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Visual Art, Archaeology and Gestalt

Author(s): Robert Wenger
Source: Leonardo, Vol. 30, No. 1 (1997), pp. 35-46
Published by: The MIT Press
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The artifact at the moment of discovery is like a stone thrown
into a quiet pond. Although the striking of the stone against
the water appears to be an isolated event, it creates a sphere of
influence that quietly expands outward to affect the entire
pool. The continuum of experience cannot be adequately represented by a static event or object isolated in time and space.
It is best understood as a whole that is different from the sum
of its parts. The image of artifact and quiet pond reflects my
personal phenomenology about the passage of time, which is
partially based on my summer work as an archaeological excavator. During the winter months, I teach a course in basic design and a notebook-journal course on visual thinking called
"VisualInquiry."On the basis of my work as an art educator,
artist and archaeologist, I have become interested in an expanded and integrated view of art and science [1].
This expanded and integrated view is not predicated on
disciplines or destinations, but on a curiosity about how
things fit together. At this fundamental level of inquiry, there
is a desire, if not a demand, for order. Order is a necessary
condition for any kind of clarity and understanding. Apprehending visual order is one of the most fundamental ways of
understanding the outer-as well as the underlying-structure and meaning of things [2]. In this kind of research environment, there are no proprietary rights to a particular idea
or creative pathway. There is no vertical hierarchy of established routes. In this expanded field of thinking, visual experience and perception are the natural connecting forces that
integrate art, archaeology and Gestalt.
Visual perception is the bedrock on which many ideas inevitably build their foundation [3]. The use of imagery and visual thinking processes are primarywaysof exploring, expressing and communicating the known and imagined properties
of a system, theory or general phenomenon [4]. Visual waysof
thinking and learning move across, between and through disciplinary commitments. This connection through vision creates a kind of "theoretical convergence" that defines contemporary views of interdisciplinarity.A visual interdisciplinarityis
not a subject matter or body of content; it is a process of integration and synthesis that is based on perception. Vision is a
natural connecting force that can reestablish relationships
that have been obscured by arbitrarydisciplinary divisions [5].


ina processof imageformation.
of similarity,
wayto understand
ina givenfieldor
logicalconceptof object-context.
Theseideasfinda philosophical
to thinkabouttheshapes,patternsandstructure

tual environment [6]. Research

by Gestaltists Max Wertheimer,
Wolfgang K6hler, Kurt Koffka
and others helped establish
"laws"of perceptual organization
that are the same foundation
principles found in design thinking throughout the visual arts.
The Gestalt principles of similarity, continuity,proximity,closureand
figure-groundare the primary factors and forces that create and
emphasize visual units, groupings and organized wholes
within a given perceptual setting. The degree of visual order
or disorder perceived within a setting is dependent, to a large
degree, on the recognition, interpretation and communication of these unifying principles.
In Language of Vision, a book clearly indebted to Gestalt
scholars, artist Gyorgy Kepes presented the very act of perceiving as a creative act. The creative act is a process of forming and integrating experience into unified entities or Gestalt
wholes. Gestalt, then, is part of a languageof vision present in
the simplest forms of mark-making as well as the complex
configurations found in a work of art or archaeological artifact [7]. In art, a unified entity or whole can be a singular
composition as well as the individual graphic elements that
make up the totality of the creative work. In archaeology, a
singular artifact can be viewed as an object whole with its own
particular attributes. These archaeological object wholes,
however, are also contextually enfolded within the larger
whole of the archaeological setting. This archaeological idea
of whole-parts and object-context is not unlike the relationin
ship between an artist's singular achievements-which
turn form a body of work-and the cultural surroundings in
which they are contextually enfolded.
A Gestalt whole is a configuration or arrangement in which
singular things as well as combinations of things can assume
shapes [8]. Apprehending the visual order or disorder
present in these configurations is a matter of perceiving and
interpreting the relationships between the parts and between
the parts and the whole. As a result, a Gestalt configuration is
an idea or experience that is so unified as a whole that its attributes cannot be ascertained from a simple summation or

Gestalt is a kind of psychological thinking that is primarily
concerned with how the mind unifies and orders the percep-

? 1997 ISAST

Robert Wenger (art educator, archaeological excavator, artist), Department of Fine and
Applied Arts, School of Architecture and Allied Arts, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR
97403, U.S.A.

LEONARDO, Vol. 30, No. 1, pp. 35-46, 1997


examination of the parts in isolation.

The fundamental Gestalt idea that a
whole is different from the sum of its
parts is a holistic theory that can be applied not only to the visual arts and archaeology, but to any physical, psychological or symbolic configuration.


