehistoric man, who was seen essentially as a savage brute. Many paintings and photographs of the late 19th and early 20th century had prehistoric subject matters. However, even though several major prehistoric sites were unearthed around that time, these paintings and photographs were not attempting to communicate and popularise archaeological information. Their aim was, rather, to construct a ‘prehistoric imagination’ that was either eroticised or Romanesque.
Indeed, representations of prehistoric men and women were intertwined in the fabric of the socio-political imaginary. As we have suggested above, the scientific and popular interest in archaeology and prehistory, especially during the 19th century, is inextricably related to the construction of modern nation states. Through the reconstructions of ‘stone age’ or ‘bronze age’ civilisations a sentiment of national hegemony was cultivated. Archaeology and prehistory are associated with ancestry and with the belief that ‘our people’ have been around for ages, if not eternally. This belief, privileging sedentary (profound) forms of human existence as opposed to nomadic (superficial) forms, is a modality for creating national pride and a sense of long-term belonging to a specific territory.
Contemporary prehistoric photography
This sense of nationalist pride as evoked by certain reconstructions of the 19th century has today changed slightly and become less visible. However it seems that reconstructions’ role as ‘identity markers’ remains constant. The fragile unity of the nation is perhaps making way for the fragile unity of the human being as a central subject of investigation by contemporary social science (For a contemporary philosophical argument as to the end of the ideology of the superiority of humans over the animal kingdom see Schaeffer 2007.
Archaeologists help society to construct a sense of long-term belonging – not only to particular territories but also to the human species, Homo sapiens sapiens. Scientific reconstructions today are often communicated by the photographic image, be they stills from recent big-budget docu-dramas with actors playing prehistoric people or photographs of painstakingly-crafted dermo-plastic silicon sculptures. The French artist Elizabeth Daynes is generally considered to be the premier European specialist amongst a very small number of reconstruction artists creating these hypernaturalistic prehistoric figures. As well as undertaking commissions for sculptural installations in natural history museums around the world, Daynes is also in demand as a supplier of photographs of the sculptures. The photographs are widely reproduced in popular science magazines, including National Geographic.
Elizabeth Daynes, Lucien, l’Australopithèque
Daynes began her career as a theatre and cinema make-up artist and costumier. In 1988 she was commissioned by the Thot prehistory museum in France to reconstruct a life-size mammoth and a group of Magdalenian people. Her passion for prehistoric subjects grew from there. Daynes utilises computer-enhanced 3D modelling techniques. Her meeting French forensic anthropologist Dr Jean-Noël Vignal, and being introduced by him to computer-based forensic reconstruction techniques, was a turning point in her career. She begins her reconstruction projects with a computer-generated ‘portrait robot’ (a 3D identikit image) that is given to her by an archaeological scientist. The morphological features of her reconstruction must be scrupulously faithful to this prototype portrait robot.
However, the robot image is impersonal, expressionless and inert and, to this extent, unrealistic. Her job as an artist is to put a soul into these blank faces and postureless bodies, to give the robot a plausible human identity. She gives the impersonal robot image a skin colour, hair, lips and eyes – and a bodily posture and facial expression. Like Cuvier, she brings the dead back to life. Daynes sees her work as being complete the moment the reconstruction ‘speaks’ to her.
The scientist cannot possibly know, or even surmise or speculate about, things as arbitrary and fundamentally unknowable as eye colour or body position – he or she must remain noncommittal in regard to such details of appearance. However, the artist has ‘a license to resurrect’. Within reason, he or she may speculate as much as he or she likes. The artist’s job is to go where the scientist is forbidden to go – to insert a realistic persona and life-force into the morally vacant identikit. In order for the public to fully appreciate the scientific and archaeological findings, the image the artist arrives at must be natural, believable and compelling – such as to require a psychological interpellation, an empathic response, from the viewer.
