Artists reconstruction of a flint mining landscape with a concentration of mining pits and thatched huts in the foreground.
A artist’s reconstruction of the Bronze Age settlement adjacent to the earlier Neolithic flint mines at Grimes Graves, by Judith Dobie. © Historic England Archive
A artist’s reconstruction of the Bronze Age settlement adjacent to the earlier Neolithic flint mines at Grimes Graves, by Judith Dobie. © Historic England Archive

Picturing the Past

Archaeologists and historians carry out research to add to our understanding of the past. We use visual techniques throughout our study of the past to interpret and to share our findings. This page introduces some of the ways visualisation can add to our understanding.

Creating pictures of the past

One of the most impactful outcomes of studying archaeology or history is that it enables us to create pictures of the past. We take all the evidence from our research to create a snapshot of the site or area we are investigating.

Archaeological reconstruction is a specialist skill in which an artist considers all aspects of the site. Artefacts might tell us about the use of a site. Pits and postholes can tell us about buildings and ditches can tell us how the site was divided. Microscopic plant and animal remains can tell us about the landscape, such as whether it was forested or grassland. Burials can let us study the people that inhabited the landscape.

A reconstruction artist looks at all the evidence and tries to create an accurate picture of the past, but we never have all the answers. The artist makes the best guess with the information available. Often the reconstruction will go through several changes in consultation with various archaeological specialists before it is shared.

Different styles and absence or richness of detail can convey a different ‘feel” or 'mood' to the same given scene.


Photography is an essential tool for recording our heritage. A simple photograph can allow an archaeologist to see and begin to understand a site they might never have set foot on.
Photographs can be used not just as a direct record, but as an interpretative tool. In architecture, using special lenses allows the building to be viewed from a controlled perspective, removing distortion created by viewing angles. This allows a much more accurate record of the structure that can be used as a metric and objective record.

The two images above are of the same building. The image on the left is taken using a standard lens from ground height. The building looks like it is tapering. In contrast the image to the right was taken using a perspective control lens, which allows the viewer to see the building as the architect planned it.

Photography is literally the capture of light: changing the way light falls on an object can get across more information than viewing it once under a consistent light source. Photography is used to record and interpret the historic environment at every scale, from entire landscapes down to microscopic remains.

Measured survey and recording

Hand drawing

Archaeologists use spatial information to understand and interpret the traces left by the activity of people in the past. Creating plans that show the archaeology of an area allow the archaeologists to understand how groups of features, such as pits, postholes and ditches, relate to one another to give an idea of how the land was used.

Creating measurable plans allows archaeologists to view the evidence spatially, meaning that they can find patterns that indicate structures. A lot of the spatial information is created from hand-drawn plans and sections of the excavated features. The excavating archaeologist is able to impart their interpretation of the feature through their drawings. This allows them to quickly share information with whoever is analysing the excavations.

One of the interpretive tools that archaeologists use to quickly understand information is the hachure. You might have seen ‘hachures’ on old maps. These pointed marks indicate the length, direction and incline of slopes. The fat end of the hachure shows the top of the slope. The pointed end is the bottom of the slope. The distance between hachures indicates the incline. A steep slope will have hachures that are very close together. A gentle incline will have hachures that are far apart. Hachures allow an archaeologists to look at a 2-dimensional plan and understand how it might look in 3-dimensions.

Hand drawing is also used to record artefacts. A skilled illustrator can show a lot of information about an object by drawing it. To draw something accurately you have to examine it very closely. Artefact illustrators also use conventions to show additional information. For example, when drawing stone tools like flint, illustrators can show how the tools were made by adding some simple marks.

Computers and lasers

A lot of archaeological survey is done using remote sensing tools. The hand-drawn plans and sections are geolocated using global navigation satellite systema (GNSS) or Total Station Theodolites (TSTs). Many other remote sensing techniques are commonly used. Laser scanning and/ or structure from motion (also called photogrammetry) can be used to 3-dimensionally record anything from entire landscapes or excavations down to tiny individual artefacts. This allows much greater exploration and analysis, especially where access to the archaeology is limited.

Seeing beneath the ground

Archaeology is most often hidden beneath the ground. A very small amount is visible to us without either digging to find it or developing ways to see through the soil. Geophysics is the method archaeologists use to see what is below the soil without excavating. Using either magnetometry or by ‘shooting’ radar waves into the ground, geophysicists can roughly map some types of archaeological features without disturbing them. The results of these surveys are difficult to read unless you are trained, but they provide a useful tool to assess the amount and type of archaeology that might be encountered.

Graphic illustration and maps

Illustration is how complex information or data can be shared most efficiently. When presenting the findings of any historical or archaeological research, illustrations are used to evidence our findings. They allow a reader to visualise spatial information, and they also allow the writer to see the information presented in a new way, allowing them to draw further conclusions.

Maps, plans and graphs are all ways to share information and data in a way that can be quickly understood. With increasingly wide access to digital technology, we are now able to create illustrations that can be interrogated and explored by the viewer. This allows anyone to make further discoveries using the data captured through our research, and to bring it together with other datasets. The value of our study is phenomenally increased if we share it is a way that others can continue to draw understanding from it.

Further examples of visualisation approaches image gallery

Please click on the gallery images to enlarge.

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