Stunted “Visual Competence” in Archaeology: a Problem Hiding in Plain Sight

Stunted “Visual competence” in Archaeology: a Problem Hiding in Plain Sight by Simon James

It is a truism that archaeology is a profoundly visual discipline; it is paradoxical, then, that so much of its output exhibits a poor level of what here I opt to call visual competence. There are, of course, many glorious exceptions to the picture I will sketch out here (pun probably intended). Yet as someone who returned to the UK university sector to teach archaeology after a decade as a jobbing illustrator and then museum educator and writer working closely with designers, I am as often dismayed as thrilled by the quality of images in many new archaeological publications, and other documents and presentations created by archaeologists for specialist or public consumption. This is an international issue. What follows draws largely on UK experience as the central case study, but I have encountered the same phenomenon, and apparent causes, in teaching undergraduate and graduate students from a variety of Anglophone, continental European and other university systems, and in working on a range of projects in other countries. While I have not conducted systematic research, I have sought to cross-check my impression that these problems are due to shortcomings in training, through canvassing the experiences of archaeologists around the world. As will be seen, their responses generally supported the picture presented here.