Model of the Acropolis in British Museum

Archaeology is about looking down and digging down, to unearth a past that has built up in layers of things that have been discarded, forgotten, and covered over. This vertical mapping of time means knowing what you’re looking for and where to dig, using the right tools, cleaning the dirt off, and interpreting what you unearth. Observation, excavation and interpretation are joined by collection, preservation, and display by institutions in a parallel process of layering, building on existing knowledge and inevitably interpreted through the lens of the present. Thus the past is not simply reconstructed but is subjectively and repeatedly constructed. 

‘The process of building the past,’ according to Elizabeth Gill, Douglas Gittens and Julian Woodcock (2019: 140), has been guided by an innate understanding of stratigraphy, both physical and metaphysical. Stratigraphy is the science of reading what they call the ‘onion-layers of space and time’ (ibid.). Starting at the surface of the present, the cross-sectional view looks under and through, attempting to see the meso and macro in the micro, by linking colours, shapes of fragments, and chemical composition with the social, political and ecological.

For Levitas, an archaeological approach means ‘piecing together the images of the good society that are embedded in political programmes and social and economic policies’ (Levitas 2013: 153). Such ‘readings that interrogate the unconscious of the text’ (ibid.: 120) echo the deconstruction of Jacques Derrida (1967). Structures of the past, like slavery and colonialism, can thus be deconstructed and dismantled before construction begins, but like nuclear waste, eliminating the past is different from burying it. What we find instead, at sites like the Acropolis in Athens, are ruins built upon ruins — one civilisation and ideology uses the foundations of another to build upon, in a process of stratification. Returning to Levitas’ quote, we must ask what constitutes ‘good’ in ideological or foundational terms. 

When an actual text provides the ground to dig into, a stratigraphic reading of its cross-section can be both physical and metaphysical, Arévalo (2020) says. For example, Roelstraete’s The Way of the Shovel (2013) rewards excavation, with clues to be found in rich footnotes linking to centuries and continents of art, archaeology and critical theory.

According to Arévalo (2020), 

even if there isnt any material evidence of what has been ‘eliminated,’ there is always the attestation and records of the act of elimination. This is where the processes of remembering/reimagining become fundamental in the process of reconstruction — we are able to continue existing in the gaps and lacunae, because things exist as long as they are remembered.

‘Complete description is not possible,’ writes Levitas, ‘all accounts of past, existing or potentially existing societies are partial’ (Levitas 2013: 154). Her archaeological mode therefore means using deconstructive methods to identify silences as well as fragments, ‘filling in, where possible, what is missing, or simply making evident the blank spaces’ (ibid.). According to Arévalo (2019a)

The reconstruction of fragments does not necessarily set out to bring the objects back to life, but rather to somehow reconstitute narratives and environments. For everything is bound to disappear, and so we find ourselves in a constant, active effort of filling in blanks, bridging gaps, and contracting voids. Individuals understand and constitute their contexts through fragments — of light, of time, of information, of memory — so however fatal the fire might have been, there is still the possibility of, perhaps, reconstructing the collection through collective memory and digital interventions.

In addition, stratigraphy must take into account the human and nonhuman actors who might have already dug down before you, disrupting a simple reading of layered deposits.

Roelstraete makes a direct link between explicitly archaeological practices in art, and the idea of utopia, as ‘the thought and practice of that which literally is not there or is no longer there’ (Roelstraete 2009: 37). The more we forget, or outsource our memory, he says, ‘the greater art’s passion for remembering, for digging up a past everyone else seems in a suspicious rush to leave behind’ (ibid.: 31).

I interpret archaeological artistic methods to include finding a site to investigate, digging into its layered history, and perhaps keeping, and not cleaning off, the contextual dirt around what is unearthed. Observation and interpretation leading to display then lead to further interpretation by those who come after, and the site(s) of display become as significant as those of excavation — indeed the site of display itself is excavated in site-specific work. Subjective readings of the past are acknowledged, embraced and encouraged. Archaeological methods are about verticality, pointing to pasts real or imagined. Methods of construction may be depositional, building up additional layers from fragments, while leaving room for utopian potential to exist in, or emerge from, silences.

