On the beauty of ancient objects

On the recent Guardian onartblog Jonathan Jones asks Is Archaeology the New Art. Writing about the British Museum’s two new exhibitions on ice-age art and the ancient sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum, Jones notes how ancient objects are ‘thrilling’ and ‘still fascinate and beguile’. In drawing attention to these distinctive qualities of archaeology, Jones suggests that an emphasis on such attributes is the ‘best way for archaeologists to popularise their research’. As archaeology around the world experiences a current crisis with falling student numbers, perhaps we should take Jones’s advice to remind ‘audiences of the beauty of things’.

But archaeologists are torn. On one hand we must assert the scientific, rigorous, concrete side of our discipline, since this will ensure we are taken more seriously. More importantly perhaps, it is this emphasis (we tell ourselves) that will enable us to be more successful in competing for large grants from scientific bodies. On the other hand, however, we must celebrate our ‘arty’ side, demonstrating what we can offer to cultural debate and the ‘enlightenment’ of society. In our eagerness to assert the uniqueness and methodological independence of archaeology as a discipline, perhaps we have been too quick in prioritising the former. I like Jones’s idea of returning to the origins of our subject, when the enchantment with objects inspired collectors to collect and encouraged antiquarians to ruminate on the purpose of the curious items on display in the cabinets of Europe. But does a voyage back to our disciplinary roots put us in danger of celebrating the ideals from which we have sought to distance ourselves? Has not our greatest achievement been to move beyond our earlier antiquarian endeavours and challenge the love of objects for the sake of their beauty and intrinsic charm? We have spent the last 500 years outlining how ancient material culture offers insights far beyond those of mere beauty, so is it not a regressive step to remind people of the sheer artistry and magic that resides in the objects crafted in distant times?

Since the Renaissance, museums have been active protagonists in celebrating the power and impact of ancient objects in stimulating a connection with the past. From the visually intoxicating ‘cabinets of curiosity’ to the grand displays of national museums, antiquities have always been used in the service of telling great stories about humanity and the various paths taken to civilised society. The objects themselves have of course assumed a multi-faceted identity throughout this process. They are read on one hand as serious documents of human history, testifying to evolution over time, yet at the same time they are presented as exhilarating testimony of the creative capacity of our species. Archaeologists celebrate both of these features of ancient objects. We have always been enthralled with the beauty of objects; even scraps of bone and chipped stone get us excited. In his call for the promotion of archaeology as a discipline deeply connected to artistic expression, Jonathan Jones invites us to address a key issue facing our discipline – communication. I agree with him that we could do far more to remind people of the beauty of objects manufactured by human hands in the past. We must not forget our brief though. Some of the many other layers of meaning contained within archaeological artefacts should also be communicated to audiences at the same time.