Louder than Orange

You are looking at a series of colour photographs of the surfaces and edges of worked bone artefacts (pointed objects) from the Late Epipalaeolithic (Late Natufian) levels at Hayonim Terrace, Western Galilee (Israel). They were made and used around 11 thousand years ago. The artefacts that is, not the photographs. The photographs were taken during 1994 and 1995 in the East Building of the McDonald Institute, University of Cambridge, using a Leica Wild Photmakroskop M400 stereo microscope with a Schott KL1500-T light source, to which was attached a Leica Wild MPS52 camera operated by a Wild MPS46 Photautomat. The light source used was an Instralux 6000. The film used was Fuli Reala (ASA 100). The purpose of this microscopy and photography was to identify microscopic traces of the manufacture and use of the objects. You can read all about this research in detail HERE.

Directly beneath the photographs you are reading a series of observations, interpretations and speculations based upon the results of the microscopic and photographic analyses.

Together, the above photographs and descriptions were presented as a visual contribution to an exhibit mounted at the May 2014 Theoretical Archaeology Group conference (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) titled “The Archaeologist as Artist: research photography in a new context”, organized by Kaeleigh Herstad and Elizabeth Konwest. I called the piece “The Points of No Return”, in reference to articles by Ofer Bar-Yosef and Anna Belfer-Cohen in which they argued that the Epipalaeolithic Natufian “culture” was the “point of no return” on the social evolutionary trajectory towards settled agricultural life in the Levant around 10,000 years ago (Bar-Yosef & Belfer-Cohen 1989, 2000).

But the real point of the piece was to think about the use of colour in usewear photography of archaeological artefacts. Microwear photographs are usually black and white. Obviously the financial restrictions of most publications is a major issue here, but there are other interesting theoretical considerations to explore. Do colour usewear images give us something more than black and white/greyscale photographs in terms of analytical and interpretive value? On viewing the photographs, several TAG participants thought they were abstract pictures of landscapes, perhaps computer-enhanced aerial shots of ancient fields and river terraces. This got me thinking about colour studies in archaeology.

In the 1980s, we were told “archaeologists don’t attempt a technicolor version of man’s early life” (Binford 1983). So what does this early life look like once all the colours have been drained away? Another TAG session (Stanford 2009) on “The color of things”, and Jones & MacGregor’s Colouring the Past (2002), worked to address this problem. Both however highlight the conventional archaeological focus on colour – the use of pigments, dyes, colour in material culture studies, the colour of things, objects. Only occasionally do these studies go beyond the material and into the realms of what art historians, philosophers, industrial and organic chemists have long dealt with: the social lives of colours, the “mysteries” of colour.

Maybe in recent “sensory archaeology” we see a similar reaction to that of Wittgenstein – “colours spur us to philosophize”; a move away from the “boring” questions about colour (Taussig 2009) or a “chromophobia” (Batchelor 2000) towards a concern with perception, cognition, semiosis, language and signs, and so on.

Colour allows something else into the picture, or the narrative: the language available – saturation, luminosity. At the technological level – the tips and shafts of those bone points were often burned/heated to achieve a desired hardness, robustness, strength. They were worked not until they reached a certain temperature, but a certain colour. When an object reached that exact colour it was ready to be used, a brownish-black. If it starts to go white it’s too late, too brittle. In the discussion to Jones & MacGregor (2002), Chris Scarre called for not only colouring the past, but also making it sound. The sound/noise of manufacture/production: scraping, sharpening, polishing. The two media are entwined in a sound/colour relationship, witness C.S. Peirce’s “red trumpets”, Winston Smith’s (Orwell’s) “yellow note”. Kristin Hersh’s “louder than orange”. A chromosonic sense of objects emerges.