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Imagining Hominid Aesthetics

The most recent Dmanisi cranial find (image Georgian National Museum).

The most recent Dmanisi cranial find (Georgian National Museum).

The unveiling of spectacular archaeological finds has now become a somewhat formulaic media event, and the recovery of early hominids nearly always includes some artistic imaginations of the skeleton.  Last week Science published a study on the fifth early hominid skull excavated from the medieval town of Dmanisi in Georgia since 2000.  Nearly all of the articles were graced by fascinating if predictable visuals of the finds:  photographs in situ, scans of skulls, video imaginations of the hominids, and reconstructions of the long-lost ancestors.  The Dmanisi press coverage is simply one of myriad popular narratives that illuminate how popular visual representations shape archaeological narratives—both for better and worse.

The 1.8 million year old skeletal remains from Dmanisi are among the earliest hominids outside Africa (excavations at Dmanisi were reported in 2002 and 2007), so they have significant implications on hominid evolutionary narratives.  Nevertheless, the popular Dmanisi story may be told as much by evocative images as it is being told by conventional archaeological discourse.  We probably could say much the same thing of nearly any other archaeological tale reaching popular discussion, so there is nothing unique about the Dmanisi coverage.  Nevertheless, it compels us to think carefully about media storylines and visual imaginings of the distant past. Read the rest of this entry