Following a high ridge line of volcanic
outcrops in southwestern Oregon along
with two other archaeological surveyors,
I recently visited what are thought to be
several Native American "vision-quest"
sites. Our 1994 re-survey was conducted
to access any changes that might have
affected the site since it was recorded by
US Forest Service surveyors in 1980. On
top of these high basalt outcrops, indigenous peoples erected more than 100
small rock piles, or cairns, that are
thought to mark spots where individual
requests were made for spiritual guidance. The cairns may signify a wish
granted or a request in the making,
since for some Native American peoples
it is the physical effort of stacking the

landscape and rock cairns contribute to

the site's overall presence and purpose
as a place of pilgrimage and reverence.
Even the heat of the sun must be acknowledged as part of the surveyors' unfolding experience.
Although a complete scientific survey
would photograph, measure and map
all appropriate features, there is paradox, if not futility, in trying to map and
capture in a frame an experience that is
essentially unbounded. The whole of
the vision-quest site is clearly differentand probably greater-than a sum of its
individual marks and features. The experience of the relationships between
things is qualitative and not quantitative.
Perception is based on the interdependence of every part within the whole
[12]. According to the Gestalt way of
thinking, this kind of setting and experience is not a perceptual mosaic in which
the pieces and parts merely add up to
some whole [13]. To the Gestalt theorist, the pieces and parts of experience
are both determined by and dependent
on the whole. The properties of the
parts are dependent on their context
within the whole of the visual field or
setting [14]. If the stillness of the visionquest site is broken, a different aesthetic
order is created. If parts of this site are
altered or new features added, the
whole also changes. Contemporary surFig. 1. The excavaveyors, for example, may unknowingly
tion unit "crops"
alter the very landscape they are aiming
and composes the
to explore. New pathways to the site are
set- i.
., ~ archaeological
'e r j -ting,
just as this pho- created through the soft volcanic pumand
ice. It is possible that these new path' tograph crops
.composes the land^::*
wayswill obliterate the subtle prehistoric
scape panorama. As
traces that originally led to the summit.

rocks that will hopefully attract the spirit

associate [9]. At other sites along the
ridge line, rock cairns are thought to
mark and attend cremation locations.
Together, these vision-quest and cremation cairns define the foci for a landscape much more vast than is immediately apparent to the eye. They are
symbolic figures that rest upon a spiritual field [10].
Some of the rock cairns are quite obvious, consisting of two or more basaltic
rocks placed on top of one another to
form a simple triangular shape. Other
placements are more subtle, consisting
of only one rock whose color and position are not consistent with the geologic
surround. To abstract artists such as
Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, these
vision-quest cairns would be compositional elements within a larger structural form and whole. As a graphic sign,
the cairn visibly "speaks," yet is profoundly silent [11]. In the landscape setting of the vision-quest site, the whole is
something quite different from any of
the parts or features experienced in isolation. The basalt outcrop, panoramic

. A

an enclosure,

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Wenger,Visual Art, Archaeology and Gestalt


unit isolates phenomena from the

overall surround. As
a tool of order and
inquiry, it acts as a
blank piece of paper placed before
the artist to receive
ideas, thoughts and


At the base of the dark gray basalt outcrop are ancient pictographs painted in
red ocher. These fading images contrast
sharplywith contemporary images drawn
in white spray paint with a blue tint. Images made with the same kind of paint
appear at a similar site along the same
ridge line. One of these images in particular commands attention. It is a 3-foothigh stick figure whose color and scale
seem disproportionate to the ancient surround. At another site is a spray painted
circle with an arrow that points to a crevice in the basalt rock where a shaft of
light enters from the west. Given the relative inaccessibility of the site, it is quite
possible that these newer pictographs in
contemporary materials are not intrusive
graffiti, but signs of the spiritual continuity of the present-day Native Americans

of the area, who acknowledge and protect these specific locations and may, in
fact, actively pursue their own spiritual
and religious quests there.
If this is indeed the case, then these
vision-quest sites are open artistic works
of changing parts and wholes [ 15]. They
give tangible expression to my personal
definition of art as visual inquiry. According to this view, the contemporary
vision-quest artist would use whatever
materials are at hand to express and
clarify meaning. In this particular example, the context and meaning of the
spray-painted imagery would be valued
more than the refinement of the materials or the technique used to express the
idea. It is likely that maintaining the
spiritual continuity of the site would be
more important than celebrating the
specific vision-quest images themselves.
This emphasis on continuity, context,
openness, substance and meaning is an
important part of visual inquiry. This
definition supposes that, by giving a visible form to thinking and feeling, the vision-quest artist attempts to gain clarity
and understanding about phenomena
and how things fit together. Clarity and
understanding-and not the objects or
artifacts that reflect the inquiry-are the
goals. As visual inquiry, art is simply a
way of knowing, understanding, integrating and synthesizing experience.
The actual process of makingartifacts or
art objects is not a central issue. The
emphasis is on usingartifacts and objects
as landmarks to facilitate the mapping
of the creative and spiritual journey. In
this expanded view, artifacts and art objects are valued because they precede,
rather than conclude, the results of the
investigation. By themselves, they are of
secondary importance to the clarity and
understanding that comes from the
overall inquiry.


Visual art, archaeological excavation
and Gestalt scholarship are based in vision. At this fundamental level of inquiry, they are parallel ways of knowing.
According to anthropologist Claude
Levi-Strauss,the scientist creates events
that "change the world" by way of their
structure. The mythmaker creates structures that reveal something about
events. By constructing an "object of
knowledge," the artist partakes of both
of these modes of creativity. The observer of the artistic object is witness not
only to a particular answer and conclu-



.I: ???1?*


:... .
;. ;::::.. irl:.

