Density and Delineation

Subterranean Excavations at Kouyunjik (1853)

“Subterranean Excavations at Kouyunjik” is a drawing from Austen Henry Layard’s Discoveries in the Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon (1853). It is a grey image, closely hatched, depicting a vaulted underground space that divides into two vaults in the midground, and shades off into darkness in the distance. It is presented as a vignette without a distinct frame. The deep space contains artefacts and workers: in the foreground, one man gestures towards the most distinctly delineated element in the picture, a relief panel on the wall, which appears to have taken two other men by surprise. Baskets and tools sit at the feet of this foreground group. Deeper in the image the two vaults frame a pair of figures and a standing vase. The two figures face in opposite directions, one facing the viewer, mirroring the gesture of the man in the foreground. At the top of the picture, the subterranean space opens to the sky. It is not entirely clear if the vaults are caverns or chambers. The largest opening at the front is sufficiently irregular as to appear natural, while the central column between the two more regular vaults appears to be made of bricks.


To resolve the architecture of this space, one must carefully examine the engraver’s marks. Viewed closely, the image is an obsessive hail of tiny scratches. The engraver varies the materiality and tone of the image by adjusting the pattern and direction of this rendered continuum. At the very top of the image, against the fine, evenly ruled lines of the sky, a sharp edge – marked with a line – suggests that the face below it is constructed. The cracks and seams in this face are formed by the dark edges of each hatched patch. Before it, to the right and left is a sharp but irregular line of heavily cross-hatched shadow. On the right, though, this cavernous line and the smoother face are made continuous: the engraver has blended the hatching in order to dissolve the edge. Further down the page, the same thing happens on the left. Similarly it is unclear whether the large bank of irregular rubble directly behind the foreground group of figures is intended to be continuous or discontinuous with the smoother face above. A cut stone block appears to be embedded in the wall above the heads of the figures, as does something else that forms a dark edge, and other details that might be artificial fragments; but they are rendered in such a way that we are welcome to read them as mere clumps or irregularities in the earth. At its base, the central pier appears to be made of consistent if irregular blockwork; further up it appears to change into a more compact small-stone construction, shading off into surfaces of indistinguishable materiality.


Of this scene, Layard writes:


After the departure of Mr. Ross, the accumulation of earth above the ruins had become so considerable, frequently exceeding thirty feet, that the workmen, to avoid the labor of clearing it away, began to tunnel along the walls, sinking shafts at intervals to admit light and air. The hardness of the soil, mixed with pottery, bricks and remains of buildings raised at various times over the buried ruins of the Assyrian palace, rendered this process easy and safe with ordinary care and precaution. The subterraneous passages were narrow, and were propped up when necessary either by leaving columns of earth, as in mines, or by wooden beams. These long galleries, dimly lighted, lined with the remains of ancient art, broken urns projecting from the crumbling sides, and the wild Arab and hardy Nestorian wandering through their intricacies, or working in their dark recesses, were singularly picturesque.


Layard’s description shows that even the figure we think we have been able to discern in the image is illusory. The vaulted architecture of the image is not the ancient structure of the Assyrian palace referred to by Layard, but the architecture of the excavation itself. Architecture is present in the image not as the object, but as the result of the investigation. The only object that is clearly antique is the relief panel at the lower right. The earth is described as a thick conglomerate, a solid compaction of soil, pottery, brick and other architectural remains. Ancient artifacts – fragments of pottery and architecture – are not contained within the space, but fused with the matter that defines the space.


The spatiality of the image – comprehending image as a figure – relies on a reading of density, not delineation. In the same way, the spatiality of the archaeological site also relies on a reading of density. There is no clear figure discernable against a consistent and neutral ground. Both the image and the archaeological ground present a figure-ground problem that cannot be resolved with a mere increase in detail. The epistemic condition of the drawing, the forms of knowledge it allows, mirrors the epistemic condition of the archaeological excavation.




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