Aesthetics and Objectivity in the Visual Representation of Artifacts (Part 1) – Traditional Object Documentation

Aesthetics and Objectivity in the Visual Representation of Artifacts (Part 1) – Traditional Object Documentation

Projects June 24. 2020

“The form of a representation cannot be divorced from its purpose and the requirements of the society in which the given visual language gains currency.” [1]

Broken figurine of a child’s “paddle doll.” Freehand pencil representation on mylar, drawn in multiple views (sun-dried clay, South Abydos settlement site, 2004).

Any kind of visual interpretation, either being a color rendering of a wall painting or a modeled three-dimensional view of an object, must be tailored to the audience and to the purpose of the actual drawing, whatever the range of technological aids available at the moment. Nonetheless, once meeting these requirements, the artistic and technical level of the interpreter and the nature of available technology remain the determining factors. As these three variables (purpose, skillset, and available technology) show a considerable diversity through the entire history of object documentation, our goal with the following set of articles can’t be the presentation of an ultimate guide to the visual representation of artifacts. Nonetheless, digitalEPIGRAPHY feels the need to tackle this vital area by explaining a few of the guiding principles that worked for us over the years. Naturally, we added a range of sample drawings to illustrate these guidelines visually.

It is a well-known fact that at the dawn of archaeological object documentation, the limited technological background gave birth to freehand artistic representations. Ideally, artists were experts in the field of Egyptology with exceptional technical skills, making considerable efforts to indicate a faithful image of their material on paper. Their renderings concentrated on the accurate copying of external features and texture. The artistic conventions of any given era had a significant influence on their products.[2] Fast forward to today, single-view photographs and drawings still represent the majority of archaeological material in most archaeological publications, even with the advent of computer reconstruction and multi-dimensional adaptation of objects. 

Today, most scholars continue publishing an overwhelming number of drawings in their publications (our most recent Reading entry shows a fine example of such efforts), with versatility and editability being among the most often cited reasons. Somewhat controversially, one direction taken by artists tends towards creating more and more realistic illustrations with drawings so detailed and well shaded that they almost look like photographs. Unfortunately, the more the drawings resemble photographs, the more complicated they are to comprehend. After a certain level of complexity is added to the drawing, it becomes more useful to just turn to the photograph instead. A typical example of this variant is visible below, where the printed photo provides the background for the transparent material to be used for tracing. The artist makes a careful “copy” of the photograph onto calque or mylar, using Rapidograph pen and black India ink. Both texture and details are indicated by a range of meticulously crafted dots, applied in variable density while leaving less intense areas blank.[3]  

Photo (left) versus drawing (right) of a headdress from a Ptah-Sokar-Osiris statue (Wood with yellow paint, Tomb G, Chamber 3, drawing by K. Vértes, 1999).

Photographs, the closest traditional competitors to drawings, have always been regarded as the most objective medium for depicting an artifact. As soon as it became possible to print good reproductions of photographs, it was no longer necessary to use drawings to provide “realistic” representations. The immense takeover led by digital photography and –more recently – photogrammetry or Physically based rendering (PBR) removes most of the obstacles from recording an object in its “purest”, most unbiased form. These computerized renderings record all that is visible to the camera’s lenses with nothing added or taken away, presenting an overall realistic impression of their subject. However, for this very reason, they have the disadvantage of being unselective. Although utilizing emerging digital technologies, such as Reflection Transformation Imaging (RTI), might help with providing different light conditions and some artificial intelligence to digital representations, they still may show a great deal of surface features irrelevant or straight-up confusing to the reader. By contrast, a good drawing selectively portrays the details that the observer needs to recognize and edits out extraneous information, as was demonstrated by Susan Osgood in one of our latest case studies.

Reassembly of KV 63 Coffin C, drawn post conservation from measurements and observation showing areas of conservation and damage (left) and facial modeling (right) (Drawing by Susan Osgood).