Works of scientific fiction
The image we perceive via the ‘photography of prehistoric persons’ medium exists as a specific form of ‘scientific’ fiction. Although the majority of recent reconstructions, such as those of Elizabeth Daynes, are based on fact, on scientific data, it is impossible to recreate plausibly human-like images of our distant past ancestors without a certain amount of unverifiable speculation. Even though the speculation is educated or informed and the unknown variables are restricted to as few as possible, fictional devices must be employed to gain contact with the spectator. Ultimately, it is these fictional devices that enable us to communicate with the prehistoric time-travellers, to perceive them as fellow human beings. If a reconstruction sculpture based only on a few scattered and fragmented fossils and footprints is to be credible as a document it should, according to Jorge Wagensberg:
“…be scientifically compatible with the available reality, technically updated in terms of materials and methods, artistically likely to combine beauty with facial expression revealing a certain mood, and finally, it should convey an emotion within a museum context” (Wagensberg 2007 : 24)
In her innovative study, Narratives of Human Evolution, Misia Landau (1991)uncovers a hidden level of agreement among theories of human evolution – an agreement that, she argues, is based on the common narrative of the universal ‘hero’ tale, with homo sapiens in the hero role in the modern scientific version. Inspired by Vladimir Propp’s 1928 classic, Morphology of the Folktale, Landau analyses the social dimensions of the theories of 19th and 20th century scientists such as Thomas Huxley, Arthur Keith and Charles Darwin. He demonstrates that their theories of humanisation or ‘becoming human’ share common threads with story telling – notably, their conformity to the same mythic archetypes and narrative patterns. However, we are not analysing the scientist’s theoretical writings but rather the pictorial representations that the scientist, working with an illustrator, constructs. Reconstruction images of prehistoric peoples are pregnant with ideas reflecting the theories that bring them to life. They have a sometimes uncanny ability to coerce the spectator into believing what he or she is viewing.
The concept of depicting prehistoric life or prehistoric man photographically is clearly anachronistic, yet at the end of the 19th century, during the ‘prehistory boom’, it was common practice. In my account, the key to understanding reconstruction images of prehistoric man is to be simultaneously immersed in the prehistoric past and in the contemporary present. Only if we do this can the images ‘speak’ to us; they become relevant to us today and are therefore more easily interiorised. As many of these representations illustrate our own distant ancestors, it is important that a perceptual and phenomenological dialogue should occur that permits the spectator to identify with the prehistoric subject. The spectator must at the same time see both analogies and differences encompassed in the anatomic and psychological properties of each figure. Naturalistic images of prehistoric subjects are often difficult for the public consumer: although the theory of evolution has been partly digested, the idea that humans are also animals is still difficult to stomach for a certain percentage of society. The reasons for this mostly revolve around the anthropocentricity of humans. We find it difficult to accept that there is no ontological rupture between humans and animals. Whether it be because of our language, art, bipedialism, religion (a soul) or what have you, we are accustomed to placing ourselves at the top of the great chain of being (Schaeffer 2007, Descola 2006). The anachronism inherent in the concept of prehistoric photography is actually helpful for the contemporary spectator – enabling him to project our modern humanity onto humanlike creatures of long ago.
Elizabeth Daynes, Neandertal et la compassion
Photographs of prehistoric men (and a few women), very similar in nature to those created over a hundred years ago, are common today. They appear to us on the covers of popular scientific journals, each photograph purporting to personify a particular archetypical primeval man and pretending to have genuine scientific status. These images teach us who we are by telling us where we came from. They help us to understand the historical present through an interrogation of the architecture of documentary and informational images. The apparent objective realism of photography helps create the illusion of an effet du reel and, although we know it is impossible to photograph a prehistoric scene, we still believe this is what we are seeing. The photographic image provides a method of hypernaturalism necessary to convince the public of the truth of the evolution story and the reality of our common ancestry with the great apes.
Hypernaturalism is as much a belief (an ideology) as it is a tendency or a movement. Precision, clarity and detail are characteristics of this representational tendency. All of these are visual strategies the author uses in order to take the spectator on a perceptual journey. Furthermore, the above scenario is analogous with our understanding of the visible world: if something is not ‘clear’, be it idea or thing, it is more difficult to grasp. The form of scientific representation we are discussing here, reconstruction, is logically ‘realistic’ or more precisely ‘naturalistic’. An ‘abstract’ visual scientific reconstruction of a prehistoric figure is inconceivable. Naturalism as a representative strategy is inherent in the language of this kind of scientific imagery; it is witness to the objective realism the images aspire to.
Strange as it may seem, there are many correspondences between photography and prehistory. ‘Traces’ are the subject matter of both paleoanthropology and of documentary photography. This paper has drawn attention to some important ways in which time is relevant to the concept of photography – relevancies which have for the most part been ignored by contemporary photography critics. It is our claim here that the coincidence of the advent of photography and the invention of the idea of prehistory and geological time is important for both photography and archaeology. In the course of the paper I have attempted to illustrate the numerous temporal and epistemological assumptions inherent in photographs of prehistoric figures. These images help publicise and communicate scientific data. Even if they are heuristically limited in that they cannot represent prehistoric times (or any particular prehistoric moment) in a purely objective manner, they nevertheless exist as lenses, helping us to perceive and understand the historical present as well as humanity’s ever-complex phylogenetic time-line.
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