Reconstruction drawings – moving beyond the brownish green

An introduction to reconstruction

By Cecily Webster

A reconstruction drawing is a lot of responsibility.

Humans are wired to believe their eyes, and the younger an image is seen, the more permanent the impression. When most of us think “T-Rex”, we picture something slimmed-down and bare as a lizard because of Jurassic Park: an animal approximately brownish green.

Likewise, when we picture people in the past, countless images in our storytelling have baulked at colour – blurring everything to greenish brown as though rushing through time at a speed too fast for detail.

Prehistory suffers from this in particular, thanks to Victorian ideas of cultural evolution “naturally” proceeding in a straight line from hunter-gatherers to glorious Empire – with all hunter-gatherer cultures thus being intrinsically backwards, unintelligent, and equivalent.

When the Victorians drew any hunter-gatherers, they based them on those extant within the Empire: peoples from hot places like Africa or Australia, who didn’t need clothing but might sling the blanket-skin they slept on across their shoulders and possibly tie it down with a belt-string to transport it. This, said the Victorians, was Stone Age Man – the singular, type specimen, too dense to turn his plain pelt into proper trousers.

The past, however, is a plurality, comprising many homelands, cultures, ages and genders for any one technology level, and infinite variations of personal taste within those.

The reconstructionist must always be careful of making any one design too close to a culture similar enough in homeland and technology to draw inspiration from, because images stick and SAM brings all that ugly ideology with him.

We don’t know if the Ness people used their rock patterns on their clothing. We don’t know how their clothing varied between ages, genders and people, nor much of an idea of its change over time.

We know they had leather, beadwork, a range of feathers from snowy white to iridescent black, and now some yet-to-be-identified cloth.

We know they had white, black, red and yellow pigments at least, and our geologist Dr Martha Johnson theorises more.

We know they coloured their walls, their floors, and themselves, though we don’t have the surviving DNA or sufficient pigments for on-skin use to do more than guess at what the people looked like.

What is beyond doubt is that people would have worn their best to the Ness.

Images and the evidence

Ness clothing reconstruction. (Cecily Webster)
Ness clothing reconstruction. (Cecily Webster)

When you look at a reconstruction drawing you are mostly looking at positive evidence – things we definitely have from the archaeology.

Quality of available samples permitting, within a single grave a reconstructionist could accurately reconstruct colour, perhaps even pattern and hairstyle if beads or bands remained, supplemented by images from the culture. When looking at an activity site rather than a burial, however, trying to capture an idea of the people there is harder.

Someone there wore beadwork with the dull fire of amber in its pattern; someone applied black and red pigments from a pot; someone carefully cut the wing from a dead eagle to make an offering and used the rest in ways we have not found.

This knowledge is refined by ethnographic parallels, asking: “If these people had these things in this climate, what is the most practical way to wear them?” and “if other peoples do things for the sake of spiritual practicality, what traces do those leave?”

Sometimes these allow us to consider negative evidence and give us an insight into beliefs. For instance, if sealskin is always the best winter waterproofing and winter feasting might occur on site, why do the Ness people never eat and process seals into clothing there? Elsewhere, many cultures of the North have a taboo against the mingling of land and sea produce. If the Ness fits that pattern it makes sense not to draw anyone there in fish or sealskin slippers or waterproofs.

People who lived in equivalent places with similar technology made patterns with different colours of leather, wove dyed and undyed spruce root, reeds and grasses into fancy hats and belts, and their finest wore amazing cloaks of seabird feathers. Their clothes were sturdy and not ragged, of a well-fitting pre-industrial cut. It makes sense to allow the Ness folk this level of tailoring.

There will always be gaps and perhaps misinterpretations of knowledge. Sometimes there are best guesses, like putting the men of the Ness in the leggings-and-loincloth combination common to leather-wearing cultures whose lack of horses and temperate environment do not require full trousers.

When looking at a reconstruction, try to remember it is tied to what’s been found so far and is a conservative estimate. There may well be colours and feats of beadwork, paint or embroidery in the Neolithic we know nothing of.

Making the drawing

Structure entrance. (Cecily Webster)
Structure One entrance. (Cecily Webster)

A reconstruction drawing is a deliberate attempt to make a point of connection.

As such, the most memorable depictions are generally candid ones, where the people are engaged in activities or behaviours we recognise as human across cultures and time. Children have always picked up domestic animals, people have always told jokes, concentrated on work, responded in their own ways to the weather. In this spirit of shared humanity it is important to show people other than the default 20-30-year-old man with a spear and a woman with a pot. Indeed, adult men and supposedly neutral masculine figures have been traditionally over-represented in reconstruction, warping ideas about the past, so I try to start with other people.

For animals, the patterns and colour changes of early domestication are well-documented, particularly in cattle and canids. For the general shape of the animals we have bones and old breeds, so beasts actually present less problems in reconstruction than humans.

When sketching, my most important job besides the pose and reasonable anatomy is to give a realistic sense of weight to materials, so that without any conscious work the viewer can tell cowhide from doeskin or thick wool from fine linen.

For the colour itself, I first mix a lot of as close to an evidence-based red and yellow that I can get, and then a blue that’s on the complementary side of the colour/saturation wheel to the resultant orange between them. Assuming that the colour of daylight has not changed dramatically in the past 5,000 years, this palette should give the clothing or pots a natural look. I may touch up highlights with white ink.

Digital finishing for me consists almost entirely of trying to make the scan look like the physical painting or fiddling with the contrast of areas in a very rudimentary image editor.

Although I am an archaeologist, not an artist, I hope my images provide a foothold for the imagination, and that these words will help people think about prehistory in brighter colour than before.

To be continued…

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