Arévalo's marked up copy of Roelstraete's essay

As applied in the Expanded Museum residency, Athens as the site for investigation was our starting point. I could not attend for the entire residency period. I found, however, an obvious link between London and Athens at the British Museum, in its collection of Parthenon friezes and statues, otherwise known as the Elgin Marbles after the colonial diplomat (or thief, depending on your view) who saved (stole) them and then bequeathed them to the museum. The museum, therefore, served as my first site of excavation. I kept my focus on the Parthenon and studied the Ancient Greek collections in the museum, interrogating also their methods of display. My aim was not to add to the voluminous history and debate about these artefacts, but merely to use them as a starting point to create new work.

Regarding excavating sites of artistic display, see for example Pierre Huyghe’s exhibition ‘UUmwelt’ at Serpentine Galleries, London, 2018.

Subsequently (simultaneously for the residents already in Athens), the New Acropolis Museum served as another site of investigation. The museum, designed by architect Bernard Tschumi and opened in 2009, sits adjacent to the Acropolis, offering a direct view from its galleries to the hill it is named after, and the Parthenon on its summit. Choosing museums as archaeological sites inverts the traditional relationship: museum archaeology is normally about collection, preservation and display. The New Acropolis Museum, however, was itself built atop an actual archaeological site, which has been preserved under a glass floor, and is still being excavated. More broadly, the present-day city of Athens provided the other bookend to this investigation in spatial and temporal terms.

I engaged in observation and subjective interpretation, starting with friezes, and fragments thereof, building layers through photography, drawing, 2D and 3D digital construction. There are inevitably many gaps and silences, and much more could be done — no work is ever truly complete, just as no object is static or timeless. Following the archaeological approach, I thought it appropriate to begin at the widest scale of context and then zoom in progressively. 

The New Acropolis Museum

Parthenon frieze fragment in British Museum


Archaeology, according to Levitas, excavates and reconstructs whole cultures as well as individual artefacts, based on imagination as well as evidence and deduction, ‘representing as whole something of which only shards and fragments remain’ (Levitas 2013: 154) 

But while archaeologists typically prepare for fieldwork by engaging in desk research to immerse themselves in the context of site and subject, I wanted to take a more embodied, less cognitive approach, by treating the museum as a multimodal research site. I knew that the British Museum contains a wealth of contextual information about Ancient Greece in its collections on display, so I chose to visit these as an initial step to gain a macro-level view of the culture through the objects directly, and only secondarily from the information on display. We cannot expect to find complete artefacts or narratives in museums, according to Arévalo (2020), but can ‘dig through fixed orders and narratives’ instead of dirt and rocks, ‘hoping to encounter raw objects, stripped of anything that we ourselves have already imposed upon them’. According to Roelstraete, ‘[t]he archaeological optic is without a doubt one of the founding principles, if only aesthetically, of modern museum culture,’ and this has in turn become the object of investigation for artists. The museum, he says, ‘requires and invites "mining" as much as the sand-covered gold troves of extinct overseas civilizations’ (Roelstraete 2013: 45).

Small objects in British Museum Greek galleries

I was determined to avoid the nostalgic approach he accuses some artists of taking regarding museum mining, in favour of institutional critique (Alberro and Stimson 2009): in galleries this dates back to the 1960s, for example in the work of Graciela Carnevale and Mierle Laderman Ukeles; more recently, in critical museology and critical heritage studies; and crossing over with contemporary artists such as Mark Dion.

The first thing I learned from my site survey was the intimate link between different sizes and scales. Moving through the British Museum means engaging with objects of multiple sizes but on average smaller than a person. I was particularly drawn to very small things that connected with larger cultural themes, such as gold coins and figurines. These are among the things that individuals value and carry, but are often most easily given away, lost, forgotten and covered over. Photographing them at high resolution facilitates zooming way in, where chips, grooves and marks become features of a landscape. Henry Hodges’ (1964) book Artifacts was a valuable guide to their material qualities and methods of manufacture.