Fig. 2. The Gestalt of art and archaeological excavation refers to the act of perceiving visual relationships as well as the process of giving these relationships a structured form.
Like the visual artist who arranges graphic elements on a piece of paper, the archaeological excavator creates and interprets the visual patterns that emerge from the ground.

sion, but also can feel somewhat like its

creator, since he or she can see in the
object possible ideas that the artist has
"abandoned" by "excluding them from
his own creation" [16]. If one takes into
consideration the overwhelming possibilities that life experience might suggest, the artistic event is also an interdependent piece of other wholes. Artists
and mythmakers create "miniaturizations" or "small-scalemodels" of experience that are illusions of a whole. The
miniaturization and reduction in scale
of the true dimensions of life's possibilities contribute to the illusion. A miniaturization or model of experience
makes life's possibilities easier to grasp
and comprehend. As a small-scale
model, experience becomes like subject
matter. As subject matter, life's possibilities become less imposing and, subsequently, easier to manipulate, analyze,
evaluate, criticize and control.
The graphic artist or painter, for example, often approaches phenomena
with some sort of prepared field, such as
a piece of paper or stretched canvas. In
archaeology, this process begins by outlining a grid with string on the surface
of the landscape.

The archaeological grid is not unlike a
blank piece of paper placed before the
artist to receive ideas, thoughts and im-

pressions. This grid of string creates a

square or rectangular enclosure that isolates phenomena in an excavation from
the overall surround. In a more philosophical view, the archaeological square
prior to excavation is "closed," "receptive" and in a "state of rest." When
opened, it reflects the immensity of experience that lies outside its borders
[17]. As a framing device, the archaeological grid fragments the selected prehistoric or historic setting into a number
of interdependent pieces. This temporarily limits the geographical area of the
investigation and initially reduces the
scale of the archaeological record to a
manageable size. Depending on how
much of the past remains hidden from
view, this isolated portion of the archaeological record may act as a facsimile or miniaturization
of the
unexcavated portions of the site. In
larger, more complex sites, archaeological grids may be added sequentially to
form a larger square, or block excavation. Although more of the site will be
excavated contiguously in this way, the
parts will never add up to a whole. The
archaeological whole in this case can
only be an aspiration. It will always remain just out of reach. The larger block
excavation, for example, will now become a small-scale model, facsimile or
miniaturization of other sites within the
next-larger geographical area or time
frame. In this sense, every archaeological part within the whole of the site is

lWenger,Visual Art, Archaeolog)

and Gestalt


Fig. 3. In this view of

excavations at a
coastal shell midden,
the visual field can
appear quite chaotic.
sc fia
parts of the
site have already
been heavily eroded
by wind, water, and
visitors' pathways.
Shells, rocks, and
other debris lie scat;-co
tered without obvii;yo
ous context over the
a-t we
c.t of the
st l ifo
excavator's challenge




is to re-establish the

blank pieces of paper can also formally

frame objects and events in a way that
can suggest that phenomena exist in a
world of their own [20]. The archaeological grid acts as a container that receives the archaeological evidence. In
turn, the archaeological evidence is expressed as figures upon an earthen background. This is not unlike the situation
of painted and drawn graphic compositions that are contained within the surfaces of paper and canvas.


Artifacts and other graphic elements

within the archaeological grid are the
primary visual indicators of activity and
meaning. Throughout the excavation,
the archaeologist is presented with a
complex visual language of texture, pattern, color and shape. Enclosed and
by the vertical walls of the excircularhearthin the
cavation unit, stone and bone tools in a
lower right next to
the measuring stick
variety of shapes, colors and sizes rest on
and sign board. An
the ancient surface. Soils discolored and
outline of shell is
stained from human occupation present
left where hearth
an array of different patterns and texrocks once rested.
tures. All of these visual elements pertain to experiences and events that have
already unfolded. Hundreds, if not
enfolded into larger object wholes
space. This facilitates a kind of measurthousands, of years after the fact, the exwhich in turn are nested within other
able clarity that is a necessary part of cavator is often presented with past exwholes in an ever-increasing dimension
maintaining the context and integrity of
periences that have become naturally
in both space and time.
all objects and artifacts found during
dispersed and displaced through time.
By being part of a Cartesian system of the excavation [19]. Straight side walls The extent to which the excavation echidentical points and coordinates, the ar- provide a way to maintain the volumet- oes the events and experiences of the
chaeological grid facilitates the catalog- ric consistency of excavated soils. Volu- past depends on how the visual patterns
metric consistency is especially impor- and structures are interpreted and coming of visual relations and connections.
This rigid lattice of points and coordi- tant when comparing the relative
nates is not unlike the lines of latitude density of certain artifact and faunal reThe Gestalt of art and archaeological
and longitude that circle the earth. Car- mains. Straight side walls provide a mea- excavation refers to the act of perceiving
tesian precision allows for objects found surable context for every object and arti- visual relationships, as well as to the proin one area at a particular depth to be fact recovered during the excavation.
cess of giving these relationships a tancompared to other evidence found in The location of each piece of archaeo- gible and structured form [21]. In an efanother location within the same site or logical evidence, for example, is plotted fort to approximate the original
at a nearby geographical location. Ide- on a site map that indicates vertical
structure and design of past events, the
ally, the same measurements should be depth and horizontal position. Horizon- archaeological excavator must carefully
obtained by any number of different in- tal position is measured relative to the reveal and interpret the patterns enfour side walls of each excavation unit. countered during excavation. These
vestigators [18].
The string grid also acts as a guide
Vertical depth is measured from the past events are reflected in the arrangethat helps maintain the straight side ground surface or an established datum. ment and structure of the material eviwalls of the excavation unit. These
Without a measurable context, archaeo- dence that remains. Like the visual artist
who arranges graphic elements on a
straight side walls of the excavation unit logical objects have no scientific value.
serve a purpose similar to the straight
Grids of string or blank pieces of pa- piece of paper, the archaeological excaedges of a blank piece of paper. The per are visual conventions. They help vator creates and interprets the visual
straight edges yield parallelism and order, control and emphasize the un- patterns that emerge from the ground.
right-angled relations. This is a paro- folding of experience. As tools of order Because of this process, the archaeologichial rather than a cosmic system de- and inquiry, they can fragment and iso- cal image is created as much as it is
late the unbounded setting in the same found. The process is not unlike one designed around a center. The resulting
verticals and horizontals offer the most way that a photograph crops a landscape scribed by artist Paul Klee when he sugconvenient form for ordering things in panorama (Fig. 1). Grids of string or gested that art does not render the visli