Nonetheless, as technology marches forward in huge leaps, the supporting role of artistic drawings is repeatedly questioned by scholars and the general audience alike. The dilemma often is this: do we need a visual mediator (the artist) for interpreting the data for us or should everybody draw their conclusions from the most objective representation, which is the photograph? We should always be in favor of a mediator as long as the interpretation is based on scholarly observations, employing a generally approved visual language and creating representations that are compatible with other illustrations of similar artifacts. The Epigraphic Survey[4] and Davies[5] laid down the groundwork and set the basic guidelines for temple/tomb wall documentation almost a hundred years ago. While several scholars, such as Schäfer[6], Caminos[7], Traunecker[8], Malek[9], and Strudwick,[10] made considerable efforts to systematize this knowledge, ancient Egyptian object documentation still doesn’t have its universal guidelines. Therefore, many of the recent publications present an often-confusing mishmash of different drawing styles, indicating objects with mere outlines and trusting the photograph to show all the details. In other examples, an attempt is made to note details and texture that is entirely or partially eliminated during the scanning/publishing process. Similar data loss can be observed when the initial field drawing is inked in the studio (often by a different artist) with no interconnection between the relevant parties.

In the following paragraphs, digitalEPIGRAPHY would like to present a practical classification of objects and object drawings that might help with finding a suitable method for representation, either working digitally or in a more traditional way. Although there will always be exceptions, one important rule to keep in mind is that one of the primary tasks of object documentation is to build a corpus of drawing principles that treats similar object groups in the same way. Nonetheless, the illustration scheme must always be tailored to the actual project’s standpoints. Building a well-defined documentation system is especially crucial in dealing with such coherent material like finds coming from a single tomb, where the objects often relate to each other in an even more sophisticated level. 

Objects can be roughly categorized into three approximate groups, at least from an epigraphic point of view:

  • The first group contains objects with a flat surface prepared to hold all the decorative elements. This two-dimensional area offers all the information, with the artifact itself having less relevance in the visual representation. Stelae, ostraca, wall fragments containing carved, incised, and/or painted written and/or figurative elements usually belong in this group. Visual rendering of these artifacts often ignores or minimizes references to the artifact’s material and surface treatment, solely focusing on the indication of decorative elements. 

Using a greyscale color-coded line drawing can be very rewarding in representing painted wooden coffins, where each decorative panel appears within well-distinguishable borders, such as on this example from TT 65. (Earlier traces are indicated with texture fill on top.)
  • Treating the second group shows a lot more flexibility, drawings that belong here are created by a transfusion of the other two groups. Although the two-dimensional surface decoration of these objects is still the essential information carrier, material and shape should also be indicated, but in a less prominent manner. By emphasizing the physical aspects of these artifacts, the artist is able to show additional data such as broken surfaces, erosion, preliminary or secondary usage, etc.

Various pieces of wooden boxes found at the Osiris Temple site in Abydos. The sun-shadow outline drawings (inked by Rapidograph) with the added texture markers indicate both textual and material characteristics (not to scale).  
  • Objects in the third group have the physical appearance as their primary or most important information carrier. To highlight distinct features, the artist often uses some kind of modeling/shading in their representation. 

The drawing of this fragile copper artifact wrapped around a porous wooden core clarifies the position of each nail while highlighting the rather characteristic protruding areas close to the edges. Yet another prominent area is the inundation in the center with evident marks of reparation.

Naturally, there might be some overlap between these basic categories, and some objects might belong to either or all of them depending on research preferences. For example, a painted ceramic object might have an entirely different meaning for an art historian than a ceramicist. 

