Small Finds: between art and archaeology

5th July 2018

An archaeological laboratory is not the first place you'd think to find an art exhibition. However, the display cases outside the entrance to the Archaeology and Natural History labs and offices in the School of Culture, History and Language are now hosting a small but fascinating installation of work by artist, archaeologist and DECRA Fellow Dr Ursula Frederick.

The work called 'Small Finds' currently exists as an installation in the display cases outside the second floor entrance to the Archaeology and Natural History rooms in the Coombs Building. These cases, intended for the display of specimens, now hold dozens of fragmented pieces of masonry which are printed with photographs collected in the laboratories and offices of the archaeologists.

None of the photographs are complete; there are images of specimens, equipment, files, people, books. Individually the images do not make sense, but cohere into a curious collection, which is a visual ethnography of the department of Archaeology and Natural History at the School of Culture, History and Language.

Formally trained as an archaeologist as well as having a PhD through the School of Art and Design, Ursula is in a unique position to probe the creative possibilities of research practice.

"I wanted to consider the role that photography has played in the construction and communication of archaeological knowledge," says Ursula.

Ursula produced the work with the support of the Vice Chancellor's College Artist Fellowship Scheme, established by the School of Art and Design 2013. In this scheme artists with postgraduate research qualifications formed collaborative relationships with researchers in other disciplines to produce work together in a way that is intended to expand the definition of research.

A secondary aim was to explore the shared terrain of archaeology and art as practice-driven research processes. "I sensed that so many of the activities that contribute to archaeological scholarship, but which rarely feature in its discourse, had much in common with the work of the artist. I am thinking, for example, of experimental efforts at making stone artefacts or the acute understanding of materiality that is acquired through the daily handling of objects."

"I became interested in the many optical devices used by archaeologists in the recording, analysis and dissemination of their research. From macro-photography captured through a microscope to the aerial mapping produced with drones and satellites, the visualising technologies employed in archaeology vary enormously," she observes. It made sense to turn the lens back on the practice of the discipline itself.

"Archaeology is an inherently collaborative, multi-modal and interdisciplinary endeavour. This may be due to the sheer magnitude of materials, methods and tasks demanded of the discipline but it is also what makes it such a socially-engaged branch of research. Even if one could manage to survey, excavate, and sieve a site all by herself, the archaeologist is unlikely to sort, analyse, interpret and communicate her results without the assistance of others. Consequently, although I commenced this Fellowship with two identified collaborators, Dr Sally Brockwell and Professor Sue O'Connor, I have come away with the privilege of having shared this project with many others.

"The photographs I made during my time incorporate the staff, doctoral students, visitors and even Elvie the companion dog who together made up the social and scholarly environment of the department during my time there.

"As well as focussing on the tools of 'seeing' and imaging, I wanted to integrate references to various sources of reading, writing and data, such as a usb or a field diary, and the different hands involved in the processes of doing archaeology. Looking closely at the department's research through my camera, I was struck by the many places, cultures, times and practices that the discipline encapsulates and collectively constitutes the 'work' of archaeology.

"Archaeology is a knowledge system comprised of re-contextualised fragments which, when harnessed collectively, frame a vision of our world and the humanity that has made. To communicate this idea I made a selection of images from hundreds I had taken and printed them onto pieces of wall rubble which I retrieved from the building as part of it was being refurbished. This work, Small Finds, literally draws upon the physical fabric of the School itself," says Ursula. The Fellowship proved very fruitful, and led to a new area of enquiry for which Ursula was awarded an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Research Award (DECRA).

"My postdoctoral project Visualising Archaeologies offers an exciting opportunity to explore the potential of creative practice in archaeology and heritage research. Through my DECRA project I continue to collaborate with archaeologists at ANU (CAP and CASS) as well as other archaeologists and heritage professionals at other universities."

An exhibition featuring Ursula's work as well as some of the other recipients of the VCCAF scheme is currently on display at the School of Art and Design Gallery until 13th of July. Vice Chancellor Brian Schmidt will speak at a reception for the exhibition on Monday 9th of July at 6pm

Please contact CHL Lab Manager Ulrike Proske if you would like to visit Small Finds.

Updated:  7 July 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, Culture, History & Language/Page Contact:  CHL webmaster