Photography and archaeology: Going back in time

Most historians consider 1839 as the year of the birth of photography. Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre’s innovative method of image-making was placed before the French Academy of Sciences in the same year. The words ethnography and anthropology were also coined around the same time. It also signalled the beginnings of archaeology in a professional sense.

Rock elephant at Katupilana

The potential of using photography as a recording tool in the service of archaeology, engineering, medicine, science and technology was quickly appreciated. As early as 1840, Alexander Gordon lectured to the Institute of Civil Engineers on the advantages to the profession resulting from the discovery made by Daguerre and others.

The system of copying not only the outline, but the tints of light and shade, united with accuracy and linear perspective, he contended, could easily be adapted to the purpose of the engineer, as well as to all those professions in which the art of drawing is used.

Almost on its heel came the discovery of the Calotype (derived from the Greek word-beautiful) by William Henry Fox Talbot which because of its positive-negative advantage was also a favourite technique. But never was it popular or superior to daguerreotype.

Both these techniques were superseded within a decade by the Albumen Negative and Collodion process, both of which used glass supports.

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