Problems of Reconstruction

Reconstructions are very common in archaeology. Many people will be familiar with them – think about the history books you read in school, for example. They would probably have included reconstruction drawings, artists’ attempts to depict what the past looked like.

Still, reconstructions can be at times a bit controversial and if not used properly, they can be very problematic. Even the word ‘reconstruction’ is misleading. After all, we can’t ‘reconstruct’ the past exactly as it was… these images are just ideas or theories about what the past was like. It’s a topic that’s particularly interesting to me, and one that I want to focus my next few posts on.

In my Introduction, I mentioned a series of drawings that I completed a couple of years ago for an undergraduate exhibition on the Mesolithic (a period of prehistory roughly 10,000 to 4000BC). These depicted scenes from the site of Star Carr, located in North Yorkshire – visitors were guided around these images by an early domesticated dog. Some of the thinking that went into this is shown in the initial sketches I completed, shown below.


Some sketches created to develop layout


The guide: My drawings of early domesticated dogs were influenced by photographs of wolves


The structures: these were based on similar structures built at Howick, Northumberland through experimental archaeology

These initial drawings led to a couple of finished pieces that went into the exhibition. Looking back now, I can see a lot of aspects that weren’t given enough consideration and that I’m no longer happy with… Why is it a woman shown in the camp? What does this say about gender roles in the past? Where are the other people who occupied the site?

Even the structures, which I thought through in greater detail, present problems. Why are they arranged like this, facing different directions? What other alternative interpretations are there for the structures’ appearance and use?


Life at Star Carr: my final ‘reconstruction’

These are just a few of the questions I came up with by looking briefly at my work. As archaeologists, we really should consider more carefully what messages we might be conveying through the images we use… It’s important to think about how things might be interpreted by different audiences. I’m hoping to improve these drawings over my next few posts.


In the meantime, if you fancy finding out more about Star Carr or reconstructions, these are a good place to start:

Ambrus, V. and Aston, M. (2001) Recreating the Past. Stroud: Tempus.

James, S. (1997) ‘Drawing inferences: Visual reconstruction in theory and practice’, in Molyneaux, B. (ed.) The Cultural Life of Images: Visual Representation in Archaeology, 22-48. Oxford: Routledge.

Milner, N. Taylor, B. Conneller, C. and Schadla-Hall, T. (2013) Star Carr: Life in Britain after the Ice Age. York: Council for British Archaeology.


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