Making models, material models – a past and a future?


The reproduction of Watson & Crick’s DNA model (by Roger Luck and Claudio Villa of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology Workshop) in place in the stairwell of Two Temple Place

A little while back, I went to see an exhibition my good friend Lucy had helped to mount at Two Temple Place, the extraordinary London home-cum-headquarters of the Transatlantic Victorian magnate, William Waldorf Astor. Consisting of a wealth of pieces loaned from the collections of the various museums in Cambridge, it was a great show. One of the most striking things on display, not to mention among the most modern, was the above; a towering reproduction of the model of the DNA double helix made by the pioneering molecular biologists James D. Watson and Francis Crick in 1953. Here they are next to the original:

“You missed an atom…” (image via

What got me so geed up about the model was its sculptural quality, not just in terms of its size but its materiality. The representation of an effectively invisible thing through the use of everyday equipment (it’s been a good 15 years since I last set foot inside a science lab, but I’m not going to forget the stands and clamps used to put it together) made me consider how appropriate the modelling of a concept/phenomenon in such a manner might be to a field like medieval archaeology or history.

Recently, among the ream of paper I brought back from my last visit to Nottingham, I rediscovered a photocopy of two pages from the 1972 David L. Clarke edited volume Models in Archaeology. I had sought it out for Ellison and Harriss’s interesting if slightly unwieldy study ‘Settlement and land use in the prehistory and early history of southern England: a study based on locational models’, but couldn’t help be distracted by a photo facing the title page which at first glance seemed to depict a piece of abstract sculpture. Here’s the photo (excuse the pretty awful quality of the image reproduction) in question:

An indirect artificial hardware model (but you knew that already)

An indirect artificial hardware model (but you knew that already)

The subject of the photograph is a model which aims to articulate ‘the correlation values between attributes within the artefact type population of British beaker pottery c. 2000-1500 B.C.’ The first thing to note is that it is not directly analogous to the Watson and Crick’s, since it is not a representation of a real-life structural arrangement but an abstraction of a system. Beyond that, given its prehistoric subject matter, I’m in no position to say how successful it is in realising its stated aim, either in terms of the scholarship of the early 1970s or the contemporary understanding of the data (and the legend beneath the published photograph goes on to acknowledge certain limitations, albeit mainly around there not being other counterpart models which would abet comparison of ‘goodness of fit and evaluation’).

What I do feel able to say is that I love the fact it’s not simply another line drawing or graph, but a composite object fashioned by someone from physical materials. In this era of digitisation, such a nuts-and-bolts method (is this an appropriate context to use the word literally?) seems archaic and suitable only for circumstances as specific as an exhibition to mark 50 years of the double helix. Indeed, it’s no surprise to find that the picture of the model appears in the book divorced from any related essay and is proffered as little more than an inconsequential oddment of fleeting visual interest. Today, the whole concept of a physical, made-out-of-stuff model has the air of retro-futurism about it; a nice idea, but something you don’t see a lot of for a fairly good reason.

Despite the postmodern turn in the social sciences more or less tearing to shreds the notion that a model can be universally applicable to what it endeavours to portray, models still get produced in printed and/or digital form because they are (sometimes) useful abstractions of a particular reality. I can’t help but think material models remain an especially stimulating means of communicating complex ideas to a wider audience. My current unease with the primacy of the academic publication, be it book, chapter, article or even review, over other possible forms of analytical response to a subject is thrown into slightly sharper focus when that subject is material culture. Is it out of the question that research output might not be presented solely on the printed or pixelated page but, where appropriate, in other, more physically-substantial media? Just as with the written word, those who produce such works must acknowledge the limitations of the chosen medium but at the same time seek to emphasise the advantages such alternatives present by conveying information in a different way and perhaps causing the audience to respond to them differently too. I for one would go to see the exhibition.


Clarke, David L., ed., Models in Archaeology (London: Methuen & Co., 1972)

About Robert J S Briggs

Back to being a part-time early medievalist; Surrey born, London based, been known to travel
This entry was posted in Archaeology, Art, Design, History, London and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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