The Acropolis

The museum — particularly in its presentation of the Parthenon sculptures — emphasises cross-cultural movements between the Greeks, Ottomans and Persians. This mirrors and supports the view of the museum’s trustees that ‘the sculptures are part of everyone’s shared heritage and transcend cultural boundaries’ (Marshall 2012: 34). Indeed I passed through the museum

Another thing I learned related to links across time as well as space. In archaeology, exploring a site means looking at it at different time scales, trying to imagine what is beneath and how it might have been in the past. This project ended (at least in its first phase) in a hike up the Acropolis with the other residents, on our last evening in Athens after we closed our exhibition. Knowing by then that in ancient times this would have meant walking through the agora (marketplace), it was easy to imagine many other humans taking that walk over the centuries, and what they might have experienced inside the Parthenon at the top. As a bookend to the project, moving upwards was significant, and during our walk we talked about the future. 

The Parthenon itself was closed at that time of night, but I was surprised that the hill was left so wild in some places, not completely turned into a tourist attraction, as it might be in the UK. It was still free and accessible — in keeping with its history, it was for the people. We felt no hesitation in sitting on the rocks just below the Parthenon with other groups of people, drinking beer and looking out over the city. 

This was made challenging by the fact that the steep rocks were made slippery by centuries of other visitors. This materiality, and its intimate link with humans, was part of the experience. And materiality was also evident back at the British Museum: bronze, gold, silver, marble, ivory, terracotta and glass were inevitably cleaned and polished by conservators, but also showed patina and wear from centuries of use. According to Arévalo (2020):

I believe there is a common understanding of degradation as ‘decline’ or ‘damage’, when in reality, is very much about the process of transformation and embedded in the livelihood of all things. Obeying the laws of entropy or turbulence means embracing chaos not as an unproductive disruption of these parallel layers, but rather as fruitful opportunities for cross-reference and interchange. 

The increasing adoption of the term ‘Anthropocene’ links humans with deep geological time. As postcolonial scholar Achille Mbembe (2020: 80) writes, ‘humans are part of a very long, deep history that is not simply theirs’. The chips of marble I found on the streets of Athens attest to this history. This link prompted me to reconsider Levitas’ archaeological approach more broadly as geological. Both can be extractive, removing things from the ground and from sites of discovery, whether for profit or study; or they could be non-invasive. They also link with architecture, in that building projects require first digging down, which sometimes unearths archaeological remains, which themselves may then be investigated or covered over. Aisling O’Carroll and Daniel Falb, however, point out that the ‘Anthropocene’ as a geological layer contradicts the concept of cultural heritage, since ‘the geologic stratum of the Anthropocene is nobody’s heritage’ (O’Carroll and Falb 2020). While geology as a science is a product of modernity, it nonetheless acts as a lens for looking at timescales beyond human lifespans and civilisations.

The term ‘Anthropocene’ is contested by T.J. Demos (2017). He questions the collective ‘we’ implicit or explicit in discussions and images of human-created climate change, arguing that such universalisation enables the true culprits of climate degradation (for him, the ‘military-state-corporate apparatus’ of capitalism) to disavow responsibility and obscure accountability, ‘inadvertently making us all complicit in its destructive project’ (ibid.: 19). ‘Anthropocene visuality,’ he writes, ‘tends to reinforce the techno-utopian position that "we" have indeed mastered nature, just as we have mastered its imaging — and in fact the two, the dual colonization of nature and representation, appear inextricably intertwined’ (ibid.: 6).

While I agree with Demos’ analysis, I believe his critique aligns with most analyses of climate change by focusing on humans and addressing solutions that will benefit and perpetuate human survival. I do not contest that humans (whether few or many) have contributed to climate change, and that both the causes and effects are asymmetrically distributed among people and locations. But personally I take an (admittedly pessimistic) view that (a) there is no reason humanity should survive on Earth for any extended time period, and (b) it is probably too late to ‘save humanity’ or ‘correct’ the climate. A prominent climate scientist, Mark Maslin (2021), recently told me, ‘The Earth will be fine’ even with a severe rise in global temperature — it will adapt; humans, on the other hand, may not, and therefore climate ‘solutions’ inevitably address human survival. 

