Painting a Picture of the Past: Archaeological Illustration

By Jenna Tinning

Archaeological illustration is something of a mystery to me. Although I have undertaken a degree centred on archaeology and heritage, it wasn’t until I came to work at Çatalhöyük that I encountered the opportunity to learn what it really involves. Is it a discipline? A craft? According to John Swogger, it is because of this lack of solid understanding that archaeological illustration remains with “no proper’ place within archaeological projects, and no ‘proper’ role within the wider conduct of archaeology” (Swogger 2000, 143).


Photo of Kathryn tracing Neolithic handprints. Photo by Jason Quinlan
Photo of Kathryn tracing Neolithic handprints. Photo by Jason Quinlan

To explore what’s really involved in this complex form of practice, I interviewed Kathryn Killackey who is the current archaeological illustrator at Çatalhöyük. She described to me how Çatalhöyük is a collaborative and dynamic environment to work in, as so many specialists are based on the site at one time. However within the archaeological discipline generally, archaeological illustration is often relegated to the background. Therefore, its potential for communicating archaeological information is sadly under explored. Part of the problem is a distinct lack of formal training programmes within archaeological illustration. Kathryn began her career as an anthropology undergrad, followed by an MA in archaeology. After four years working as an archaeologist at Çatalhöyük, and following the completion of a one year course in archaeological illustration, she applied to work with John Swogger, the site illustrator at the time. She has continued in the position ever since.


An archaeological illustration of a Çatalhöyük infant burial. Illustration by Kathryn Killackey
An archaeological illustration of a Çatalhöyük infant burial. Illustration by Kathryn Killackey

There are two main types of work that Katy undertakes at the site. Artefact illustration is her most common form of practice. A specialist may ask her to draw a certain artefact. At this point if there is anything she’s unsure of she asks questions and they discuss any interpretive points. Seeing an image in this way can spark questions and suggestions in a way that the written interpretation never could. Katy has direct experience of this. One year she was working with an archaeologist who wanted her to illustrate a Roman ring with seal on it. While studying the ring she discovered a small mark and inquired whether it was deliberately created and should be included in the illustration, or whether it was just a mark. The archaeologist thought it was probably just a mark but went on to do more comparative research. On doing so the archaeologist discovered that all the rings she had since studied carried this small mark. Therefore this work can bring to attention something important that might have been dismissed as insignificant otherwise.

The second and most complicated process is the creation of reconstructions. As far as possible these illustrations attempt to present information within its original past context. Imagine trying to create a picture of life, 9,000 years ago, using just the archaeological evidence we find preserved today. This again involves a discussion with the specialist or archaeologist to decide what their vision is for the image and what they want depicted, using the archaeological data. Then using this information Katy does a preliminary sketch, before going back to the specialist to go through a round of critique. There’s a series of tweakings in this manner, involving another preliminary drawing, and then the artwork goes for approval. The reconstruction image forces a much closer examination of the interpretation and encourages a deeper aspect of study that can reveal potential re-interpretations that would otherwise have remained unchallenged. Therefore, in my opinion, we should be asking the question, is an illustration any less or more valid than a couple of paragraphs of text dealing with a similar topic? And is it any less or more subject to peer view and comment?

Swogger, J-G (2000) ‘Image and Interpretation: the Tyranny of Representation?’ In Hodder, I (Ed) Towards a reflexive method in archaeology: the example at Çatalhöyük. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 143- 153.

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