Skip to main navigationSkip to main content
The University of Southampton
TAG 2016 Southampton

S7. Enchanting Objects and Ways of Seeing: Visuality and Response in Prehistoric Europe

Session organizers:

Joshua Pollard (University of Southampton,, John Robb (Cambridge University, and Peter Wells (University of Minnesota,

Session abstract:

Adding ornamentation, whether figural or non-figural, to an object requires impulse, effort and imagination. Why were some objects decorated, and others, apparently intended for the same purpose, not? It is unlikely that people in prehistoric Europe saw objects in the same way that we do, but did the different environments in which they lived and their different experiences and comprehensions of life mean that they perceived decoration differently, too? To what degree might decoration serve to affect social relations, generate sensory response that could be more than visual (tactile, of narrative or memory, for example), or protect things and people, respect and beautify materials, or even animate? Papers in this session address Gell’s question of “why decorate things?”, with an aim to develop theory for the study of objects crafted in prehistoric times that we perceive as possessing visual complexity.

Contributor Abstracts:


Ways of seeing in ancient Europe: a deep-time prehistory of vision

John Robb (University of Cambridge)

Can archaeologists reconstruct patterns of vision in the deep past? This paper argues that we can. I begin with an overview of current anthropological and archaeological approaches to art and visual culture, creating a synthetic model of visual culture that combines different insights rather than juxtaposing them as alternatives. Then, as a major case study, by contrasting Neolithic and Bronze/ Iron Age art, I argue that a widespread, systematic transition in the nature of visual culture took place across Europe in the third millennium BC, marking changes in ways of seeing which were tied into changes in politics and personhood.

Seriation and Causality

Dan Hicks (University of Oxford)

This paper explores the theme of “Visuality and Response” through a return to Henry Balfour’s account of The Evolution of Decorative Art (1893). It begins by tracing the unacknowledged debt in the final chapter of Alfred Gell’s Art and Agency to 19th century ethnology. Working through works by John Evans, André Breton, Lévi-Strauss, Sol LeWitt, and Rodney Needham, the paper addresses the connections between seriation and causality in visual archaeology

Adorn. Protect. Empower. The role of ‘applied decoration’ on Iron Age material culture

Melanie Giles (University of Manchester)

One of Gell’s central ideas in The Technology of Enchantment was that complexity of design can be an effective way of achieving apotropaic power through object affects on the viewer (1992): a kind of visual maze that acted as ‘demonic fly paper’ to the evil eye or malign gaze (Gell 1996: 80). These ideas have now been well-trodden in studies of later prehistoric art, particularly in relation to inscribed, cast, forged or beaten decoration, yet the enhancement of an object with applied substances (particularly red glass, coral and stone but also ceramic, gold or bronze) is also an important dimension of Insular Celtic art. Indeed, it encourages us to think not only about the visual impact of such materials (such as colour, Giles 2009) but also tactile, oral and even olefactory effects of substance (Giles 2012). Important studies by Davis on horse-gear (2014) and Adams on brooches (2013) have provided vital insights into aspects of origin, composition and repair of such materials. This paper will draw upon their work whilst arguing from a craft perspective that the ways in which we divide up these materials might not have been how Iron Age people saw their world. It will do so by identifying correspondences between substances - not just in appearance but craft process, behavior and affect - using this to critique the notion that some materials were merely ‘poor substitutes’ for rare exotica. Having argued for a rather different world of Iron Age materials, it will finally foreground the ways in which this technological aspect of crafting – attaching, applying, impressing, clamping, riveting, pinning and gluing – informs models of relationships in the later prehistoric world (after Bruck 2006).

‘Retentions’ of the past and ‘protentions’ towards the future - how can art styles and motifs act?