de ping


Wenger,Visual Art, Archaeology and Gestalt

ancient order by notthe similarity,

continuity, proximity, and degree of
closure in the visual
elements that remain. Note the outline of a small

ible world as much as it makes phenomena visible [22]. The archaeological excavator,for example, makes phenomena
visible by removing the soil that covers
artifacts and buried surfaces.
Through drawing, diagramming, photography and other graphic means, the
archaeologist reproduces the appearance of the graphic elements that
appear during the excavation. The archaeological arrangement or composition that results is based on the elements
that are left in place, such as artifacts, as
well as the elements that are finally discarded-for
example, intrusive elements such as recent rockfall and other
debris. Determination of what is intrusive or indigenous to the excavation is a
learned but essentially aesthetic process
of making choices (Fig. 2). Split and
fractured rocks from an abandoned
hearth, for example, have a different
texture than do errant and unmodified
river cobble. The excavator must be able
to tell the difference between an occupation surface, or living floor, and one
that reflects a geological discontinuity.
The archaeological setting, like an artistic composition, is not merely an accumulation of material objects or graphic
elements. Within the boundaries of the
archaeological grid, each piece of material evidence acts in concert with the immediate setting and overall surround to
form a configuration of visual forces
[23]. Anthropologist H.G. Barnett views
this configuration of visual forces as an
"integrated activity system" that is first
perceived as a homogeneous entity without parts. Upon analysis, the parts come
into consciousness,
forming other
wholes that carry their own specific
properties and sets of relations. Like the
spiritual whole of the vision-quest site, a
Gestalt configuration does not have to
assume a tangible shape-it can be an
idea or feeling. A visible frame of reference and "segregated whole," on the
other hand, give experience a tangible
form [24]. A configuration of visual
forces is based in perception and follows
the "laws"of perceptual organization established through Gestalt research. In
this sense, the principles of Gestalt lie
halfway between art and science.

In a typical archaeological site along the
Oregon coast, the major visual components are mounds of discarded shells
and hundreds of fire-blackened river
cobbles used in processing shellfish.
Looking at this site from a distance,

thousands of individual shells combine

in perception to form one continuous
whole. The whole of the site is seen before the individual shells even come into
consciousness [25]. As the observer
moves closer, the visual field seems more
chaotic. Some parts of the site have already been eroded heavily by wind, water and visitors' pathways. Shell, rock
and other cultural materials lie scattered
without obvious context over the
ground surface. Faced with such visual
complexity, the excavator begins a
search for the most stable and least disturbed arrangements within the archaeological whole. The challenge is to
re-establish the ancient order by noting
the similarity, continuity, proximity and
degree of closure in the visual elements
that remain (Fig. 3).


In excavation and the visual arts, elements that are similar in color, shape,
texture or directional orientation are
seen as belonging to the same unit or
group [26]. Visual elements that are dissimilar command attention. Throughout
the history of this coastal site, discarded
shells were deposited on top of older
piles. Each deposition event has a
unique rhythmic movement and directional orientation. Based on the way they
were discarded, shells line up like iron
filings do under the influence of a magnet. These wave-likepatterns create a lin-

Fig. 4. In this dia-

of a partial cross-



ear continuation that binds thousands of

individual shells together in discrete
bands. Within the larger whole of a shell
mound itself, these individual bands of
shell come to the forefront of consciousness [27]. Each of these smaller shell
bands shares an edge or boundary with
the deposits directly above and below.
This contiguous relationship suggests an
almost simultaneous occurrence in time.
Breaks in this continuity may be indicated by thin dark bands of water-worn
pebbles or coarse sand. These accents of
dissimilarity suggest the presence of
change within an otherwise smooth progression of events (Fig. 4). If the observer moves close enough, he or she will
note subtle differences between shell
types that suggest even finer stratigraphic divisions. In such a coastal site,
the composition changes for every season the site was inhabited. To the faunal
expert, similarity and dissimilarity in
shell species indicate subgroups within
the larger whole. Similarity in species
may indicate that shellfish were harvested in one location during one seasonal gathering episode. Among similar
shell species, the textural dissimilarity
between whole or crushed shell may indicate a different deposition sequence.
The same kind of compositional observations are made when examining
one of the most common-yet least examined-features in an archaeological
site: the rock cluster. At this coastal site,
the "hearth-rocks" that were used to
cook and process the shellfish appear

section of a coastal
shell mound, individual shell deposits
are indicated by differences in texture.
The whole of the
cross-section is
formed by a number of contiguous
parts. This contiguous relationship
through time provides a visible continuity to different
shell gathering episodes. Breaks within
this continuity suggest the presence of
change in an otherwise smooth progression of events.

