“You Draw What You Know” – In conversation with Theo de Feyter

A conversation on archaeology and drawing

MePri, Düsseldorf, 12/16/2006

Alexander Roob: In addition to your art studies, you also completed a period of studies in archaeology and then worked as a professional archaeologist. Perhaps you can start with a bit of biographical information.

Theo de Feyter: I first studied art at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, but I wasn’t satisfied with that. I wasn’t able to paint the pictures I really wanted to, and I was also not instructed on how to do so. Quite to the contrary, I had the feeling that the skills and visions I had brought along were lost during my studies. I had always planned to study archaeology. When I was 32 and had already worked for a while as a freelance artist, I then realized this plan. I enrolled for the course, “Languages and Cultures of Western Asia”, and so as a student I participated in excavations in Syria and Turkey. When at the end of my studies I had to decide whether to do my doctorate or not, I again had my doubts. The reason was that I had again started painting—which suddenly went surprisingly well and was probably also thanks to the consistent creative pause I had taken.

Roob: During the excavations you were also involved in artistic working methods, more precisely in drawing. How can one picture such university excavations in terms of organization? Is it teamwork in which everyone has their turn to do everything for a while, or are there specialized areas of responsibility?

De Feyter: It is divided up hierarchically. At the top is the head of the excavation, usually the university professor or a museum director who has the license to excavate. Then you have the so-called field director, the assistant professor who actually heads the excavation; and then the so-called site supervisors, students who supervise the respective excavation areas which can vary greatly in size. They also supervise the local workers engaged on-site. Work begins by mapping the entire excavation area with grid squares.

Roob: So drawing in a broader sense plays a role from the very onset.

De Feyter: Yes, starting with the excavation works in two directions: horizontally and vertically. You start on the surface. The objects found there, the so-called surface artifact distributions are hardly significant, because they reveal nothing about the context. As an archaeologist, you are constantly searching for a context, not for accidental finds—no matter how nice they are—of which one doesn’t know where they come from, who used them or how they were used, and, hence, how they can be classified. The antique market is interested in beautiful artifacts, but not necessarily the archaeologist.

Roob: Just to understand this correctly: In the excavation crew there is only one person who does drawings, the site supervisor?

De Feyter: No, there are two, actually even three different draughtsmen with different areas of responsibility. First, the site supervisor who each day makes a horizontal drawing to a 1:50 scale. When excavating the ground, however, a part of the margin of each excavation square remains. The stratifications can be read from them. The second kind of drawing the supervisor occasionally makes thus depicts the vertical plane. This vertical wall is extremely important because it can indicate the most subtle changes that are easily missed during excavation, for example, thin layers that give information about the renewals of a clay floor. In addition to the site supervisor, there is also an architect on-site, who starts drawing when larger architectural units start to show. These architectural drawings are also included in the daily drawings of the site supervisor.

top: T. de Feyter –   Houses J and G (Floor plan) ,Area Munbaqa, Assad-dam, Syria,

in: MDOG (Mitteilungen der Deutschen Orientgesellschaft zu Berlin) 119 (1987):93

T.de Feyter – House G, Tall Munbaqa, 1985, Syria. (1:50)

Roob: Are these drawings always made in strict, temporal regularity?

De Feyter: The surface drawings are indeed made every day. The excavation depth can, of course, vary from 50 cm to 10 cm per day. And if detail finds are made, it gets even slower. When remains of walls appear, and rooms start to emerge—when things get really exciting, that is—the excavation area is divided into different sub-units, in which excavation is carried out at different speeds. The issue is then often the detailed relationships between the individual excavation units. For example, how does a floor surface here relate to a wall there? Are there connections, is there a recognizable context?

Roob: How is something like that solved in drawing? Were your art studies a help in this respect?

De Feyter:
No, quite to the contrary. As opposed to the colleagues without prior artistic training, I had real problems adopting the cool, objective mode of perception needed for archaeological drawing. For example, there was this wavy structure of a destroyed, clay brick wall that showed itself nicely in profile on the vertical walls. I grasped it very romantically and expressively as a kind of wave during a storm. That was of course completely wrong. First of all, I had neglected the exact measurements in my creative enthusiasm, and then there was also the problem with standardization, meaning that all recurring elements are treated equally in a kind of reliable language which the viewer can read.

Roob: A standardization similar to the one that plays a pivotal role in technical drawings?

De Feyter: Exactly. Although in archaeological drawings there are no defined drawing-related formulas for specific elements. That’s up to each draughtsman himself. As a third draughtsman next to the supervisor with his daily drawings and the architecture draughtsman there is also a specialist at the excavations who is exclusively responsible for depicting objects. They are sometimes art students or graphic artists, illustrators who are specialized in this field.

Roob: Why aren’t the objects simply photographed?

De Feyter: A photographer is of course also always present, who takes pictures of the objects parallel. These are usually some kinds of fragments that are difficult to grasp. And on the photo, you often do not know what you’re looking at. However, you draw what you know in one way or the other.

Roob: So it is the interpretational ability of drawing that makes it helpful compared to photography in these cases…

De Feyter: Precisely. A photo is often too vague. Fine differences between a pure surface painting and a slight relief, for instance, can usually not be discerned on a photo. In the drawing they can be highlighted. The object draughtsman takes the object he is to draw in his hands, he feels it. He informs himself of the object and asks it questions. He only starts drawing on the basis of these gained insights. Moreover, the draughtsman at times completes fragments to whole objects. In an archaeological sense, they are then complete objects, although they exist in this completeness only in the drawing.

