Archaeologists take photographs of their discoveries in order to document them for posterity. These images should be well exposed, clearly focused, free of distortion and have a contrasting scale or arrow to indicate size.
Photographic documentation also includes the use of a datum standard to establish horizontal spatial positions of finds. This is achieved by using a string pulled tight with a bubble or line level.
Photography remains the most common method for recording artifacts and archaeological sites. Camera technology continues to improve, as does the software used to manipulate digital images and to generate three-dimensional representations of scanned objects and site plans. Archaeologists may also use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or specialized kits to take low-level aerial archaeological photos.
Computational imaging, a newer photographic technology that uses computer algorithms to capture and process images, offers archaeologists the ability to create high-resolution, visually appealing photographs of fragile cultural heritage materials, enabling them to rejoin mosaics, reconstruct architectural columns, and record the condition of deteriorated rock art. This process has also been applied to photogrammetry, a documentation technique that combines total station surveying with traditional archaeological photography to produce spatially accurate images and section drawings digitized directly from the photographs.
When choosing a digital camera for field work, archaeologists should consider factors such as file storage, image enlargement capabilities, and long-term preservation requirements. Digital prints require specific care and storage environments to minimize blocking—the adhesion of prints to one another or to storage enclosures—which can lead to delamination, color transfer, and surface damage (Image Permanence Institute Reference Rima and Burge 2009).
Photographs are important for documenting the entire process of excavation. Archaeologists want to capture the milestones of their project but also the day-to-day details that keep a dig moving forward. They use photographs to capture the archaeological landscape, record the work areas and even photograph the day-to-day activities of their team members.
Taking close-up records of specific features of artifacts is another important element of on-site photography. For example, archaeologists may take photos of the notches on swords or the areas of damage on tools to aid them in their interpretation of an object.
For a discipline that is so fascinated with uncovering and exploring past lives, it’s interesting how rarely people appear in archaeological photos. This is partly because excavation is dangerous work and people often wear hard hats to protect themselves. But it’s also because archaeologists want to show that the work they do is not romanticised.
Archaeological photodocumentation is a critical tool for the archaeological community. Whether it is a record shot of an artifact’s appearance before cleaning or a close-up showing details of wear, this form of photographic documentation is important for documenting site viewpoints, displaying scales, and demonstrating how archaeological features were used by past people.
This type of archaeological photography is often done on-site and requires a high level of skill. The photographer must know how to light and frame the object to ensure it is clearly visible to other archaeologists or the public. This can involve adjusting the position of an object, removing objects from a scene, and using different lenses.
While the technology is developing, archaeological digital photography has been slow to catch on in popularity. This may be because it requires a certain amount of specialized training to photograph ancient shipwrecks. In addition, there are issues with data protection and the fact that most archaeological work is done by volunteer groups.