Wenger,Visual Art, Archaeology and Gestalt


widely scattered. In ancient times, intact

hearth areas were often dismantled to
gain access to the prepared food. In
other situations, rocks were taken from
previous hearths to construct new ones.
To the excavator, there seems to be no
obvious clustering or piling that would
suggest that these rocks once formed
several discrete cooking areas.
Because of their overall similarity in
shape, size and color, the rocks are
grouped together in perception to form
a separate whole or structure called a
scatter. Like that of the shell deposits,
this image is formed not by visually adding up the individual rocks as separate
facts, but by perceiving them simultaneously as one unit or group.

At a site in the Willamette Valley in Oregon, archaeologistJohn R. White identified no less than 12 different rock cluster variables and attributes that operate
within the context of the Gestalt prin-

ciples. White's cluster variables include

shape or configuration, rock size, depth,
associations, number of rocks, rock
types, size, location within the site, ratio
of thermally affected to non-affected
rock, placement, cluster fill and density.
He found that clusters that seem to have
a similar alignment, directional movement or orientation will also tend to
form a subgroup within the whole. Textural differences between angular basalt
and smooth cobble rock will likewise be
distinguished in perception. Based on
these attributes, White was able to identify 24 rock clusters and their associated
functions. These included communal
and individual ovens, communal and individual oven "lids,"fire pits, central and
noncentral hearths, inundation debris,
cobble-discard piles and a pile of discarded dirt from some kind of prehistoric digging. In his cluster analysis, the
variable described as density, concentration or tightness closely corresponds to
the Gestalt principle of proximity [28].
All other attributes being equal, it is
the space between the rocks that may

suggest the presence of a subgroup that

might define a discrete cooking area
within a scatter. Visual elements will appear to be grouped together or segregated, depending on their relative proximity to one another [29]. When the
space between individual elements is
great, events and experiences may appear segregated, discontinuous or unresolved. When the space between individual elements is small, events and
experiences may appear unified and continuous. In some cases, a few millimeters'
difference in proximity can suggest association or disassociation with other elements. Patterns that are tightly joined,
for example, can suggest that experiences and events accumulated rapidly.

Many of the patterns in an archaeological excavation continue unseen, below
and beyond the string and wooden
stakes that act as a temporary frame of
reference. Many patterns extend into
parts of the site that will never be exca-

Fig. 5. To the excavator, a semicircle of stones presents a circular hearth only half exposed. Wholeness is suggested by the continuity of
the visible parts. The image on the left shows a 1-x-3-m portion of a prehistoric hearth as it was first excavated. The image on the right
shows the same portion after rocks were removed to expose the original rock-lined pit. The other half of the circular hearth was subsequently excavated.


VisualArt,Archaeologyand Gestalt

vated. During archaeological salvage efforts, for example, an excavation may be

limited to only those areas that will be
impacted by development or construction. Other areas of an archaeological
site may remain unexcavated to preserve
the site in its natural state. This will conserve the archaeological record for future generations that may improve methodology. For these and other reasons,
much of the past remains hidden from
view. Excavatorsmust imagine visual patterns continuing beyond the present
unit or layer being documented. They
must fill gaps in incomplete shapes, patterns and intervals. The ability to envision beyond the information given corresponds to inference, interpolation and
the Gestalt principle of closure [30].
At one prehistoric site, an initial test
excavation revealed an intact hearth in
the form of a semicircle of large basalt
rocks. The rocks that formed the other
half of the semicircle remained embedded in the unexcavated portion of the
site (Fig. 5). To the excavator, a semicircle of stones would probably represent a half-exposed circular hearth.
Wholeness is partially suggested by the
sense of motion that the visible parts exhibit as they continue laterally into
unexcavated portions of the site. The
ability to envision beyond any archaeological surface, similar to that of forecasting the weather, is a matter of observing present patterns and inferring which
of those patterns are likely to continue
into the future. In this particular example, the prospects were excellent that
if one were to continue to excavate, one
would find the other half of the semicircle. Throughout the excavation, the
observer looks for visual configurations
that form the most complete and least
disturbed relationships. This attempt at
closure is a natural tendency in perception to move toward the most stable and
least disturbed form. A closed area
seems more stable and complete than
one that is open and without definite
boundaries. In terms of the hearth, the
excavator partakes in a kind of filling-in
in which the forces of perceptual organization naturally move toward spatial order and stability. The semicircle of
stones presents a pattern that "feels"incomplete. This incompleteness creates a
kind of psychological tension that will
remain until the Gestalt of the hearth is
in the imagination or
through continued excavation [31]. For
some, the principles of closure and interpolation define intuition, forecasting
and even precognition [32]. This kind of

that surround objects, then they must

also surround the unseen
unexcavated portions of the hearth. In
either case, the accuracy of the
excavator's inference, hypothesis, imagination or experience is quite easy to
prove or disprove, because the confirming patterns, if present, have already unfolded. They lie just beyond the surface
presently being excavated.