On photography as method

Photography has been used in archaeology, in (and as) artistic practice since the medium was invented in the 1800s. Artists began using photography as an art form itself only when it became affordable to them. Today most people carry a high-resolution imaging device in their pocket, which also links to an exponentially growing amount of images, and conversely allows artists to instantly ‘share’ their own images.

Photography continues to have a role in archaeology today, but imaging using sensors and satellites helps identify and analyse where to dig and what is under the ground or inside an object, in ways that are non-invasive. Imaging implies distance between subject and object: a mirror relation which reflects the photographer’s intentions, framing, tools and gaze more generally. Objects, however, as Stein Farstadvoll points out, ‘are neither mirrors nor do they always fit any description we give them’, instead being ‘part of a material cosmos of multiplicity and nuance’ (2020). This questions the role of the archaeologist to come up with definitive interpretations.

In this project, I used photography (with a DSLR) for image-based research, as an input to digital processes (3D modelling), and to produce work for exhibition (large prints onto fabric). Michael Chew (2020) analyses photos using two different methods: realist, and relational-material. The former is a more traditional way of tagging or coding images with taxonomic labels; the latter looks at ‘expanded considerations of agency and subjectivity’ in relation to a research question or topic — in his case, environmental behaviour. For me, at this level of analysis, I looked at similar themes, by linking micro-level views of objects, materials and textures with macro-scale issues around the places they come from and go to, and the timescales they exist at. Being relational and self-reflexive, this was also a way to frame my own interests and directions for this project. According to Chew (2020: 166), ‘[p]hotography reflects the world back to us, and through each of these reflections being uniquely shaped via its creator’s human eyes and hands, they collectively remind us that multiple worlds always lie outside our own perspective.’ As I moved from photographing objects to looking more closely at textures and materials, I attempted to embrace a post-humanist perspective in addressing Chew’s question, ‘what kinds of seeing do we need now? […] I am convinced that the answer lies in nurturing this multiplicity — of both story-tellers, and story-listeners’ (ibid.)

Gillian Rose (2016) offers an alternative model for analysing images, in three ways: the local sites where the images are produced, the site of the image itself as a medium, and the site where images are ‘consumed’ or an audience encounters them. This has also been useful for me; in this project, my focus was on the site of production (primarily the British Museum). But I was less interested in analysing the images themselves, or how people encountered them in the exhibition, than the content of the images, specifically the sites where the depicted objects and materials came from, not necessarily the cultural content the objects depict (gods, battles etc). What could the micro level say about the relation between the objects’ original context, their display in the British Museum, and their contested status as historical objects, alternately for national Greek culture and for ‘everyone’s’ shared heritage? More broadly, what is their status as some of the most globally recognised heritage objects, in an age of increasing decolonisation?

I mention this in relation to my own background in anthropology, of which archaeology is a part, and which (along with architecture and ontology) focuses on specifically human concerns. Rosie Braidotti and others regard the post-human not as an evolved technological successor to humans, but in terms of post-humanities: this shifts focus to the relations of humans with nonhuman others, and a flattening of hierarchies and ontologies between them (Braidotti 2013). Marko Marila (2020) promotes a more-than-human view of ‘heritage’ that challenges the scientific and ‘opens for more organic intersections between archaeology, heritage studies, and artistic practice’. With that, I shift to the human scale, if not the cultural, in the next section.

Parthenon sculptures in British Museum


Zooming closer in from the broad ecological view across time scales and cultures, the archaeologist’s exploration is spatially bounded by a site. From the settlement to the structure, this links the macro to the meso, or human, scale. As mentioned, my sites included the British and Acropolis museums, linking upward to the broader sites of empire and the contested links between them, and downward to specific sites of artistic production: our Expanded Museum studio/gallery in Athens, my studio in London where I make work, and the Print Lab at the Royal College of Art where I produced prints for exhibition (described below). 