Roob: So they are reconstruction drawings?

De Feyter: They are not reconstructions in the sense of assumptions as to what something might have looked like. The objects are only completed when one is certain. This is the case, for example, when based on the fragments of a symmetrical ceramic vessel the transitions from bottom to top can be retraced. Such completing drawings are also made by the site supervisor, of course in a very objective manner.

Roob: If your artistic training was more detrimental to the archaeological drawings, can one say that archaeological drawing was beneficial to your artistic work?

De Feyter: It was important that it forced me to part with my romantic conceptions and to learn to draw in a very reserved, very cool and descriptive way. As opposed to some of my friends who pointed out parallels to me, I was never able to see a relationship between my artistic and scientific work. For me, they were always two fundamentally separated fields. Up until recently, that is, when I noticed an important correspondence. I remembered an excavation experience in northern Syria in 1986, where I came upon a pretty large area that turned out to be the inside of a room. The floor to which I gradually advanced was still quite well preserved. It consisted of a thick layer of lime plaster on which there was a vast array of mostly broken ceramics. I had meticulously uncovered and exposed them in arduous work, because it was clear that everything slightly above or directly on this floor formed a secured context that would impart information on one phase of occupation of this house. At one point I stood at the door opening of the house stemming from the late Bronze Age and looked to the floor with all the laboriously exposed pieces of ceramic. And all of a sudden it dawned upon me that these many broken pieces formed a kind of dynamic trace of movement leading to the threshold. The house was otherwise entirely empty. It was suddenly clear to me that they were the traces of a threat, of a flight from a sudden danger. The haste with which the house was apparently abandoned could still be felt on account of the relicts. This short moment in time now lay before me as if it were frozen. And this strong impression of a fixing of the moment that overwhelmed me was, of course, also due to the lengthiness and care of the preceding excavation. This results in the very short moment in time stretching to a whole period of time that one then precisely measures and – with all the contingencies it bears – draws in detail. And that is precisely where I see the correspondence with my current drawing projects: I do not determine the motifs myself either, they instead derive from temporal cuts. What I did on the horizontal plane in the Düsseldorf Air Line Project, namely working my way from the more recent layers of construction in the industrial zones to the historical old city, is what is done in archaeology on the vertical plane.

Roob: A crucial difference between archaeological drawing and architectural drawing seems to lie in this relation to temporality.

De Feyter: Regarding the technical approach, however, both seem almost identical. Yet the difference is fundamental: Archaeology is basically about surveying time. Architectural drawing, on the other hand, is entirely concerned with surveying space.

Roob: The relation of both genres itself already seems to indicate the difference you just spoke about before. You said that the architect’s drawing during the excavation is developed as a sort of compilation of the many daily drawings of the archaeologists, i.e., seriality and successiveness are very important elements of archaeological excavation drawings. I therefore ask myself whether an individual archaeological daily drawing—merely in regard to its scientific exploitability and meaningfulness—can be lasting, or whether it only really makes sense in a sequential context resembling a time-lapse, something which can perhaps be compared to an individual phase drawing in a cartoon film?

De Feyter: That is certainly correct. In a surface excavation, the objects, walls and other architectural elements appear only very slowly and delayed, like in extreme slow motion. That is particularly the case with excavations in the Middle East, where one is dealing with easily erodible clay brick architecture. When sequentially looking at the daily drawings of the excavation area, one sees the remains of walls gradually emerging like land when the sea level sinks. That is indeed like a cartoon film. During the excavation, the archaeologists look at the drawings in sequence to be able to make a prognosis of what can be expected; a sort of preview of the past, if you like. Unfortunately, these daily drawings are never published in this sequence. Occasionally, though, individual drawings appear in publications, especially when new questions are raised regarding the material of earlier excavations. “Excavation is destruction,” is a well-known saying. Excavation usually leads to the disintegration of the excavated city. In such cases in which new questions arise, all that one can consult are the daily drawings of the site supervisors—not the final, summarizing architectural drawing.

Roob: What historical development has archaeological drawing undergone?

De Feyter: It started in the mid-19th century, based, however, on totally different criteria. From the drawings that the Englishman, Austen Henry Layard , made during the extremely important excavations in Niniveh, for example, hardly anything of scientific significance can be gained. Absolutely no measurements were made, he just started drawing a bit like Goethe treated a landscape. The excavations of Layard had a great impact in this respect, since they also uncovered the part of the royal palace in which the cuneiform script archive was located. He had the innumerable cuneiform script panels made of clay, which he also deemed relatively insignificant because he couldn’t read them, shoveled into boxes along with the debris and shipped to the British Museum in London. And then, at the end of the 19th century far into the 20th century, new excavations had to be conducted in the cellars of the museum to find out what was stored in which box, even to find out where the objects were from, because the boxes were not labeled. During his excavations, Layard didn’t proceed systematically from top to bottom—the basics of archaeology—but just wildly dug in all directions.

Roob: Mole’s work without a context…

De Feyter: Yes, totally without a context.

Sir Austen Henry Layard, Underground Excavations,
in: Nineveh and Babylon, London 1897

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