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Review: The Archaeology of Seeing

5 mins read

The Archaeology of Seeing: science and interpretation, the past and contemporary visual art
Liliana Janik

Routledge, £34.99
ISBN 978-0367360221
Review by: George Nash

We, as modern humans, tend to look at ancient art with a 21st-century mindset. It is all too easy to stare (in wonder) at Palaeolithic rock art and conceive some idea, however complex, and consider it to be a plausible interpretation. In recent times, a handful of researchers have begun to deconstruct ancient art using a variety of scientific and social-science-based approaches, including pigment analysis, figurative perspective, the role of the surface topography, and the use of formal and informed analysis, to name but a few. Context could involve landscape, the components within it, or the site in which the art is located; it could also include the intimate relationship between artist and audience. Arguably, art forms part of a much wider gamut that includes performance and narrative, with the execution of the art being part of the process of transmitting messages through visual display.

This book is organised into seven chapters, the first of which asks the fundamental question: how contemporary is prehistoric art? Drawing from a number of contemporary artists, such as Damien Hirst, and from Upper Palaeolithic art, such as the mammoths of Grotte de Rouffignac and the animated animal scenes of Chauvet Cave, Janik provides analogies and suggests that nothing in terms of the underlying mechanisms associated with art has changed. The second chapter (‘The origins of art’) focuses on visual perception: how we – the audience, the onlookers – view artistic endeavour. This chapter provides a theoretical approach to perception using a variety of contemporary works of art, including stencilled street-art by Banksy and installation art by Tracey Emin.

In Chapter 3 (‘The gallery: unveiling visual narrative’), Janik discusses the way ancient artists used 2D images (that is, engravings on to rock) and made them into sequential narratives; the act of seeing the image and understanding how they contributed to story-telling established an intimate connection between the story-teller and the audience. The following chapter (‘The power of display: the artist and the object’) deals with the current debate of when did early (archaic) humans start to think and behave like modern humans? For this fundamental question, Janik regards the fragmentary artistic remains as one of the mechanisms for the change in behaviour (that is, the evidence of abstract and cognitive thought). Included within the stimulating discussion are artefacts from Blombos Cave in South Africa and perforated shell goods from Neanderthal deposits within Denisova Cave in eastern Russia. Also discussed are the body tattoos from the burial sites of Pazyryk in the Altai Mountains and on contemporary figures such as David Beckham! Clearly, both examples display personal meanings and have significance to their owners.

In Chapter 5 (‘Embodiment and disembodiment: the corporality of visual art and interwoven landscapes’), Janik debates how art fits within the social and cultural world using the iconography of Christianity and of Upper Palaeolithic and later prehistoric figurines to highlight the grammar of art (semiotics) through gender and perception. The penultimate chapter (‘Portraiture and the reverence of the other’) discusses the self and the perception of the self as expressed in portraiture and sculpture. This fascinating and accessible book then concludes with a short chapter on the various discussions in the main text, looking at the relationship between artistic concepts, the completed art form, the artist, the meaning, and the people who consume it.

Janik provides a thought-provoking and stimulating account of how symbolic material culture is and was used to create visual narratives. The underlying mechanisms for the production of art are clearly identified in both ancient and contemporary art, suggesting that the creative mindset has changed little over the past 70,000 years (or more). This book is important because it forges an otherwise missing link in the way we look at the mechanics of art and artistic behaviour. In particular, it pays attention to how items were made from the mindsets of ancient and of contemporary artists, and the way we perceive and objectivise them.


This review appeared in issue 106 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

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