To visually indicate the difference between these groups, we have to determine the drawing method and the toolset very carefully. With the first group, deciding on the process is relatively easy. Since we have to deal with two-dimensional surfaces, using the standard wall scene documentation methodology seems the obvious choice. Most of the objects carrying carved or incised textual and figural elements should be treated according to the sun-shadow line drawing conventions[11], implementing the Chicago House method.[12]

Most painted decorative surfaces also belong to this group. When the surface is decorated with multiple shades of color, painted outlines can provide the background for color-coding, the application of a simple dotted texture specific to each primary color in the scenes.[13] The overall tone of these carefully created black and white patterns resemble the actual hues as they would appear on a grayscale photograph taken of the object. Although the practice of presenting colorful scenes as black and white drawings originated from the high cost and low quality of color printing, such a method also adds a certain amount of clarity to the graphic representations, so, it has remained relevant today.[14] However, like all methods, greyscale color-coding has its limits, especially when the surviving paint has no definite outlines or is represented only by sporadic pigment traces. When recording less prominent paint traces or monochrome remains, such as graffiti[15] or painted ceramics, color information can be indicated on the photograph. In dealing with such cases, the drawing must focus on the faithful representation of pigment texture, filling in the traces.     

This drawing indicates no record of the actual material (limestone), instead, it concentrates on the reliable indication of the multiple sketch layers (graffito of a lion being hunted from Abydos).

As we mentioned before, the second group is somewhat transitional, since we can’t treat these artifacts as silhouettes, merely framing the painted and/or carved elements. Yet, we can’t add dense modeling to the surface without the chance of losing some critical information. On artifacts such as the above wooden panels, sealed jar stoppers, seal impressions,[16] etc. the decorative scheme is still our most crucial data-source. Nonetheless, the minimalistic inclusion of surface features might reveal additional information about a particular era, usage, material, etc. as can be seen below.

Drawing of a clay jar stopper from the Old Kingdom settlement site in Abydos, inked freehand by Rapidograph pens, indicating basic modeling of the surface for contextual information.

When representing painted pottery, the rules of what to indicate and in what manner can get a little unclear.[17]One would naturally think that focus should be on the painted elements; nonetheless, designating a light surface texture to the representation can get a long way in understanding the artifact. When dealing with this particular group of objects, a facsimile outline drawing is created on matte acetate, using very rigid (mostly 5—7H) graphite pencil. The outline drawing is enhanced by fine modeling wherever adding some context seems useful. Conventional treatment with illustrations of the first two groups is that they must be inked (either by Rapidograph ink pens or digitally) before finalized for publication. 

Ibis jar with multiple painted demotic inscriptions. Side view (left) and virtually rolled-out mosaic view (right) (inked line/texture drawing on mylar, Shunet El Zebib, Abydos).

This third group is the largest, and objects within this pool have always been the most complicated and labor-intense to deal with. Here belongs every artifact that holds significant information as a three-dimensional entity, starting with sculpture and moving towards everyday objects. The following questions must be answered (often on a case-by-case basis) before documenting these types of objects:

  • What view(s) would give the ultimate coverage of all the information the artifact beholds? Usually, side, front, back and top views are indispensable for the proper representation;[18] nonetheless, sometimes only a spatial point of view can indicate certain features accurately. Smaller objects, such as amulets, beads, ostraca, statuette and figurines, are usually drawn in 1:1 while larger artifacts are often represented in a proportionate reduction. Whatever the scaling method used by the artist, it must be meticulously planned and applicable throughout the entire collection of similar objects (the best example to cite here would be fragments of the same wall, statue, furniture, etc.).[19]

Drawing small objects in actual lifesize is not always an easy task, as proven by this heart amulet made of precious stone (Senwosret III settlement site in Abydos, 2004).

