A student post from Rosemary Hanson, an archaeology masters student at the University of Glasgow, MSc Material Culture and Artefact Studies.
During the first few months of 2020, I undertook a project of archaeological illustration for a number of small stone tools held by the Hunterian Museum as part of a masters degree in Archaeology through the University of Glasgow.
Illustration in archaeology goes back to the very beginnings of the discipline – back when the only way to record an object was to draw it. These days, photography and 3D modelling have allowed us to produce more accurate images of archaeological material than ever. But even with these new technological advances, archaeologists still illustrate objects. To understand why, I’d like to show you one of my favourite items in The Hunterian stores: a tiny flint scraper.
At first glance, this little tool seems fairly underwhelming. It is a small flint scraper that has been struck from the end of a flint nodule. Yet it is a perfect candidate for illustration for three reasons: it is small, it is colourful, and it is covered in archaeological markings.
First, there is the issue of size. This little scraper is tiny! It is about 3x5cm and looks miniscule in my already small hands. Because it is so small, it is very difficult to see the detail around the edges, even in person. I had to sit with a powerful magnifying glass for hours just to make out the tiny notches around the edges – some as small as a millimetre. Yet it is these details that usually interest archaeologists: they provide valuable information about how the object was made and used. Illustration allows you to both zoom in and highlight these elements. With a good illustration, the next archaeologist need not squint and strain, and the artefact itself can stay safely stowed the museum storage.
Second, one of the charms of this little tool is also one of its major drawbacks. The material of the scraper is a beautiful brownish-orange colour that makes it stand out in its packaging. One of the surprises of archaeology is how colourful and beautiful flint can be. It naturally occurs in a wide range of colours: from purple to cream to deep, deep red. Then, as it is exposed to the air, it develops a patina: changing from a glossy to a chalky, milky colour. But while this rainbow of stone is wonderful to look at, it also makes details very difficult to see. In this little scraper, the colours in the stone hide the notches and make interpretation difficult. But in illustration, you can add or subtract colour as you need it. Illustrating in black and white may take away some of the vibrancy of the material, but it also makes the production detail much clearer.
Finally, like most archaeological material, this little scraper has been marked by its interactions with heritage professionals. Not only has it been labelled in ink on the front and back, but it has also been painted with a clear varnish. Both the marking and varnish were applied to make sure that the scraper never lost its identifying information. Yet because it is so small, this marking covers significant space on the scraper itself. Removing these markings might damage the tool or leave it susceptible to loss. Illustration allows for the object to be “cleaned” without ever having to get the sponge. Through illustration, we can “rewind” the material life of the object: seeing how it looked when it first came out of the ground.
But my favourite reason to illustrate this little scraper is not to clarify form and production, but to appreciate the object itself. I can slow down and really look at this little tool from so long ago: to admire the skill it took to make it and the beauty of its form. It is a reminder to myself as an archaeologist to stop and admire the little things: to celebrate the art that fits in the palm of my hand.