Approaches to Archaeological Illustration, A Handbook by Mélanie Steiner

Feb 4, 2020

Approaches to Archaeological Illustration, A Handbook by Mélanie Steiner (Practical Handbook in Archaeology No 18, Council for British Archaeology, 2005)

This time, we would like to introduce a long planned new series here at digitalEPIGRAPHY’s Reading section that concentrates on recording archaeological artifacts. The first entry to this new series is a handbook to archaeological illustrations by Mélanie Steiner and a number of contributing specialists.  

The handbook is primarily intended for students and for those working in archaeological illustration. Its aim is to “prove useful for those working in archaeology, both amateur and professional, and will help illustrators solve problems encountered whilst drawing objects made from a variety of materials.”

Excerpts from the Preface 

“This book is produced at a time of great change in the world of illustration and publishing. So it reflects the situation as it stands this year and methods are still very varied. Some illustrations presented in this handbook were drawn using computer programs and some using no technology at all (except of course in the writing and final printing process!) This Handbook underlines the common principles informing both digital and traditional methods.”

“The approach to each drawing was also governed by the visual information available from which to work. Photographs are a great help and in fact for very detailed objects, they are a necessity… Although accuracy is the first rule, we must often select what we show and what we leave out and some knowledge is needed in order to make these decisions. The artist has to understand what he is looking at and how it was made, before it is possible to put it into lines. They must first learn to translate a three-dimensional object into a two-dimensional black and white line drawing and objects are not necessarily made up of lines at all.”

Book description

“The drawings presented here vary from a piece of wood used to light a fire in Egypt, up to gold of high status and all types of objects in between, from a variety of places and periods. Each illustrator was working under different constraints at the time. The text describes exactly how these objects were drawn, in detail, and also shows the drawings at their drawn scale, as well as at their published size, so that the reader may see the techniques and the actual line widths employed.” 

The handbook is divided into 12 chapters, each demonstrating ways to document artifacts of a particular material. The materials dealt with in the book are bone, ceramic, glass, jet and shale, leather, metal (copper alloy, gold, iron and lead), stone (carved and flint), and wood. The chapters are made up of case studies that present a particular object, its manufacturing and use, and the methods of its documentation. The drawings of the objects are always presented in their original drawn size as well. Most chapters suggest titles for further reading, and the handbook also ends with a bibliography. 

Sample pages

Fig. 1. Roman folding knife from Kent (scale 2:1)

Fig. 21. Fragment of Roman mould-blown glass cup from Sheepen, Colchester (scale 2:1)

Fig. 44. Reconstruction of Anglo-Saxon hooked-mount from Manton Warren (scale 2:1)

Fig. 68. A medieval lead alloy miniature toy jug from Ryton (drawn scale 2:1)

Fig. 73. Large Acheulian pointes flint handaxe from Essex (scale 1:1)

Fig. 83. Firestick from el-Mo’alla, Egypt (scale 1:1)

Approaches to Archaeological Illustration, A Handbook by Mélanie Steiner (Sample page)

What we like

  • Epigraphers working in Egypt are often tasked with documenting artifacts (digitally or otherwise). Drawing different objects of various materials is a skill that needs to be acquired, and one way to begin is with the help of a good handbook. Each case study here includes a detailed step-by-step guide for the documentation of the object it showcases, from handling the object to choosing the right drawing material (paper, pen etc.) and documentation method.
  • So many artists, so many styles. The artists of the handbook use different techniques for illustrating artifacts (stipple technique – i.e. dots of various density indicating the details – when drawing a copper stirrup-strap or a lead miniature jug; details are highlighted by black infills in case of jet objects or window panes; shading with different line weights for emphasis in case of bone knife etc.), which gives a wide range of choice for the epigrapher to choose what suits the object to be drawn and him/her best.
  • The book showcases a great variety of artifacts made from various materials, which could possibly turn up at a fortunate excavation. A tutorial for drawing pottery could have been included, or a segment for drawing in color; otherwise the handbook is quite comprehensive and could prove useful to even the more experienced artists/illustrators.

Additional reading

“Approaches to Archaeological Illustration, A Handbook” is out of print at the moment, but you may read it online here; request a pdf version from the publisher at the Council for British Archaeology website; or purchase it used from both Amazon US and Amazon UK.

You may browse through the other publications of the Council for British Archaeology here.

Précis and commentary by Júlia Schmied

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