  • How much modeling should be applied on the surface? The answer usually depends on the individual’s aesthetic preferences. As the main criteria, no matter how artistic a representation is, it must emphasize the data (faded, hard to “read” details, unusual features, relevant references to material, etc.) instead of hiding it.[20] As a general rule, even with the most straightforward, purest representation in mind, the artist should be capable of presenting the object as a three-dimensional entity.[21] There is a wide range of available methods to be used for indicating texture on a drawing. Applicable techniques range from the already mentioned dotted variant[22] to heavy shading. Sometimes a few essential hatch marks will do, showing only the main structural elements,[23] while other scholars prefer photo-realistic modeling.[24] We prefer pencil sketching[25] over any other methods and would like to warn against smudging or any use of gradient effects that are often not picked up by the scanner while infinitely harder to replicate during the inking process. Yet another proceeding guideline should be mentioned here. As far as we have access to the actual artifact, we should never substitute it with a photograph as the primary source for drawing. digitalEPIGRAPHY has always promoted our visual interpretation to be based on first-hand observations, and it becomes even more critical with the 3rd dimension included.
  • How accurate should the drawing be when compared with the photo? A lot of experts don’t include drawings with their publications, saying that the accuracy and objectivity of photography are not accomplishable by any visual interpretation. However, as we have already stated, our goal with the drawing is precisely to eliminate the photo’s objectivity by emphasizing the crucial details (painted decoration, features barely visible on eroded surfaces, etc.) while eliminating certain elements (dirt, discoloration, etc.).[26] Sometimes though these ‘disturbing elements’ are THE information carriers that must be emphasized in the documentation, such as shown on the following drawing:

Eroded terracotta Bes figurine. While the photograph shows almost no distinguishable features, the artist was able to emphasize certain characteristic elements, such as feathers, ears, eyes, or the tongue. Furthermore, the drawing indicates the rough mixture of vegetal elements in the ceramics and the hollowness of the broken figurine.
  • Finally, the ultimate question: What drawing method should we use? Traditionally, object drawings are initially created by pencil and inked in the studio in preparation for being printed and published in a physical book. While most pencil drawings look elegant and richly detailed, sometimes much of this detail and depth is lost by the time of getting into the book. The difficulties arise from the different nature of pencil and ink. In order to indicate deeper shades using a pencil, it is enough to press it harder onto the paper or switch to a softer variant. When inking with the Rapidograph using black India, the same result can only be achieved by using denser lines, dots, etc. Because of the very nature of these two mediums, we prefer the elimination of the inking process entirely to preserve the little nuances so crucial to this third group of objects. 

In order to show the level of detail achievable through pencil drawings, most of the sample drawings presented in this article are left unmodified. Naturally, promoting traditional media doesn’t mean that we can’t take advantage of computers at the last stage of the process. Adobe’s Photoshop and alike are perfect tools to clean up the background and provide the framework for publication. Be as it may, we must stop here and discuss the broader implementation of computer technology in object documentation in the second part of this article. To be continued…

Original pencil drawing (left) compared with the digitally “cleaned (right) version. Using the right digital tools can minimize data loss while preserving crucial details.

[1] Piggott, S. Antiquity Depicted: Aspects of Archaeological Illustration. London 1978, 7.

[2] To cite some of the well know examples: Description de L’Egypte Publiée par les ordres de Napoléon Bonaparte. Köln 1994, A. Vol. I, Pl. Pl. 69, A. Vol. II, Pl. 21-22, 32, 56-57; D’Avennes, P. Atlas of Egyptian Art. Cairo 1991, Pl. I. 44, II. 25, 30-33.

[3] Schreiber, G. The ​Mortuary Monument of Djehutymes II. Finds from the New Kingdom to the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty. Archaeolingua 2008, Plate LXXIV.

[4] Bell, L. The Epigraphic Survey: Philosophy of Egyptian Epigraphy after Sixty Year’s Practical Experience. In: J. Assmann et al. (eds): Problems and Priorities in Egyptian Archaeology. London and New York 1987, 47-50; Thomas, N. (ed.) The American Discovery of Ancient Egypt. Essays. Los Angeles 1996, 102 Fig. 71-74.

[5] See Strudwick, N. The Tombs of Amenhotep, Khnummose, and Amenmose at Thebes (Nos. 294. 253, and 254). Oxford 1996, 127 and Pinch-Brock, L. In the footsteps of Nina and Norman de Garis Davies. In: EA 17 1996, 83-85 for references to the Davieses’ method; samples of painted facsimile drawings to be found in Pinch-Brock 2000, 19.

