Archaeological illustration: part I

Though we are part of the digital age, the tactile experience of working with objects as well as the level of detail and complication present on their surfaces, is undeniable.

Detail from Ceramica No. 6, "Jaina Study Number One, right profile" back cover, by Muriel Kirkpatrick. Illustration of "Pottery figure of a seated woman in Jaina style". 16.5' H. Dumbarton Oaks Collection.

The detail above comes from the back cover of Ceramica de Cultura Maya et al., a journal of Maya pottery terminology, produced and published by the Temple Anthropology Lab from 1967 to 1996. Ceramica, edited by Temple professor James C. Gifford and illustrated by Muriel Kirkpatrick, contributed to Maya scholarship through its articles and accompanying illustrations.

The female figurine is also a whistle, from Jaina Island, Mexico.  Jaina Island is famous for these expressive and well preserved Maya figurines which often accompany burials. Remains of “Maya blue” paint were found on the headdress.

Photography is by far the most popular means of recording objects and fieldwork, and its usefulness cannot be underestimated.  However, the work of the illustrator is very meaningful.  While photographs can quickly produce factual views of objects and places, they lack the intimate clarity of a drawing, the “lens” of the illustrator.  An artist can isolate key details that could otherwise be overlooked by the camera (notice the handwritten notes above).  As well as artistic talent, archaeological illustration demands technical accuracy with regards to scale and detail as well a methodological understanding of the discipline.

In the Ceramica article entitled “Jaina Study Number One”, Dr. Gifford describes the striking profile detailed above:

“The profile view when turned to just the right angle clearly shows how exactly the turban was arranged upon the top of the deformed skull not only to convey distinction but also so as to emphasize precisely, but not ostentatiously, the cranial deformation itself.  This was done by means of the subtle grace of the smooth swept back wave of the headdress pillows mounted one over another in a flawless flow that arcs grandly up and then quickly curves down the back.  Her modified nose, her forehead, her cranially deformed head, her headdress all constitute a continuous profile that in life, as it is here, must have been breathtakingly magnificent.”(74-75)

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