Contextual model developed in my PhD

Of these, the core site of topical investigation for all the Expanded Museum residents was the museum generally. In my PhD research (Walker 2010), I conceptualised the museum as a relational space where visitors construct meaning through movement, through links between their own personal, social and physical contexts, and those of the objects they encounter (The British Museum was included in one case study). This implied some agency on the part of objects, in that they possess their own ‘personal contexts’ through which they encounter the visitor. The agency of objects was outside the scope of my PhD however, and I now explore it further. Equally significant, though, was to conceptualise meaning making as a dialogue or conversation — between visitors in the form of language, but also with objects in more direct, unspoken dialogue. I therefore characterise the work I created in this project as the product of a dialogue with objects and materials, as well as people and sites of investigation.

Speculative site map & stratigraphy diagram of British Museum Parthenon gallery

Following archaeological methods, for this project I made a site map and stratigraphic diagram of the British Museum’s Parthenon gallery, imagined as a future archaeological site. In a medium-term timescale, climate change is projected to cause a ~2m rise in sea levels, and this is expected to flood much of central London. The Parthenon gallery is on the ground floor of the museum, and during my visit, my attention was drawn to a pair of doors leading outside to a garden which is closed to the public. As a future ruin, I imagined floodwater and mud from the River Thames entering through these doors, eventually destroying much of the wall between them, and passing through the larger doorway opposite and into the rest of the museum. The marble sculptures are long gone; only the end portions of the walls (made of iron-reinforced Portland stone) remain intact as shadows of possible structures, along with remnants of the copper railings which kept visitors back from the artefacts. A layer of glass shards from the frosted glass ceiling (already known to leak in heavy rains) is found, atop shards of floor mosaic and reinforced concrete — the latter a new type of architectural foundation when the museum was built.

Engagement with a site means moving around — in direct contrast to looking at two-dimensional representations on a screen or page. I have previously written about changing one’s perspective through movement (Walker 2020) — this includes remaining open to conceptual shifts, and acknowledging any sense of being moved in an emotional way. My project thus started by moving around the British Museum’s Greek galleries, continued in walking through the New Acropolis Museum, and through Athens more broadly, where every day I chose to walk for two hours from the city centre to the studio and back. Walking as an artistic method has a long history, and in my case following the archaeological mode, it meant looking down, both physically and conceptually as in looking into the past.

Parthenon Gallery in British Museum

In the British Museum I focused primarily on artefacts in the Parthenon gallery. The museum considers these among their most culturally valuable ‘treasures,’ for example including one of the friezes in its well-known History of the World in 100 Objects project with the BBC.

Digging into the past of this gallery, when it was built there was a debate between its architect and museum trustees and curators about whether the artefacts should be characterised as art or archaeology. Specifically, in their previous dedicated gallery the objects were surrounded with archaeological interpretation, including casts and detailed explanatory texts. For the current gallery (completed in 1932) a more aesthetic approach was chosen, in which the low-dimensional friezes that originally ran around the exterior of the Parthenon are displayed in a very large (~80 × 20m) gallery, separately from the high-dimensional friezes and sculptures, which adorned the pediments of the Parthenon and are placed in slightly raised galleries at either end. Ample space is given between the objects, and the ceiling height is ~8m.

The human scale in archaeology stretches from site down to artefact, circumscribing the tools and interfaces through which people engage with their world. Artefacts (and their absence) are, in turn, archaeologists' most direct interface with people of the past, providing a starting point for hypothesis and speculation. 

As an artistic method, this means approaching human-scale objects and spaces from an archaeological perspective. My goal from the outset, which I followed throughout the project, was not to collect lots of information, but instead to engage experientially, aesthetically and sensorially with artefacts and materials as directly as possible; the cultural, mythical, figurative and decorative aspects of Ancient Greek sculpture have been extensively researched. In the Information Experience Design programme I was running at the Royal College of Art at the time, I explicitly contrasted information as a rational, linguistic series of positions with sensorial, ineffable experience. Philosopher Federico Campagna (2018) frames these as opposing ontologies at the level of cosmology or metaphysics, a level which sits below that of particular politics, ideologies or histories. These fundamentally opposing ways of approaching the world translate directly into particular ways individuals engage with things in the world, and specifically for me, particular strategies for artistic research.