Fig. 6. Based on a Celtic motif, this design

exhibits the visual alternation between figure and ground and between object and
context. As the white "cross" form takes
precedence in perception, the black "cross"
form moves to the background and the periphery of consciousness. Alternately, by visually attending to the black form, one sees
it "advance" to become a figure resting
within the context of a white background.

forecasting ability involves perceiving

with all of the senses the entire field of
forces that charge the archaeological


On the basis of Michael Faraday's ideas
about electromagnetic fields, Gestalt
scholar Wolfgang Kohler experimentally
considered the possibility that every object creates a "functional halo," or field,
that physically extends well beyond each
object to interact with other features in
the perceptual surround. The visible
hearth rocks, for example, are only the
focal points of the action. Each rock has
its own electrically charged field of
color, texture, shape and area that extends outward to influence the whole of
the archaeological surround. To the Gestalt way of thinking, closure may be an
electrically charged memory trace in
which the brain seeks the simplest and
most stable form with which to close incomplete figures [33]. For others, closure is more a matter of a hypothetical
guessing and inference based on a
learned experience [34]. In terms of an
intuition or inference of wholeness, closure may require some past experience
with certain kinds of shapes or configurations. In this case, the excavator would
need to have had some prior experience
with circularity. A sense of wholeness
may also require a sensitivity to a variety
of resonating energies and forces
throughout the perceptual field. If there
are functional electromagnetic halos


Stability and completeness of the archaeological field require that phenomena be visibly detached from their surroundings as "segregated wholes," or
figures, as they are in many perceptual
experiences. A figure can be any structure, idea, behavior, singular graphic element, archaeological artifact or arrangement of artifacts that stands out
from the perceptual background. The
background, ground or field is the place
or area where the figure resides [35]. In
Gestalt theory, our perception of images, objects, or things requires that
they be distinctly outlined against the
perceptual background. If, for whatever
reason, the relationship between a-thing
and its surroundings is absent or unclear, then meaning is compromised.
Things just do not make sense [36]. If
there is no clear separation between a
figure and its background, a kind of visual ambiguity may result that conceals,
confuses or camouflages (Fig. 6) [37].
A Gestalt configuration is a basic unit
of perceptual experience that is determined by the arrangement of individual
objects or elements upon some field or
background context. When viewing a
configuration, we never experience just
the object or just the background context, but the interrelationship between
the two. Gestalt figure and ground
complement one another with respect
to the whole of perceptual experience.

In the same way that a Gestalt figure is
dependent upon its ground, archaeological research depends on the balanced relationship between the artifact
and its background context. This is because each artifact or object within a
given setting is dependent on and affected by the conditions present in the
environment or background setting of
which it is a part. This background context determines how the figure is per-

Wenger, Visual Art, Archaeology and Gestalt



Fig. 7. A mano (stone grinding slab) and a metate (stone grinding tool) appear as first excavated. The light-colored half was excavated first and has dried in the sun. The dark half
was last to be excavated and retains moisture from the soil. Mano and metate were part of
an uninterrupted continuum. Their excavation and removal from the site is an abstraction
and withdrawal from experience. This abstraction and withdrawal, however, is a way to give
the past a tangible form.

ceived [38]. During excavations at a prehistoric dwelling in the Oregon desert,

archaeologist Robert Musil was very excited to discover a particular style of obsidian projectile point or dart, whose
morphology was similar to that of specimens from 7,000 to 4,000 years before
the present. Dart points are thought to
have been used with spear-throwing
sticks called atlatl, which predate the
bow and arrow. Because this older-style
projectile point lay in direct association
with a living surface consisting of hearth,
storage-pit and grinding-stone artifacts,
it was inferred that the dwelling itself
could be of similar antiquity. It was believed that information from a site of this
age would make a significant contribution to the prehistory of Oregon. Dates
obtained from charcoal in the hearth,
however, showed that the living surface
itself was only 2,000 years old. Based on
this evidence, this older-style projectile
point is now considered to be an example of a continuation of the olderstyle shape into later prehistoric periods
[39]. In this example, the artifact as isolated figure produced great excitement
and even greater expectations. The artifact in relation to its background context
elicited a much more subdued response.
As an aesthetic handmade object, this
obsidian artifact has a visual presence
that naturally commands attention. It


Wenge,Visual Art, Archaeology and Gestalt

immediately draws the eye because it introduces an accent of dissimilarity amid

relatively similar shapes and textures. As
the projectile point becomes the focal
point of the excavator's attention, the
background setting of which it is a part
moves to the periphery of consciousness.
If the excavator concentrates on the
background setting of living surface,
hearth or storage pit, the form of the
projectile point momentarily "disappears" into the perceptual background.
This visible alternation between appearance and recession of a visual element is
a perceptual phenomenon that has been
demonstrated empirically through Gestalt experiments with reversible, or ambiguous, figure-ground images (see Fig.
6) [40]. It is an aspect of Gestalt perception experienced by the archaeologist as
well as the weekend artifact collector.
The perceptual alternation between
object and context or figure and ground
is, in part, what makes the archaeological artifact so seductive. To the artifact
collector, a background context of soil is
not as visually interesting as objects fashioned by hand. In archaeology, however,
the artifact is "collected" only after careful documentation of the background
context of which it is a part. If an artifact
were collected as some kind of trophy
without context, it would carry no scientific meaning or value.

