“We need to draw that up.” Six words guaranteed to cause some archaeologists to break out into a cold sweat while others quietly high five the universe. I am an automatic entrant into the former group. I am, to put it bluntly, graphically challenged.

Compass Housing. Drawn by G. Hewitt 1989.

Compass Housing from Clarence, wrecked Port Phillip Bay. Drawn by G. Hewitt 1989.

As computer programs are becoming increasingly more powerful and easier to use, the art of hand-drawn archaeological illustration may not be as appreciated as it once was. Considering my drawing ability (or lack of), you would think that I would be an advocate for the use of computers to render images and site plans. However, there’s nothing I appreciate more than a good hand drawn archaeological image. My own attempts have been limited to anchors, cannons and random bits of driftwood. While my drawings will never win any awards, each drawing has given me a deeper understanding of the subject I’m trying to draw and a broader sense of the aesthetics behind what I’m trying to produce.

Archaeological illustrations are designed to convey information as accurately and with as much detail as possible (Bowens 2009:171). As Colleen Morgan (2012) says: “drawing is a vital part of the most important skill in archaeology—learning how to see.” To me, archaeological illustration is the junction of art meeting science.

Drawing an artefact does require you to ‘see’ an object rather than just look at it.  The object must be observed from all its angles, makes you examine its uses, its damage, its intricacies. Objects found underwater present their own difficulties in ‘seeing’. You might only get one or two dives to record something in order to draw it; visibility might be zero, the object in question might be complicated like a ship’s engine or encased, partly or wholly, in concretion.

Sanyo Maru sketch drawn by James Parkinson 2012

Sanyo Maru sketch drawn by James Parkinson 2012. Source: https://apps5a.ris.environment.gov.au/shipwreck/public/wreck/wreck.do?key=3562

Whatever challenges the site might throw up, there are some fundamental requirements for archaeological drawing. To draw an artefact, object or site plan you will need accurate measurements, lots of photographs (ideally scaled), good lighting, good pens, a knowledge of drawing conventions and, let’s be honest, an inordinate amount of patience.

Starting from the outside in, a drawing’s outline begins the relationship between artefact and illustrator. One thing I’ve learned is drawings never look like much in the beginning. The artefact comes to life through nothing more than dots and dashes. The single most useful piece of advice I received when I was attempting my first drawings was ‘the more dots the better.’ I admit to some skepticism, but as I watched my drawing turn from a flat-tack, chicken pox affected cannon to an artefact with some dimension and detail, I realised never underestimate the dots.

Signal Cannon. Drawn by me

Signal Cannon. Drawn by me

For the graphically challenged, archaeological illustrations are the most frustrating part of recording any site. But for me, and I never thought I would say this ever, a finished drawing is also one of the more satisfying aspects. I will never be a great illustrator, but I do have a better understanding of the objects I’ve tried to accurately reflect on paper.


Bowens, Amanda 2009 Underwater Archaeology: The NAS Guide to Principles and Practice. 2nd ed. Blackwell Publishing, West Sussex

Morgan, Colleen 2012 The Unfamiliar: Archaeology and the Uncertain Edge. Retrieved 4 November 2013 from http://middlesavagery.wordpress.com/2012/06/05/the-unfamiliar-archaeology-and-the-uncertain-edge/

2 thoughts on “A fine line: a non-artist’s perspective of archaeological drawing

  1. Those cannon look very good to me.

    • Jane

      Thanks … they did turn out better than I expected :)

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