Jody Joy (University of Cambridge)

The focus of this paper is so-called Celtic art from Britain dating from c. 400 BC – AD 100. Past studies have often sought to identify connections between objects through stylistic comparison and by surveys of motifs and are concerned primarily with the meaning of art. Inspired in part by the work of Alfred Gell but set within the broader context of a change of emphasis within the social sciences, recent research has asked not what art means but what does it do. Gell’s ideas on how art acts as a mind trap or enchants the viewer through its technological virtuosity have been particularly influential, transforming our understanding of Celtic art. But I argue we should not abandon the study of art styles and motifs: they manifest relations between artefacts and in the words of Susanne Küchler, provide the eye with ‘a special thing-like tool for thinking’.

In this paper, I draw on ideas developed in Gell’s paper ‘The Network of Standard Stoppages’, written around 1985 but published posthumously in 2013, where he examined the artistic oeuvre of Marcel Duchamp using ideas developed by Husserl. In particular, Gell was interested in relationships between artworks manifested through ‘retentions’ of the past and ‘protentions’ towards the future. Using this idea, I will examine how art can act by making temporality and relations visible both by retaining and re-articulating past styles and motifs.

Surface, substance and social worlds

Joshua Pollard (University of Southampton)

There is a tendency to treat decoration, style and surface finish (‘art’, ‘form’ and ‘technology’) as separate analytic units, a legacy of their interplay in different interpretive strands since the early development of archaeology during the 19th century. Yet within real worlds they come together to generate visual and tactile effects, and with it fields of efficacy, attainment and memory. Taking the totally of form/surface and its treatment facilitates a deeper comprehension of the qualities of objects and their sociality; here explored through a study of seemingly mundane material culture such as axes, woodwork and ceramics within the British Neolithic.

How moral travel produces difference – telling Nuu-chah-nulth whalebone clubs

Yvonne Marshall (University of Southampton)

Wilson Duff (1975: 12) opens his book images stone b.c.: “Images seem to speak to the eye, but they are really addressed to the mind. They are ways of thinking, in the guise of ways of seeing.” Duff went on to suggest that the choice of stone as a medium for seeing-thinking was a move designed to place thinking outside of time – and thereby into a world of being (cf Marshall 2000 World Archaeology). In a recent article in the Canadian Journal of Archaeology (2015), Natasha Lyons and I argued in a similar vein for an understanding of objects as spatial “tellings” materialised in non-linear, non-narrative and therefore a-temporal forms. Our common point with Duff is that objects/images are arguments concerning possibilities for being and becoming, not representations of beings.

Using whalebone clubs as my forum, I show in this paper how the Nuu-chah-nulth people of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, create object “tellings” (ways of thinking) which set out a moral or ontological geography. Moral travel through this geography constitutes a process of becoming which produces difference (cf Marshall 2012 Feminist Theory). Simple moral travel produces everyday growth and change. But when more fundamental transformation is sought, through engagement with great power or wealth, moral travel is demanding and dangerous. The transformative possibilities of moral travel are calibrated in effort and risk.

The perfection of imperfection? Decoration on Early Bronze Age ceramics

Claire Copper (University of Bradford)

In his examination of a number of Scottish Pygmy cups Alex Gibson (2004: 280) pointed out that some of these vessels have ‘careless’ or ‘spoilt’ decoration. New research, as part of a larger project aiming to compile a full corpus of all currently known examples of these ceramics is showing that this may in fact be a deliberate feature of these pots, with a clear intention on the part of the potter to create specific visual tricks or effects. A number of the vessels display complex decorative schemes incorporating repeated motifs and panels often highlighted by the use of different coloured inlays. However, closer examination reveals that not all of these are seldom as truly regular. Given the fact that mistakes are easily remedied prior to firing, it would seem that there may be other motivations behind this.

This presentation will look at how this phenomenon may have started within the Beaker ceramic tradition and will share a number of examples of how these visual tricks are employed on a variety of early Bronze age ceramics, before moving on to discuss the idea that irregularities and ‘mistakes’ were fully intended by the potters and may have been linked to the nature or type of death suffered by the individual in the grave.

