Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The William Dunlop Archaeological Photographic Archive

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Preface: This is a slightly longer version of an article submitted to the Ulster Archaeology Society's Newsletter, edited by Duncan Berryman (@ArchaeologistD). The on-line version is available to read: here. If you have an interest in the archaeology of Ulster, please consider joining the Society - it is a wonderful resource that deserves our support! 


It doesn’t take me to tell the readers of this Newsletter that Billy Dunlop was for many years the energetic heart of the UAS. His long-term editorship of this Newsletter, while impressive, was but one of his achievements. He was involved in just about every aspect of UAS life, from committee work, to attending lectures and field-trips to, in 2000, holding the position of President of the Society. With his passing in September of last year, I lost a valued friend and a trusted mentor (read my tribute to Billy here). In this I am not alone - many of us felt the same way about Billy. He was many things to many people: friend, mentor, confidant, travelling companion, and father figure to a generation of archaeologists.

In the time after his death many of us contacted the Dunlop family to offer condolences on their loss and whatever help and assistance we could. I was honoured to have been among the small group invited by the family to assist in the redistribution of Billy's personal library. While some books went into my own collection, and some went to charity shops, I tried to ensure that as many as possible went to younger archaeologists (read about it here). My reasoning was that many of the volumes were still good quality research and reference resources and deserved to see regular use. I also thought that passing on these books would help ensure Billy's legacy with a generation of graduates who hadn't been lucky enough to meet him in person. Having run through all these thoughts, I simply settled on the idea that, legacy or not, it would have been what Billy would have wanted. This process took several weeks and multiple trips to the family home in Gilnahirk to load up my car with more and more boxes and bags of books. Towards the end of this process we had to ask the question 'what is going to happen to Billy's photos?' Here was a difficult problem. Going back to the mid 1970s, Billy had been taking photographs of archaeological sites. As far as I can see, his exploits peaked in the mid to late 1980s, but he was still actively taking photographs and (usually) cataloguing them up to a few years before his death. The primary difficulty was that, unfortunately, no one in Billy's family has a particular interest in archaeology. While they realised that Billy had put an awful lot of time and effort into creating and cataloguing this collection, there was no one who wished to retain and curate it. The way it was put to me was: if I was interested, I was free to take it away, but otherwise it would be disposed of. Here was another problem - as much as I admired and respected Billy, he wasn't a great photographer! True, some of his photographs were quite important in terms of being informal records of life on a number of the big research excavations of his day. However, the vast majority were of various excursions, through UAS or other bodies, to sites and monuments. These were simply 'tourist snaps' - for the most part these could be easily replicated today. My initial opinion was that these represented very little worth, either as archaeological documents or beautiful images.

In all honesty, I was filled with angst about this - I didn't want to bring yet another box of stuff into my home that would sit in my attic gently decaying for the next few decades. Similarly, I did not fancy the idea of allowing this material to be dumped. Eventually my inner hoarder won out and I (very reluctantly) agreed to take the archive home to join the other detritus I've picked up in a life in archaeology. Over the next couple of months I started to go through the various packets of photos and examine some of their contents. My first impression was that the candid shots of life on excavations were interesting and valuable as an archaeological resource in themselves. Billy's photos gave a glimpse of all the things that are a normal part of life for professional archaeologists, but not usually seen in the finished reports - the team having lunch; someone setting up the dumpy level; people trowelling away in a trench; well-known and respected senior figures in the profession, sunburnt and in shorts, squinting at section faces. I immediately thought that these were exactly the sort of image that people would be interested in seeing - part of the history of Irish archaeology. Closer examination of what I had initially dismissed as 'tourist snaps' revealed that these, too, had some measure of worth. Firstly, many were decent photos of interesting sites. While this is all well and good in itself, I felt that there were more than enough photographs of Irish archaeological sites already available on the Internet. Billy's photos had other things that made them special - in particular, some captured unique moments that are unlikely ever to be replicated. To give one example: what are the chances of getting Prof. George Eogan, and Sir Colin Renfrew (the latter carrying a briefcase) on to Maeve's Cairn in the Carrowmore Complex. No disrespect to any of those named above, but I reckon that it's a pretty unlikely situation that is unlikely to happen any time soon. But here's the thing - it did happen! In 1982 there was an international conference to discuss the results of Göran Burenhult's excavations at Carrowmore - and Billy was there to record it! It is fleeting moments like these that Billy captured - wonderful little snippets of life ... of never-to-be-repeated scenes ... all otherwise lost, had it not been for Billy and his camera. In other cases Billy's snapshots - many of which are dated - may yet prove useful to students and those charged with the long-term management and preservation of these sites. Simply put, Billy's photos show the site as it was at a particular time and in a particular condition. Analyses of these images, in conjunction with other resources, may allow for fuller understandings of the vegetational and conservation histories of some sites, and assist in the planning of future conservation works.

Whatever the aesthetic/historical/sociological value of these images and their future research potential, they were never going to be appreciated by anyone if they could not be seen. For this reason, I put together a small website with the rather grandiose title of: ‘The William Dunlop Archaeological Photographic Archive’, along with a page on Facebook to promote it. While the Facebook page was originally intended merely as a tool for promoting the collection, it has evolved to be much more than that. I cannot hope to match Billy’s expansive travels and knowledge, and sometimes it has been hard to decipher his writing. This is where the Facebook page has proven to be an amazing resource in its own right. From time to time I have posted pictures there, some with only a little information (perhaps a year and a county), sometimes with no information at all – and always with a plea for information and assistance. I have yet to be disappointed at the response from enthusiasts and professionals alike. Sometimes it only takes one or two comments to put me on the right track, other times it can take a number of people commenting and suggesting places over several days, but we have always gotten there in the end!

Much of my free time in the early part of 2012 has been taken up with scanning, cropping, and general manipulation of the photos. To date, I’ve uploaded over 700 photos, covering 11 Irish counties along with dedicated albums to a further seven major archaeological excavations. I have tried to upload them in relatively small batches, so as not to overwhelm ‘the market’, and (hopefully) to build up a following. I had no particular goal in any of this, other than to allow Billy’s photos to be seen by the world – professional archaeologist and enthusiastic amateur alike. To date, the collections have received tens of thousands of views from all over the world. I frequently receive emails from strangers, telling me how they discovered the collection on the internet and have been inspired by the images to either read about Irish archaeology, or (in a small number of instances) come visit this island. Even more gratifying has been the correspondence I have received from a substantial number of Billy’s friends, sharing reminiscences about field trips and excavations long past.

I have often wondered if I have done the right thing – would Billy have approved of my sharing his photographs in this manner? I can only believe that the effort he spent in cataloguing his collection suggests that he did want it to be seen by others. While such ‘social media’ as Facebook may well have been unfamiliar to Billy, I am equally certain that he would have approved of the manner in which his images have sparked research and good-natured debate. But most of all, I think he would have approved of people from diverse backgrounds taking an interest in our shared heritage and learning to value and appreciate it.

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