Charis de Kock reviews ‘The Mirror in the Ground” (Nick Shepherd, 2015)

“Archives require active curatorship”, asserts Pippa Skotnes in the foreword to Nick Shepherd’s The Mirror in the Ground: archaeology, photography and the making of a disciplinary archive. Implied in this assertion is the idea that archives are not fossils, passive bearers of meaning shelved in back rooms and moulded case files. Archives need not, should not, die with the age or people they record. Nor should they exist in stasis, their formulations and interpretations fixed and unmoving. If archives are “actively curated” as Skotnes suggests, if they are brought into the present moment through re-examination and re-evaluation, they can serve as powerful tools for new investigations into the past, and daring reflections on the present.

This sense of the active curatorship of the archive lies at the heart of the recently published The Mirror in the Ground. The book signals the re-launching of the Centre for Curating the Archive’s Series in Visual Histories, originally begun in the 1990’s, and a new collaboration with Jonathan Ball Publishers. “The series”, writes Skotnes, “has sought to publish books and exhibition catalogues that engage with archives rich in visual material and that create a dialogue between text and images”. And this is exactly what The Mirror in the Ground does. Through a re-examination of the archive of South African archaeologist John Goodwin, Shepherd investigates the relationship between archaeology and photography as emerging disciplines in the first half of the twentieth century in South Africa, and what new insights into the past this relationship may hold.

“As an artefact from the past of the discipline, the photograph invites us to think about the meaning of archaeology in different local contexts, and about the ways in which the discipline is shaped by particular histories of practice”, writes Shepherd. It is into these “histories of practice” that Shepherd casts his eye, through a keen and often poetic attention to the photographs in Goodwin’s archive. These photographs reveal stories of the unnamed black co-workers so essential to the development of the discipline of archaeology in South Africa, men whose presence and agency have been ignored and removed from the official histories of the discipline. They provide a fascinating window into the beginnings of South African archaeology and the fixations and biases that informed it. But most poignant of all, they serve as unsettling reminders of the ruptures, both physical and psychological, that the nascent discipline’s probing caused for indigenous peoples and their history, which was inscribed in the land now churned up and examined.

Perhaps one of the most successful aspects of the book is the symbiosis of image and text. The reproductions of the photographs from the Goodwin archive occupy as much, if not more, of the book’s space as the text. This inspires an intriguing reading experience, a double reading, if you will. While reading Shepherd’s text, the eye is constantly drawn to the images, both by his prompts and their own. This symbiosis excellently captures in physical form Shepherd’s sense of the “parallel histories” of archaeology and photography, and of the “dialogue between text and images” which the Series in Visual Histories aims to present. One can get lost in the images presented here, in the people they capture, the sepia landscapes, the artefacts freshly birthed from the soil, the haunting gaze of presences, both alive and dead, which cannot be ignored.

Header image – Nick Shepherd (left) addressing the audience at his book launch (combined with Siona O’Connell’s exhibition opening) at the Centre for African Studies Gallery, UCT.