Art as data: Studying corpses by drawing them

Art as data: Studying corpses by drawing them

Paper by Sian Mui

Given at the University of Bradford in December 2015

Artists’ reconstructions of graves and funeral scenes are widely used in museum and heritage centres as well as academic presentations and publications. While such artworks are readily employed to support the presentation of archaeological information, their analytical and interpretive capacities are often overlooked.

This paper addresses the potentials of treating art as data, drawing examples from my current research on corpse positioning in early Anglo-Saxon England. Over 2000 skeletons are reimagined and drawn as corpses. Every single drawing of a body is effectively a piece of artwork, which requires a creative interpretation of the grave plan informed by taphonomic and anatomical knowledge.

By envisioning the body fleshed, this process of artistic rendering addresses a multiplicity of information about the grave, including the weight of the body, clothing, the visuality of the grave, the logistics of positioning the corpse, and the emotive implications of the funeral. Drawings can be combined, compared, and contrasted to assess patterns and change in funerary practices. Meanwhile, each drawing is ultimately an interpretation, with its own temperament and influenced by the style of the original plan as well as the reconstruction artist’s state of mind. Finally, addressing the definitions of data and art, this paper entertains thoughts on the innovative use of art in contributing to archaeological research.

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