Shooting the Past

It’s hard to communicate just what it is about the material remains of the Ice Age that excites the Palaeolithic archaeologist. Much of what we glean about human activity in the deep past is based upon extremely close reading of excavated material. Looking closely at the pattern of flaking on a worked flint allows us to reconstruct the individual actions of the person who actually produced it; it’s a very personal, even intimate, encounter. As you turn an object in your hands and try to read it, you repeat the actions of the maker – both physically and intellectually. Similarly, looking closely at the bones of extinct animal prey allows us to join past hunter gatherers for dinner; to understand which prey they chose, which cuts of meat they preferred and, by looking for butchery marks on the bones, how they prepared them.

Exciting as these intimate encounters are, it is difficult to communicate these momentary meetings to people who haven’t spent years learning how to read these artefacts. The material remains of the Ice Age can look like just so many stones and bones, and often our museum exhibits do them no justice. We simply present them flat in a case, and often do no more than give them equally pedestrian labels that refer only to their form and function. Even worse, we label them with the obscure typological categories that archaeologists favour. All this serves to make a remote period even more obscure and – which is worse – boring.

When I work with stone tools, the judgements I make and the interpretations I build are based upon handling the material, turning it, and studying it from all angles. I love teaching people about stone tools, because as they turn the material in their hands, touch different features, and become physically familiar with the material results of flintworking as a process, they become experts too. The challenge, however, is to go from this one-on-one encounter, to allowing museum visitors the same “in hand” experience and moment of discovery.

Apart from analysis, one of the most striking things about the new imaging techniques Sarah is exploring is for bridging the gap between expert and visitor. These new ways of showing and exploring the Ice Age material break through the display case, and let visitors explore fragile, ancient material for themselves. We’re still playing with ways of extending that intimate, in hand, encounter, but are really excited by the stories it allows us to tell.

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Reflectance Transformation Imaging (or RTI) is a recording technique based on the capture of multiple digital images illuminated from different raking light positions around the surface of a subject.  The imaging approach is particularly useful for revealing fine surface texture and detail, sometimes not even obvious upon physical inspection.  There are multiple RTI capture methods; here, we have used a non-contact and flexible approach called Highlight RTI (H-RTI) to record the material from the La Cotte archive.  There are also multiple RTI processing workflows available that generate different types of digital outputs; we have employed the Polynomial Texture Mapping fitting method for this project.  The digital work product, referred to as a PTM, is a compilation of all of the reflectance information generated in the capture sequence that consists of approximately 24 – 50 images.  The specialized viewer allows a user to interactively relight the subject, zoom into areas of interest and apply a variety of rendering modes, providing the opportunity for detailed desk-based inspection of the surface of the archaeological resource recorded. This presents a unique and interactive connection with the artefact that has great potential to enhance museum visitor experiences.  The preliminary results from this work have illustrated the potential of this technique to reveal possible ancient tooling marks on bone and information about methods of lithic tool production.  


Guidance and more information about this technique can be found at:

Sarah Duffy and Beccy Scott


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