A strategy of direct engagement is well-suited to the museum as a site of investigation, particularly in a gallery which treats objects as artworks. In museums, objects are removed from their original uses, cultures and contexts, and recontextualised among other objects and interpretive information (see also Clifford 1998). An archaeological approach to direct engagement, however, opens them up to interpretations either real or imagined, which may ignore or contest any given curatorial information.

Material culture views objects as arrays of relations, and a strictly sensorial engagement may include emotional or ineffable qualities which cannot adequately be conveyed using language. For example, I was struck by missing faces and appendages in the Parthenon friezes and sculptures. There is a long history of defacing idols, statues and sculptures, and recently, statues representing the Western colonial past have been attacked, raising questions from across the political spectrum about the rewriting of history. 

Poetry may be usefully employed to convey emotional and ineffable qualities through the creative use of language, as my co-resident Arévalo used successfully. Or indeed, archaeological writing, like that of Gill and others (2019) can venture into story and speculation. More broadly, historiographic writing, used by both Arévalo (2019) and Roelstraete (2009), engages with and challenges existing narratives. 

I would describe my writing here as part of my practice, insofar as it is creative and intertwined with the adjacent materials; and partly documentary, insofar as it details methods and outputs. (The Research Catalogue itself could be a site for excavation.) While I engage in speculation, I do not attempt to put into words those aspects of artefacts I feel cannot be adequately described; for that I cede to visual representations. Campagna (2018) discusses how a single object — any object — simultaneously links to the spiritual as well as the mundane.

The first visual representations I made were photographs, at different levels of focus, from long shots of the gallery to extreme close-ups of materials and details. Representations of humans in artefacts, for example, offer us a different, and perhaps more direct, way of relating to distant cultures than linguistic descriptions. I took inspiration from a student, Virna Koutla (2017), a Greek architect who made direct links between ancient statues and contemporary migration in a film project through an audio-visual narrative, connecting the mundane and the mythical without words.

Direct sensory engagement goes beyond sight: neuroscientist Anna Ciaunica (2019) contrasts distal (visual-spatial) modes of understanding with proximal (tactile) ones. The latter, she observes, developed earlier in evolution and earlier in each individual’s development: in the womb. The skin is the oldest and largest sense organ. Architect Juhani Palasmaa (2011) regards all the senses as an extension of touch — ‘as specialisations of the skin.’ When we observe something, he says, we imagine what it is to touch it, in imagined sensations of solidity and resistance: ‘Vision reveals what the touch already knows’ (ibid.: 60). Translated to a political level, vision is related to distance and control, while touch provides an intimate connection. 

In archaeology, as in art, working with one’s hands has traditionally been central. Digital technologies have broken this connection — though this is not necessarily negative: remote sensing technologies mean archaeologists can see below the ground without digging; Barad describes ‘the agential cut’ as simultaneously cutting together and apart (Dolphijn and van der Tuin 2012). The digital in art has added new tools, materials and whole new media. But if the visual creates or preserves distance, we could say the digital creates a kind of distance akin to how an empire remotely monitors and controls its colonies. 

Touching museum artefacts is generally not allowed anyway. The British Museum, like others, provides ‘handling objects’, for example in the interpretation gallery adjacent to that of the Parthenon friezes. But my tactile engagement with marble was done outside the gallery — for example touching a carved marble mantlepiece at home. I then experimented with creating an alternative to a marble frieze by printing one of my photographs on heavy tracing paper and backlighting it with a lightbox. While this made a visual connection however, it lacked the sensation of engaging with marble on a tactile level. For this I moved to the micro level. 

Frieze print on folded tracing paper mounted on light box, on marble mantlepiece

Drawing of frieze detail on folded tracing paper mounted on lightbox, in exhibition


Archaeology excels in its investigation of the micro scale, at which artefacts are interrogated in terms of materiality and methods of manufacture. This is particularly true of partial artefacts, which far outnumber those found whole — including the Parthenon artefacts, having been defaced, broken and removed from their original site over centuries. Arévalo (2019) refers to the friezes in terms of ‘the celebration of fragments’: ‘Friezes as the holy union of fragments and fractures […] as everything that remains / and everything that is long gone.’ 