[6] Schäfer, H. (E. Brunner-Traut ed.) Principles of Egyptian Art. Oxford 1974, 80-198.

[7] Caminos, R. A. The Recording of Inscriptions and Scenes in Tombs and Temples. In: Caminos, R. A. and Fischer, H. G. Ancient Egyptian Epigraphy and Paleography. New York, 1976, 17-20.

[8] Traunecker, C. Les Techniques d‘Epigraphie de Terrain: Principes et Pratique. In: J. Assmann et al. (eds): Problems and Priorities in Egyptian Archaeology. London and New York 1987, 265-283.

[9] Malek, J. Egyptian epigraphy as practiced at Memphis. EES Newsletter 3 (1988), 4-6.

[10] Strudwick 2001, 126.

[11] Traunecker I987, 272-273 and Fig. 1; Redford, D. B. Excavations at Mendes Vol. I. The Royal Necropolis. Boston and Leiden 2004, Figs. 48-52. In most cases, adding modeling to relief fragments causes unnecessary clutter and distracts from the decorative elements.

[12] McClain, J. B. The Chicago House Method. In: Davies, V. and Laboury, D. eds. The Oxford Handbook of Egyptian Epigraphy and Paleography, University Press, Oxford 2020, 329-343.

[13] Some examples of cartonnage documentation to be found in Hofmann, E. Das Grab des Neferrenpet gen. Kenro (TT 178). (Theben 9) Mainz am Rhein. 1995, 89. Indicating the painted decoration with dotted and/or striped pattern can be confusing when shown together with modeled surface details. For color-coded painted cartonnage see also Feucht, E. Das Grab des Nefersecheru (TT 296).(Theben 2) Mainz am Rhein 1985, Tafel LXXI and Raven, M. J. The Tomb of Maya and Meryt II. Objects and Skeletal Remains. Leiden 2001, Plate 50.

[14] Some of the published details of drawings made by the author using the “Imiseba method” appear in T. A. Bács “Theban Tomb 65: The Twentieth Dynasty Decoration.” In: Egyptian Archaeology 21 (2002), United States, Egypt Exploration Society, Page 24.; T. A. Bács “A Royal Litany in a Private Context.” In: Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo 60 (2004), Page 3.; K. Vértes “Aesthetics and objectivity – new ways and old tradition in object documentation.” In A. Gulyás and K. Endreffy (eds) Proceedings of the Fourth Central European Conference of Young Egyptologists. Studia Aegyptiaca XVIII, Budapest 2007, 396.; K. Vértes “Az epigráfia módszere és lehetõségei Imiszeba sírjában” In Ókor VII/1-2, Budapest, 57.; G. Schreiber The Mortuary monument of Djehutymes II – Finds from the New Kingdom to the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty.

[15] There is a wide variety of treating graffiti in visual recording. For examples, see Dziobek, E. Das Grab des Ineni, Theben Nr. 81. (AV 68) Mainz am Rhein 1992, 102-108 (Outline-drawing indicatinge textual and figural remains. No texture fill, no representation of faded pigment traces and no indication of overall fragment outline.); Brack, A. – Brack, A. Das Grab des Tjanuni, Theben Nr. 74. (AV 19) Mainz am Rhein 1977, 72-77 Abb. 25, 27. 29-30 (A mixture of solid fill and shading to indicate faded elements, fragment is indicated by single weight outlines.); Guksch, H. Die Gräber des Nacht-Min und des Men-cheper-Ra-seneb, Theben Nr. 87 und 79. (AV 34) Mainz 1995, 177 Abb. 78-79 (Solid black fill indicates the mass of painted features, no representation of pigment preservation, relevant rock surface elements are indicated by single weight outlines, while damaged areas are shown by a striped pattern.); Alexanian, N. Dahsur II. Das Grab des Prinzen Netjer-aperef. Die Mastaba II/1 in Dahsur. Mainz am Rhein 1999, 79-91 (Solid fill indicating pigment traces, hatching in various density indicating color preservation.); and Dom, A. Men at work. Zwei Ostraca aus dem Tal der Könige mit nicht-kanonischen Darstellungen von Arbeitrn. MDAIK 61 (2005), Tafeln 2-4 (Reproducing painted ostraca by using an ink providing an effect, similar to the original). For using various colors in order to distinguish between multiple layers of painted graffiti see Karkowski, J. The Temple of Hatshepsut. The Solar Complex. (Deir el Bahari 6) Varsovie 2003, Plate 57.

