Where have all the photos (of archaeology) gone? Gone to recycle bins, every one.

Amphitheatre, Leptis Magna.
Amphitheatre, Leptis Magna.

There’s no getting away from it: the Roman city of Leptis Magna in Libya is gorgeous.  It’s situated by the sea, the surrounding area is very underdeveloped, thanks to Gaddafi’s tyranny, and it gives you such a great idea of what a Roman city looked like.  I’ve been twice, and would gladly go again.  Even the approach to the amphitheatre (left) is like something out of a movie.

This thought was prompted by looking through some photographs of the city online.  At the moment there is no package tourism to Libya.  Nor will there be, until some kind of government arises once more.

Meanwhile, we do have photographs.  Everyone who did go made copious photographs, and a lot of them appear online.  Which is rather fortunate, really.

A couple of days ago I was searching vainly for photographs of Graeco-Roman objects from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.  I found one site which presented as many photos of the Egyptian objects as it could find, with the note that photography was “no longer allowed” in the museum.  That particular policy seems very short-sighted now, considering the attempts to loot the museum during the revolution.  But at least some are online.

What I was looking for was the Mithraic monuments.  For some time now I’ve been collecting photographs of all sorts of Mithraic monuments for the Mithras site, to create a reference.  Even now I can tell that some interesting photos were once online, and no longer are.  But once offline, they are gone.

Sites like Archive.org, which retain copies of sites, often omit photographs from the pages that they archive.  Other sites misguidedly block archiving, which is sad when they then vanish in their turn.

We really do need a proper archive of photos uploaded to the web.  It is a shame to lose what has been made and has been uploaded, when we need not.  All that is required is will, disk-space, and some copyright-friendly location.

Archaeologists are particularly in need of a photographic archive.  Their trade is one of physical monuments.  You might think these are permanent enough, yet it seems remarkably hard even to locate them sometimes.  I have been unable to discover the whereabouts of the finds from the Carnarvon / Caernarfon mithraeum, since the closure of the museum.  Photographs would be invaluable… but of course I can’t make them if I can’t find the objects.  Again and again in Vermaseren’s Corpus Inscriptionum et Monumentum Religionis Mithriacae I find statements that such and such an altar is “lost”.  And, let’s face it … archaeologists are notoriously bad at publishing excavation reports.

While working on the Egyptian monuments in the CIMRM, I noticed that at least two photographs included in it seem to be reproduced (without credit) from earlier publications.  I don’t disapprove – on the contrary, such a catalogue of monuments might validly do just this.   I have often gone to older publications myself and found photographs of items, where the item is included in CIMRM but no photo is given.  But it shows that getting hold of images of monuments has long been a bottleneck.  All the same, I bet some tourist photos of them exist, uncatalogued and forgotten.

There’s a lot of room for improvement.  But it might start by taking rather more seriously the issue of archiving photographs that have been taken, that do exist, and could be of use.


6 thoughts on “Where have all the photos (of archaeology) gone? Gone to recycle bins, every one.

  1. From my part I’m doing something similar for roman architectural decoration and I use whatever i find on internet (Flickr, Pinterest) to archive images I find (but of course if their owner put them off-line they will be lose too). On my site I put my own photos in CC-by-sa and I’m doing something also for improve the categorization on Commons. I’m quite interested to this problem too (and I will check also the Squinchpix.com, now). Thank you for sharing 🙂 Marina

  2. It’s a really good idea. I think we are pretty much forced to host copies on our own site because images vanish so quickly, especially at news sites.

    Be careful about doing work to improve Wikipedia. It has a toxic, bullying culture where kiddies will quite happily ruin your work and run a vicious smear campaign against you. These really hurt, if you have put something of yourself into the site. Commons has some unsavoury types running it who actually banned Jimmy Wales himself. Everyone I know who got involved regretted it. My own approach is to do the indexing via my own site. Just a tip. 🙂

  3. I do the same, but on my site the images are on CC-by-sa and so there are images taken by me or by friends (and I have still some thousands of old analogic photos to scan and upload)

    I’m on italian Wikipedia since 2004 and I had a happy experience. I wrote a lot about archaeology and about places and monuments I want to link informations about for my site. And also if I do not write so much now, I have there a good reputation. On Commons there are some interesting shots and I try to put them on the right category (composite capital vs. corinthian capital and so on): just this makes easier to find them if someone is looking for. Usually you should understand the reason behind the rules (this was simpler when I started) and everything goes well. Sometimes, yes, on Wikipedia you have to explain things that could seem obvious if you are on the field, but I feel this a useful way of remembering we try to understand the past also for others (and not only for other archaeologists).

    I discovered Pinterest recently and I feel it is a quick and easy way of indexing what you find surfing on internet and perhaps it could be useful to others too (but of course it is not possible to be certain the images will stay for ever: anyway until they last, I (and others perhaps) could find them again. Since it is therea link with automatic reference provided, this will respect copyright, I think. And perhaps if they are originally on Flickr or others social networks, or on academic or institutional web pages, they will last some time.

    And on Flickr I tried to make a group (always on architectural decoration) hoping that people will post there stuff by themselves (where I comment and explain or ask, as I can).

    I feel that the more some photo is diffused on internet, the more chance it has to stay for a long time, as for manuscript in medieval times: they arrived to us since people copied the texts they thought important.

    (Sorry, my english is perhaps too simple, but I hope I can transmit anyway the idea)

  4. I’m not sure about Pinterest, myself. But you’re certainly right that, the more copies there are online, the longer an image will stay online.

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