Detail of printed poem by Arévalo

It falls to the archaeologist to distinguish significant fragments from waste. Foucault, in The Archaeology of Knowledge (2002: 303), contrasts archaeology’s ‘forensic gaze’ with the general, unifying, totalising view of grandiose ideology: ‘In archaeological analysis comparison is always limited and regional. Far from wishing to reveal general forms, archaeology tries to outline particular configurations. Archaeological comparison does not have a unifying, but diversifying, effect.’ 

Parthenon sculpture in British Museum, detail of sculpture, drawing of detail in sketchbook

I used drawing to engage with the Parthenon friezes. Drawing in archaeology of course predates photography, but remains important for illustrating artefacts and highlighting particular aspects — being more subjective than photography. It also plays a prominent role on interpretive panels in the museum galleries. Ingold (2013: 253) calls drawing a projection of theory, and Rachel Emily Taylor and Leah Fusco (2020) describe illustrative practice not only as a form of communication, ‘but as a discipline defined by active exploration and knowledge generation’ in which heritage comes to be seen not as fixed but an evolving process that takes place in the present. I specifically used a technique favoured by archaeologists called stippling. Building up a surface from individual dots is the opposite of delineating, or drawing lines, which create frames and sets boundaries, instead starting with the particular (and particulate). Having used this technique for a few years, I have previously made detailed astronomical drawings, which I conceptualised as explorations of time as well as space and scale; in drawing the Parthenon sculptures, this was more an exploration of surface, light, material and texture.

As these drawings take considerable time to complete, I could not do them while in the Parthenon gallery, but worked from photos I took of the artefacts. I chose close-up images — fragments of fragments — to investigate the micro level. According to Campagna (2021: 96), the single point in space or the instant in time is the connection to ineffable dimensions; the longer, closer and more carefully you look at something, the more you see.

For her residency, Arévalo came across a simple statement about a fragment in the British Museum: ‘It joins with a fragment found in Athens’. This was the bottom part of a statue: one foot was literally in Athens, the other in London. In the opposite situation to me — already in residency in Athens, she then dug through the museum’s online collections database to find the right fragment. Her resulting work, titled friezes & fragments, is described below.

Fragmentation also describes our contemporary cultural experience — separated at a distance via screens and social media. According to Roelstraete (2013: 32), ‘the greater the part of our lives spent online or in front of computers, the greater the temptation to escape his regime of relentless dematerialisation’.

Fragment of Parthenon sculpture in British Museum used in work by Arévalo

At a micro level then, an archaeological artistic practice engages with materials, and materiality. Ingold (2007) differentiates between these two, taking issue with the ‘material turn’ in the social sciences (including archaeology) as an over-emphasis on materiality by theorists who have never engaged directly with the materials they write about.

Artists can sometimes be accused of the opposite. Ingold is interested in what materials do, not what they are — in their histories, not attributes. In making as opposed to using, the artisan’s every gesture is a question; and completion, he says, is merely a legal fiction. From this perspective, artefacts such as the Parthenon friezes are not static, dead remnants of a past culture, but alive with narrative possibilities. 

Turning away from the rational gaze of the archaeologist, I took the scientific properties of marble merely as a starting point, turning away also from the original cultural context of the Parthenon, and began to use the friezes generate something new. Why not casts and replicas, why not look inside them or turn them inside out? Why not recast them in new materials? After all, marble is a metamorphic rock. 

My investigation of marble stretched from micro-level explorations of the Parthenon sculptures in London at the start of the project, through photography and drawing, to finding marble chips on the streets of Athens at the end. I purchased a block of marble to experiment with and experience its material properties first hand.