[16] An interesting example of reverse seal impression reproduction indicates the incised area with being left blank while using heavy modeling on the surface around. Although single weight outlines separate the decorative elements from this modeled surface, the object gets a little too much attention versus the seal impressions that stay somewhat hidden in the background. See: Kahl, J et al. Die Funde aus dem ‘Menesgrab‘ in Naqada: ein Zwischenbericht. In: MDAIK 56 (2001), 171-185. Abb. 3. 

[17] Feucht 1985, 300 Tafel LXVI (only the outline of the object is indicated); Graefe, E. Das Grab des Padihorresnet, Obervermögensverwalter der Gottesgemahlin des Amun (Thebanisches Grab Nr. I96) 2. Tafeln. Tumhout, Belgium 2003, Tafel 148 (the outline of the object is indicated with homogeneous fill representing damaged areas).

[18] Feucht 1985, 300 Tafel LXVII in some cases when the object is perfectly symmetrical or have a smooth, homogeneous side etc., less than three views could be indicated.

[19] Seyfried, K.-J. Das Grab des Amonmose (TT 373). (Theben 4) Mainz am Rhein 1990, 282-283.

[20] Graefe, E. 2003, Tafel 61. As we stated at the beginning, often a photo seems to be overwhelmed with important details when placed next to the drawing of the same artifact. Oversimplification in archaeological illustration should be rather avoided. The utter omitting of surface elements in representing objects, especially with eroded, damaged or unfinished surfaces is usually counterproductive.    

[21] Assmann, J. Das Grab des Amenemope TT 41. (Theben 3) Mainz am Rhein 1991, 231. When showing different shabties from the tomb of Amenemope, Assmann only presents a rough outline drawing of the objects with the indication of some of the painted decoration and traces of text. The artifact’s style, material, the erosion of the surface stay hidden for the observer and begs for instantly turning towards the photograph. In the case of a ceramic coffin from Saqqara (Raven, M. J. M. J. Raven: The Tomb of Pay and Raia at Saqqara. Leiden and London 2005, Plates 94 and 101) the drawing shows only a rough outline with no details or stylistic elements indicated. There is a huge data loss (material, shape, face details. broken and missing pieces etc.) when comparing with the photo of the same object shown on Plate 94.

[22] Seyfried 1990, 282-286; Seyfried, K.-J. Das Grab des Djehutyemhab (TT 194). Mainz am Rhein 1995, 96—97; Philip, G. Tell el-Dab’a XV Metalwork and Metalworking Evidence of the Late Middle Kingdom and the Second Intermediate Period. Wien 2006, Fig. 10 and Fig. 12. The most intense, almost photo-like version of dotted texturing is to be found in Whitehouse, H. A Decorated Knife Handle from the “Main Deposit” at Hierakonpolis. In. MDAlK 58 (2002), Fig. 6.

[23] Strudwick 1996, Plates 48-50.

[24] Seyfried 1990, 263.

[25] A similar method to be found in Giddy, L. Kom Rabi’a: The New Kingdom and Post-New Kingdom Objects. London 1999, Plate 70.

[26] Redford 2004, Figs. 54-56. In most cases, Redford‘s drawings are simply too dark, because the modeling is too heavy that often appears black in the publication.




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