A Political Economy of Visual Media in Archaeology

Shanks, Michael and Webmoor, Timothy (2010) A Political Economy of Visual Media in Archaeology. In: Bonde, Sheila and Houston, Stephen, (eds.) Re-presenting the Past: archaeology through image and text. Brown University Press, Providence, RI, USA, pp. 87-110.


Archaeology abounds in visual media, both media artifacts from the past, as well as means of documenting and studying those artifacts. Classic and long-established approaches to visual media include iconography and iconology (semantics and the identification of visual content), semiotics (the systems and structures of communication, signification and meaning), as well as graphics, cartography, planning and charting (communicative efficacy, the geometry of 2D to 3D translation, and information compression.
We shift emphasis in this paper away from communication, iconology, and visuality per se, the content and structure of imagery, toward the way visuality works in archaeology, from visual media as material forms (graphics, maps, photographs) to the work that visual media perform in archaeology. Along the way we present a criticism of the stress placed in much discussion of visual media on their representational qualities, that is, their fidelity to what they are taken to represent, to their mimetic qualities and their degree of correspondence to what is represented.
It is not that we consider such inquiry to be wrong, but rather that communication and meaning are often secondary functions of media. Ironically, what often matters most about visual media, we would claim, is not what they represent, but the way they fit into archaeological work on the remains of the past. In this development of McLuhan’s old adage that it is the medium that matters, we focus attention on practice and discourse, drawing particularly on the field of science and technology studies (STS). This emphasis upon the way images work is why we term our interest one in the political economy of visual media—recovering the work done by visual media in archaeology through networks of production, distribution and consumption. This leads us to identify some of the implications of new digital media, not for more spectacular summations of data about the past or photorealistic simulations, but as open fora for the co-production of pasts that matter now and for visions of future commmunity.

Item Type: Book Section
Subject(s): Science & technology management
Centre: Institute for Science, Innovation and Society
Related URLs:
Date Deposited: 19 Jul 2010 12:55
Last Modified: 23 Oct 2015 14:05
URI: http://eureka.sbs.ox.ac.uk/id/eprint/328

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