At another site in the Oregon desert, a

uniquely shaped "metate," or stone
grinding slab, was found buried beneath
sagebrush and sand. Resting flat-sided
upon the metate's surface was a basalt
mano, or grinding tool. For a thousand
years, the mano and metate layjust as the
owner had last placed them. The winds
of the desert had swirled around these
objects until both were buried (Fig. 7).
At this particular site, changes were imposed upon the landscape. Because of
these disruptions, the relationship between mano and metate would become
dissipated and silent. After remaining
undisturbed for so many years, the excavators were hesitant to remove the mano
from the metate's surface. In an effort to
better understand the relationship of the
parts to the whole, the excavators separated the mano and metate from their
prehistoric context, severing a very close
bond between them. As the mano was
gently lifted from the metate's surface
for scientific safekeeping, an outline of
sand was left marking the place where
the mano had once rested. The outline
was created by sand swirling against the
mano's form. The sand could not entirely penetrate beneath the mano, so an
empty space remained, signifying the
area of contact with the metate's surface.
This empty space was a sign of the
mano's passing. An archaeologist's brush
swept the outline of sand away,and there
was a silence, as if no relationship had
ever existed [41].
The relationship between mano and
metate was part of an uninterrupted continuum; the past experiences of which
they were a part can only be inferred.
This whole is something quite different
from any combination of evidence encountered through excavation. Although
the physical relationship of the mano to
the metate was carefully documented,
their separation from one another was a
withdrawal from past experience. The
figure of the mano was literally removed
from the background context of the
metate. In turn, mano and metate together were physically removed from the
overall archaeological surround. The
separation of an object from its context
or a figure from its ground is a drawing
away and abstraction from experience.
Objects removed from their context become different objects [42].
This separation can alter the very experience one is trying to understand. In

individuation (Fig. 8). It is a perfectly

balanced symbol of possible interactions
between white/black, light/dark, negative/positive, concave/convex and figure/ground. It is a configuration of
visual forces that also finds correspondence in archaeological ideas about the
inseparability of object and context.
This graphic image is a sphere of influences. The black and white parts amid
the whole are designed so that the eye
dependent pieces.
This disruption or addition, as the cannot take possession of one shape or
case may be, is the beginning of a pro- value at the expense of the other. In this
cess that gives the past a tangible form. image, there is a visible alternation beThis kind of abstraction and drawing tween the observer's apprehension of
away is a means for introducing order the black shape and the subsequent apand "controlling the uncontrollable"
pearance of the white shape. In percep[44]. Abstraction is a fundamental part tion, this alternation or sequential oscilof all image-making. It is an idea and a lation between the parts occurs almost
process that finds expression in the im- simultaneously [48]. This alternation
between the two shapes occurs as a reagery and teachings of Taoism.
sult of a shared boundary/edge that is
somewhat ambiguous. This boundary/
edge is at once both concave and convex
[49]. It is not unlike the edge of a coin
To the Taoists, the continuum of experi- that joins the opposites of heads and
ence has no appearance: it is not avail- tails into a unified whole, or the outline
able to sense perception [45]. The unin- of sand that marked the mano's passing.
terrupted continuum of experience and It seems that boundaries, edges and
the passage of time can be revealed only spaces between things provide the kind
through a process of abstraction, in of contrast necessary to give the passage
which images become individuations of of time a tangible form.
To the Taoist philosopher of time and
the continuum and its laws [46]. For
those who must work and even "suffer" change, movement is key [50]. As the
in the world of appearances, abstraction dark shape in the T'ai-chi tu symbol beis the only way to give the continuum of comes the object or figure of attention,
the light shape momentarily moves to
experience a tangible form [47]. The
well-known Taoist image and symbol the background or periphery of the
called T'ai-chi tu, or yin-yang, is such an observer's consciousness. This alterna-

archaeology and visual art, the processes

of abstraction, removal and distancing
can also lead to a special kind of clarity
and understanding. The character of
the archaeological setting, for example,
is revealed by the disruption of its "timeless tranquillity" [43]. As the archaeological excavator breaks the surface of
the ground, the archaeological setting
becomes divided into a number of inter-

tion, oscillation and near-simultaneous

appearance of dark and light forms approaches and suggests the Taoist ideal of
wholeness, unity and oneness. Time and
change are reflected in the visible continuity and alternation between light/
dark, concave/convex, figure/ground,
and object/context [51]. If sequences of
images are to produce the illusions of
movement and change over time, they
must appear almost simultaneously, as
they do when a film is projected. Gestalt
observations of this "stroboscopic effect"
were crucial to the development of Gestalt theory [52]. Perhaps this perceptual effect is the conceptual envy of the
archaeological excavator,whose layer-bylayer drawings approach a film-like continuity. Perhaps the importance placed
upon the artist's retrospective body of
work is indirectly based on a desire to
see some kind of animated whole.
Alternation, oscillation and near-simultaneity also correspond to states of
awareness that have been noted in the
study of ecstatic and meditative transformations. In these two kinds of transformative states, there is a kind of expansion and contraction of time and space
that corresponds to the perceptual expansions and contractions found in the
configurations of concave/convex, figure/ground and object/context. Simultaneity seems to occur at the edge or
space between the expansion and contraction of these configurations. At this
juncture there is no sense of chronological time, only a sense of timelessness.
This sense of timelessness is best under-

