Suppressing the Ground

Plan of the theatre at Olympia, drawn by Wilhelm Dörpfeld

Wilhelm Dörpfeld (1853-1940) was trained as an architect, at the Bauakademie in Berlin and gained archaeological experience working on the excavations at Olympia. He was headhunted by Heinrich Schliemann, and went on to found the German School in Athens, which now takes his name,  and become the Director of the Athens branch of the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut. Dörpfeld was a very capable draftsman and the drawings in his book Das Griechische Theater (1896) are typical of his work: precise, complete and detailed.

In Dörpfeld’s plan of the theatre certainty and interest are shown through exactitude and solidity of line, while presumption and conjecture are marked with dotted lines which skip across the surface of the page. Dörpfeld pays considerable attention to the paving pattern of the theatre floor; to the blockwork and cavities above “N”, and in the vicinity of “E”. He indicates subtle distinctions in materiality in these areas and notes alignments and misalignments. But what about the large areas of the drawing that escape attention altogether? The spaces between blocks, walls and drains are entirely empty, apart from the texture of the page on which they are printed. What takes place in these spaces? What purpose do they serve?


The theatre in Dörpfeld’s drawing stands out as a clear figure. Each block sits distinctly against a white ground. The sharp lines of the original ink drawing, and of the published engraving, lend themselves to describing sharp-edged objects. In this clear construction of figure and ground, the empty spaces of the page represent the condition of the ground. In opposition to the plenitude of significance which is sought in the objects disclosed by archaeology, the ground is represented as a place from which no significance is to be extracted. The ground is that which escapes attention. Representing the archaeological site as a place of painstaking clarity is only possible by subsuming all the various problems of ground in archaeological practice under the blanket representation of emptiness.


Dörpfeld’s plan suppresses the archaeologist’s problematic encounter with the ground. However, there are even moments in his precise drawing where the ground emerges as a difficulty. In the areas marked “V” and “F”, a flurry of little lines marks out the ground’s rumpled surface. They seem to gather together to mark out edges. If we consult the key, we might conclude that they are intended to signify marble (“MARMOR”), but there is a distinct difference between this and other instances of marble in the drawing: compared to the stones marked above “L”, the surface at “V” is rough. These scratchy lines do not seem to signify the veins of marble. They are ambiguous moments in which the archaeologist has been unable to suppress the ground completely. Again, in areas to the far left and right of the drawing, the rendering of solid stone fades away indistinctly into the empty ground (above “W” and near “B”). At these moments, the archaeologist’s ability to define an edge, to clearly mark the contour between something that is present and something that is not, fails. The problem of resolving an architectural figure from an archaeological ground merges with the problem of resolving an architectural figure from a drawn ground.


It is noteworthy that such failures are permissible at the periphery of the drawings – at a distance from the centre which is marked by the dotted circles and the centre line of the theatre – but not near the centre itself. Uncertainty occurs at the periphery.


The ability to form a strong figure is paramount for Dörpfeld. If the image was grey and murky, he would be unable to resolve architecture as independent and autonomous. Dörpfeld constructs a clear architectural figure, but in doing so, he also posits the ground as a vacancy, as that which escapes attention because it cannot be delineated.


In the publications of Layard and Schliemann, the site is morcellated and scattered through the text as a myriad small engravings: objects, architectural details, profiles, landscape scenes, ethnographic details, comparisons, speculative renderings, tracings, inscriptions, maps. Together this collection of details and fragments comprise an archive that is sorted according to the order of the archaeologist’s experience. The architectural plan is only one more artefact in this archive. Dörpfeld and Theodore Fyfe (architect for Sir Arthur Evans’s excavations at Knossos), conversely, privilege the plan over the site, over the ground. The plan is the central document, the system of ordering to which all the other details are referred, the mechanism of inclusion and exclusion which functions to define the modern archaeological site. As such, plan substitutes for the ground in its function as a repository of archaeological knowledge.


More recently, archaeological criticism has queried the presumption of the archaeologist’s observational distance and noted the political dimension of the archaeological gaze. Julian Thomas writes:


The means by which we characteristically represent place, the distribution map, the air photo, the satellite image and the Geographical Information System, are all distinctively specular. They all imply a considerable distance between subject and object, and they all present a picture of past landscapes which the inhabitant would hardly recognise. All attempt to lay the world bare, like Eliot’s “patient etherised upon a table”, or like the corpse under the pathologist’s knife.


The distantiation of archaeological subject from object is produced by the representational techniques considered above, which chart a process of modernisation from the end of the nineteenth century. Archaeological drawing shifts to exclude the registers of the private and the uncertain. It remains possible, though, to see these registers re-surfacing in the most strictly controlled of drawings. Catherine Ingraham describes architecture as a practice of delineation associated with the ‘tactics of ideality’. These tactics can be clearly seen at work in the constitution of the archaeological site as a representation that can be shared publicly. The ground is problematic under these terms for two reasons: the ground is a necessary pre-condition of the line; yet it resists delineation. The ground is thus a representational problem for architecture, archaeology, and the complex interactions between the two fields. Ground cannot simply be “represented”, because it is a necessary condition of representation itself.



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