The impulse to look beyond the ‘appearance’ of photographs has had very little hold within the archaeological imagination. Given that to ‘see is to believe’ still resonates on knowledge formation on the archaeological, it is equally striking to note how minimal any critical engagement with this relationship has been. Methods of pursuing archaeological photography, which had been well established by the mid-twentieth century, reflected the aims for creating a coherent account of objective observation. Such aims are even today mandatory for securing ‘views’ of the excavated and explored material. What is often glossed over within the self-reflexive histories of archaeology, is the understanding that archaeological representations are culturally and socially salient, and, consequently, the logic that excavated artefacts as well as their photographs accrue meanings from the ways in which we make use of them.

I had quoted Burgess’ ire to suggest that even correctly taken photographs are endowed with evidential and informative values through our expectations of their performances. Therefore, a photograph’s original meaning, or original context remains non-issues, as do notions of photographic revelations. For, photographs are objects of historical inscription. “With their indexical certainty, analogical insistence, and beguiling realism” (Edwards, 2001, p. 236), they are ‘touched’ in various ways, hold within their surface the possibilities of many histories, and ‘perform’ variously at various situations. The same image, which we often approach as a ‘duplicate’, is attributed with different values through the transformations that we bring into its physical form. Such transformations, for example from a lantern-slide to a copy negative or a print within an album, inevitably changes not only the ‘duplicate’ photograph’s route of circulation, but with it, its conditions of viewing. A recent exhibition, Seeing Lhasa: British Depictions of the Tibetan Capital 1936–1947, hosted by the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford (2003) illustrated this point rather well. The circulation of the same photograph as a memento, a specimen, a record, a document, or, indeed, an exhibit, reveals our ascription of contexts, and, hence, the meanings we attribute to the imagery differ vastly within the different contexts.

Social Saliency




© HARAPPA 2006