Drawing the Past

Do we still need to draw? What use is it?

Archaeologists draw. We question the detail and interpret our surroundings. Beyond scientific recording, it enables transportation to a calmer place.img448

You may feel that you cannot draw. Do it anyway and you will improve; and of course,  there’s no need  to do it for anyone’s enjoyment but your own.

In my job, I draw. I need to record the detail of what is revealed, whether it is found during an archaeological excavation or when the chronology of a historic structure is revealed during a building survey.


I have a yellow bucket.  I carry it around the archaeological sites I work on: perhaps Corfe Castle in Dorset or Chedworth Roman Villa Gloucestershire.  In my bucket is a ball of string, 6”nails, a line level, tape measures, a scale ruler, sharpener, 6H pencils and erasers (I tend to lose them around the site so I need several of everything). I have an A2 rectangle of hard board, covered in metric grid paper overlain with drawing film held with masking tape.


It is good to sit at the trench edge in the sunshine and carefully measure the details of the excavation, to lose myself in the moment. I plot my observations at a reduced scale understanding the layers of history revealed as bands of soil exposed as different colours and textures.


I unravel and draw the contents of each layer. Near the surface a medieval spur, and here, a little deeper, a fragment of Roman pottery and near the bottom perhaps a Bronze Age flint.

A visitor might say: ‘Why bother to draw? Why not photograph it or use one of those laser scanners?’ Well yes, that too and although these are accurate, useful ways of capturing the information, if we relied on them alone so much would be lost. These techniques cannot beat a hand crafted drawing.

When drawing, you must constantly ask questions of the subject. If I cannot see something properly, I take the trowel from my bucket and clean the surface.  It enables me to understand and then use my pencil to make a record of the new discovery on the drawing film.

Once at Chedworth villa, while drawing stones that had been used to fill a gap in a mosaic floor, I spotted a stone with a smooth texture, grained with stripes. It could easily have been missed. It turned out to be a rare type of decorative marble quarried from Greece, never recorded from Roman Britain before.

By drawing, every visit to a place can be recorded in a unique way through your own eyes, your unique interpretation, in changing seasons, in changing lights.

But what did it look like then? How do you imagine the castle in the medieval period, the villa in Roman times, the hillfort with its great wooden gates and palisades?

Eggardon by Nick Skelton

At Kingston Lacy, we re-imagined some humps and bumps in the park: using the evidence from documentary accounts, excavation and geophysical survey, we blended archaeology with history and rebuilt the long lost 15th century royal manor house using pencils. We made it live again as an image on paper.


So why not get a sketch pad and a set of pencils, travel to somewhere that inspires you and enjoy an afternoon gently capturing a place in whatever time period you choose..


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