Sequence of digitally erasing a marble frieze

One thing I learned about marble is that it is fairly soft — unpolished, it leaves a fine dust on the hands when handling it. Its softness is of course one of the reasons it is favoured for sculpture. Marble sculptures have survived for millennia, but the damage they have sustained along the way is clearly evident in the British Museum, as elsewhere. Such damage can be from conflict — for example an explosion that wrecked the Parthenon in 1687; from deliberate defacing, for religious or political reasons; from natural degradation over time; or damage sustained in their removal from the Parthenon. 

Alternately, I practiced digital ‘sculpting,’ inversely erasing sculpted forms in some of the photos I took, to try and restore the marble to some semblance of its untouched state. What happens when we erase traces of the past, whether colonial histories or traces of any humans? Some limbless figures in the museum already take on an abstract form. To me, these objects appeal as aesthetic objects in their own right; this may derive from my time working in a natural history museum, where I could spend hours in the rocks and minerals gallery. But marble sculptures are never without traces of the human: the edges and overall form bear the marks of having been chipped away. In literally Photoshopping out history, I found ironically that leaving some faint contours of the original carving made my erased, more ‘natural’ stone look more ‘realistic’. What happens if I just leave a hand exposed, emerging from the marble, recalling the Star Wars character Han Solo cast into a carbonite frieze (Kershner 1981)? It might have felt disrespectful, were this the original stone and not a digital image. 

As a next step, I made my own contemporary version of a frieze, making a drawing on tracing paper, at life size, giving it dimension by folding it and mounting it on a lightbox. The fragment I chose was of a hand, that of a charioteer in the procession depicted in the original frieze (part of the quadrennial Panathenaic festival dedicated to Athena). Here was a hand of the past, solidified in stone and eroded over the centuries by the hand of nature. Here too was the original sculptor’s hand (the friezes were believed to be created by Phidias, said to be the greatest artist of the time). In this alternative kind of frieze was my own hand, in every dot on the paper. My use of light referred directly to the material: marble comes from the Ancient Greek marmaírō, meaning ‘to shine or sparkle’ — this results from its low refractivity wherein light penetrates into the stone a few millimetres, causing its translucency, not unlike human skin. My use of fragile tracing paper alludes to the softness of the stone. 

Zooming in further than the fragment brings us to the microscopic scale. Just as the act of observation is never neutral, tunnelling inside a material conversely brings out the subjective, the human, and links back to the macro scale. Greg Orrom-Swan, one of my students, did a detailed study of phosphorus, which is found in rocks as well as animal (including human) bones, asking, ‘How mineral are you? What is your rockness? How human is the ground you stand on?'

Everything is connected, and there is a particularly relevant link here: because phosphorus is a common ingredient in chemical fertilisers, it can build up on carbonate rocks such as marble. Naturally-occurring microbes can also degrade marble, particularly where water leaks in through cracks (Abdelhafez and others 2012), and this represents the most significant source of degradation of outdoor, exposed marble at the Acropolis. Acid rain, caused by the emission of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, also degrades marble. Such emission is not only human-created (from coal-burning power plants, animal agriculture, motor vehicles), but also produced by volcanoes — a prominent feature in Greek geology (Savvides and others 2014).

Surrounding any material is its medium. Environmental psychologist J.J. Gibson (2014) characterises the natural world as composed of substances, surfaces and media. The medium for us is air, for fish water, for earthworms dirt. But these boundaries are not clear, for we also come into contact with dirt and water — water making up a large part of our biochemistry, for example. We walk and build on dirt, but what is ‘dirty air’? Again the particulate links to the human and the macro scales. 

Dirt, according to anthropologist Mary Douglas (1984), is simply matter out of place. For Walter Benjamin, ‘the “matter itself” is no more than the strata which yield their long-sought secrets only to the most meticulous investigation’ (Roelstraete 2013: 16). Many artists have engaged with dirt, for example the Honduran artist Nancy Dayanne Valladares, Dutch artist Sissel Tonn, and my student Vivian Hartung. I mentioned above that archaeologists clean the dirt off of what they dig up, but sometimes the dirt is where the real story is.

Having arrived at the Anthropocene and the colonial by way of geography, I next shift from past to future, in the next section on Architecture.