“I recall lots of good drawers on [Smithfield] and it was a good place to learn tricks from some of the more experienced crew. I remember setting grid pegs in concrete ‘cause we couldn’t get them past the flag and brick basement floors.
It’s all a far cry from the type of planning we are doing on my present site. We are surveying in all our features with total station and doing lots of rectified photography. More pencils please!!”
Brendan Fagan, Smithfield archaeologist, September 2010
Archaeological site drawings, the raw illustrations executed in the field with pencil on permatrace (a transparent plastic drafting film), enjoy a controlled and restricted public; they are rarely enough seen by other archaeologists, let alone displayed in a gallery as artefacts worthy of further consideration in their own right. Their purpose is to provide a scaled visualisation of an area of excavation at any given time; one which can be used to notionally reconstruct whatever has been destroyed by ‘doing’ the archaeology in the first place. The drawings are thus central to a confused archive of scarcely legible notebooks and context sheets, dotted with random splotches of ink formed by raindrops obscuring whole words; boxes of mothballed photographs and colour slides; casual (or considered) observations and memories along with finds and ecofact assemblages all securely rendered, processed and interrogated. After the site has been ‘written up’ and individual features or phases of interest ‘inked-up’ to illustrate the report or publication, the site drawings are usually archived away and rarely, if ever, revisited.
Large urban sites can generate hundreds of such drawings. Smithfield for example has an archive of over 200 plans and sections, with sizes ranging from A1 to A5 or smaller, of which 23 were displayed in the Complex Gallery, Smithfield. The complete site documentation had been deposited with the Dublin City Archaeological Archive and the preparation of this exhibition has been gratefully assisted by Dr Mary Clarke, Dublin City Archivist and Ellen Murphy, Senior Archivist.
The show was curated by Annemarie Kilshaw and Franc Myles and assembled and designed by Sonia Haccius and Roger O’Neill of the Complex. The writer thanks Vanessa Fielding for the idea.
Large archaeological excavations are complex operations, as complex in many respects as the new structures which emerge from the empty spaces left behind by the archaeologists. These newly sterile zones have been ‘archaeologically resolved’: the archaeology within ‘preserved by record’, sucked out of the ground as if by a massive, filthy machine, leaving in its wake a large negative space with neatly stepped sides. Large excavations depend on a precarious short term digging staff, with a core of two or three people contracted over a longer period. An excavation could live or die, depending on who worked there and the attendant personality-disorded clashes. I ‘held the licence’ or directed the Smithfield excavation, with the help of Abi Cryerhall and several other of her supervisory successors; it took four years to excavate and produce the final report.
Crucial to the whole operation was the planning supervisor, whose primary job it was to maintain an accurate grid across the site, one which might drop through the earth in real terms by as much as 5m. The grid was marked out with 30m tapes and ranging rods, those red and white poles seen in most archaeological photographs. It emerged slowly in straight lines of metal bars, rusty lengths of Chinese steel poking up from the ground at regular intervals by about 400mm, arranged in such a fashion that few locations would be more than 5m from any known point.
The much remembered, much loved Simon Dick was also responsible for the drawn record: the plans and sections depicted on permatrace over a laminated grid sheet, both of which were taped to plywood bread crates, heavy MDF boards or stolen marine ply. Moreover, he was responsible for teaching his enigmatic ways to any such diggers who contemplated life with a 5H pencil clutched to frozen fingers, a rusty hand tape and a dirty rubber dangling from the neck attached to a frayed garrotte of orange surveyors’ string.
The upper levels of disturbance were planned at 1/100, initially with Abi hunching over a large drawing board, planning slowly across the machine-churned landscape which had just been shovel-scraped. Her progress across the site was falling well behind that of Simon, who along with an exhausted assistant had ‘put in the grid’ within a week. Simon reminded me of this improbable feat on an almost daily basis over a period of perhaps six years. As the excavation progressed and as the scale dropped to 1/20, several of the diggers became planners and some of their work is displayed on the drawings shown in the Complex.
Most aspirant planners started out one day by helping take levels. These are the numbers represented over crows’ feet, pencilled around a drawing, to all appearances at random. They are calculated by the individual who takes readings through a level on a tripod, while hurling words of encouragement or abuse to the person battling the wind with a staff extended to 3m. The readings are entered into a notebook, and if space permits, transferred onto the plan itself and then reduced (a tedious, wet day job), to individual pencil points in space above sea level.
Artists were not encouraged to apply, unless we were really desparate. One such artist however was a notable exception to the rule and I can only say I thought Jane all she knows about archaeological planning (but not all know!).
Drawing Smithfield was cruelly complicated insofar as there were actually three, or perhaps four separate areas of excavation opened at different periods of the dig. In each case the original grid had to be extended across to the new area and a temporary bench mark installed. In the one instance when a new such area was professionally surveyed, we found the extended grid inaccurate and reverted to our old ways, employing 30m tapes, surveyors’ arrows and Pythagoras.
The drawings were rarely the work of one person, although it is common practice to mark the initials of whoever registered the plan and made the first impression on the blank sheet of permatrace, clean and newly cut from a large roll in the site hut. As we entered the second phase of excavation, the initials SD were seen less frequently, and those of Jane Battley, Jeanette Gustavsson, Brendan Fagan, Liam Chambers, Kara Ward and indeed yet another KW, Kevin Weldon came to prominence. A careful examination of the drawings will identify individual hands with their own arcane symbols, or indeed manuscript annotations informing the next collaborator that peg 1075/1025 is out by 150mmNW. One drawing retained a faded pink smear of blood and dirt, the consequence perhaps of a pencil sharpened to a lethal point with a Stanley blade or penknife.
These images are intended to reflect the confused lines etched with trowels on the earth, a complicated lattice of hues and structural remains representing the past interactions of humans and animals across the site. Drawing conventions are hardly ever explained; where brick structures and cobbled surfaces leave their own distinctive grain, pits and other negative features are represented by hachures, those tiny solid triangles with thin trails indicating the steepness of the slope. Skeletons were rendered with millimetre precision and afforded a reverence somewhere beyond the act of burial itself.
The drawings had to be executed quickly and accurately, for others were waiting to dig once more through the area just planned and recorded. This process repeated itself again and again through the physical past until the natural, the undisturbed subsoil, was achieved. There was little opportunity here for personal styles or flourishes to evolve but evolve they did, the images thus benefiting from an absence of that fundamental homogeneity considered mandatory for technical drawings, but superfluous for our purposes.
Once finished, the drawings were attached to cardboard hangers until the post-excavation phase, when they would be poured over (sometimes literally), minutely examined and interpreted. The drawings rarely depict a single phase of occupation, a luxury on a site this large; out of phase drawings became the bane of our lives, requiring corrected overlays and subtractions to isolate that one crucial moment of human occupation, frozen forever for the archaeological record. For theoretically, and if space permitted, the drawings could be superimposed over one another, their transparency affording a three dimensional image of the excavation at 1/20 from the disturbed layers on top down to the subsoil below. The drawings were eventually presented as clean images for publication, uncomplicated by untidy vestiges of the past or the future.
As Brendan Fagan has observed, new technologies have now taken over and scaled drawing to this extent is rarely undertaken on large archaeological sites today. The planners’ tactile engagement with the bricks and stones, the bones and the earth, so fundamental to our understanding of the mundane minutiae of our past, has been lost. The drawings here are thus unique insofar as they depict something that has vanished, a physical, multi-layered and intricate past which has been systematically obliterated and can now only be reimagined from the pencil marks etched across the permatrace.
Smithfield, Plot 3, level II (b). The White Swan, Smithfield c.1690 (Simon Dick)