Vessels with signs and symbols of the Late Bronze Age of Southern Transurals: new approaches to atypical ornaments

Nikolai Shcherbakov, Iia Shuteleva & Tatiana Leonova (Bashkir State Pedagogical University, Russia)

Today’s interpretation of the vessels with atypical signs and symbols combines contextual analysis and post-processual approaches to social and material issues in archeological sites. Southern Transurals in the Late Bronze Age from c. 1820 to 1795 calBC was a contact area of Srubnay and Andronovskaya (Alakul) population groups. Cultural traditions of these population groups are distinguished by the high degree of standardization in morphologic forms and ornamental composition of pottery vessels. Standard forms of ornamentation are presented by dental print, notches, scribed lines, rhombs, open triangles, seed-shaped imprints. The specified atypical signs and symbols on the vessels are rare archaeological finds. By the year 2000 on the territory of Srubnay community from river Dnieper to Southern Transurals there were identified 308 of such vessels. Currently the number of such rare vessels increased at the settlements and burials on the territory of Southern Transurals. Complex symbolic figures, wheel depictions, solar symbology, anthropomorphic and zoomorphic (horse, snake) images may be referred to such symbols on the territory of Southern Transurals. Nowadays application of natural-science methods of analysis of archeological material, including paleogenetic analyses and ceramic petrography (P. Quinn), let define social context of the use of vessels with atypical signs and symbols. On the territory of Kazburun archaeological microdistrict in burial sites and settlements such vessels were found by the skeleton of a teenager (female), near fireplaces and wells, inside dwellings and structures, which let us talk about special social and sacral role of these vessels. Besides, the number of such “deviations” in ornaments of the vessels increases with growth of contacts between the two population groups – Srubnay and Andronovskaya (Alakul). This research was sponsored by the RFH and the RB in the framework of a scientific project number 16-11-02003 a/u.

Pattern as Patina: Iron Age ‘Kintsugi’ in East Yorkshire

Helen Chittock (University of Southampton & The British Museum)

Kintsugi (“to repair with gold”) is the Japanese art of mending broken ceramics using lacquer mixed with powdered gold, silver or platinum. This type of repair can create a striking visual effect and not only restores a broken pot to its functional state, but results in an object with far more value that the original pot. These mended objects acquire value via a specifically Japanese aesthetic that sees the wear, defects and patina associated with ageing not as flaws but as positive characteristics.

The philosophical framework within which kintsugi sits is useful when considering the motivations behind the treatment of objects in Iron Age East Yorkshire. A study of the biographies of plain and patterned objects from the region has shown that some types of object were not just used but repaired, curated, fragmented and reassembled over time. Decorative pattern on objects played an important role in making these varied histories visible. As well as making objects unique and individual, it made wear more discernible and where repairs occurred, they were sometimes decorative in themselves. In addition, both patterned and plain objects were fragmented and the components reassembled to make new objects, sometimes juxtaposing different patterns against each other.

It seems that in Iron Age East Yorkshire, certain objects accrued value over time through developing patinas of age and visible biographies. This paper discusses the nature of this value and the role of decorative pattern within it through a comparison with kintsugi. I will argue that, as well as representing particular Iron Age aesthetics, visible object biographies told important stories about objects and their relationships with people.

Linear Complexity in Late Iron Age Pottery Design: What Did it Mean?

Peter S. Wells (University of Minnesota, USA)

In the second century BC in the central regions of continental Europe, decoration consisting of vertical lines became common on several categories of pottery. The decoration was complex and “enchanting” in Gell’s sense. Sometimes the lines were made with combs, other times with a single sharp point. On some vessels the lines are all straight, on others they curve vertically across the shoulder, then dip horizontally toward the base. On some vessels, lines exhibit swirls rather than straight verticals, on others the lines cut sharply across one another. These new and complex linear patterns can be connected to other changes taking place at the time – establishment of the oppida, expansion of coinage in three metals, mass production of tools and ornaments, and beginnings of the adoption of writing – that enable us to suggest why this new and often enchanting set of design patterns became so prevalent at the time. 


Privacy Settings