Fig. 8. The well-known Taoist image shown at left can be seen as a perfectly balanced symbol of interaction between light and dark; black
and white; positive and negative; concave and convex; figure and ground; and object and context. Perceptual correspondence with this
image is apparent in reversible figure-ground images such as the example on the right, which is based on the letter E. As the mirror-image
letters grow closer together, they form the letter H. At this point there is an alternation between the figure of the H and the ground,
formed by the doubled letter E. This figure-ground fluctuation is based on the Gestalt principle of proximity, and is conceptually equivalent to the sequential unfolding of archaeological grids across the landscape and the vertical unfolding of individually excavated 10-cm
levels or layers. These, in turn, are conceptually equivalent to the unreeling of a film. The smaller the spaces between individual frames
of reference, the greater the possibility of apprehending a sequence of images simultaneously.


Wenger,Visual Art, Archaeology and Gestalt


stood and expressed through creative

interpretations based on metaphor, sign
and symbol [53]. This view might complicate an empiricist's view and interpretation of history [54]. To the empiricist,
the objects and events of past experience are seen as pieces of a puzzle. If
enough of the material evidence of the
past can be documented, these puzzle
pieces might add up to form a whole.
Archaeologists and historians would
probably agree, however, that the whole
of past experience cannot be measured
by a simple summation of the visible evidence. Because so much of the past is
missing, the whole will always be something different from the archaeological
parts documented in isolation. Archaeological, artistic or Gestalt wholes require
that the elements of the dualities object/context and figure/ground have
equal strength [55]. Equal strength
among the parts of a whole creates the
illusion of simultaneity and timelessness.
This is an ideal rather than a perceptual
reality. In his analysis of the T'ai-chi tu
symbol, Rudolf Arnheim finds no
greater perceptual support for the Taoist cosmological belief that the continuum of experience cannot be represented by a static event or object isolated
in time and space [56]. It is best understood as a whole that is different from
the sum of its parts.
References and Notes
1. Adam Lucas discusses an expanded field of scientific thinking that reflects an "organismic philosophy of nature." A. Lucas, "Art, Science and Technology in an Expanded Field," Leonardo26, No. 4,
pp. 335-345 (1993).
2. "Order is a necessary condition for anything the
human mind is to understand....
But it is hard,
perhaps impossible, to find examples in which the
order of a given object or event is limited to what is
directly apparent in perception. Rather, the perceivable order tends to be manifested and understood as a reflection of an underlying order,
whether physical, social, or cognitive." R. Arnheim,
Entropy and Art: An Essay on Disorder and Order (Ber-

keley, CA: Univ. of California Press, 1971) pp. 1-2.

"Scientistsdo tolerate uncertainty and frustration,
because they must. The one thing that they do not
and must not tolerate is disorder. The whole aim of
theoretical science is to carry to the highest possible
and conscious degree the perceptual reduction of
chaos that began in so lowly and (in all probability)

a way with the origin of life." C. Levi-

Strauss, "Science of the Concrete," in C.F.Jopling,

ed., Aesthetics in Primitive Societies: A Critical Anthology
(New York: Dutton, 1971) pp. 224-225.

3. Artist and writer Gyorgy Kepes offers his assessment of the nature and value of visual experience:
"Every properly functioning human being transforms the visual signals that he receives from outside into structured, meaningful entities. Without
the perceptual ordering of his sense responses into
images of things in space, man cannot orient himself. Without shaping his physical environment in
accordance with these images, he cannot survive."
G. Kepes, ed., Educationof Vision,Vision and Value
Series, Vol. 1 (Taiwan: Central Book, 1965) p. i.


Weslnge Visual Art, Archaeology

and Gestalt

4. Psychologist Rudolf Arnheim has long been an

advocate of visual thinking as a primary mode of
discovery. Visual form, according to Arnheim, is
"the principal medium of productive thinking." 'Visual thinking calls, more broadly, for the ability to
see visual shapes as images of the patterns of forces
that underlie our existence-the
functioning of
minds, of bodies or machines, the structure of societies or ideas." R. Arnheim, Visual Thinking(Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: Univ. of California Press,
1969) pp. 295, 315.
5. J.T. Klein, Interdisciplinary History, Theory, and
Practice (Detroit, MI: Wayne State Univ. Press, 1990)

p. 239.
In a publication entitled Notebooks of the Mind, author VeraJohn-Steiner
examined the role of visual-

ization among experienced thinkers in the arts and

sciences. "These individuals share with others outside their professions a reliance upon mental pictures as record of their past, and the reliance upon
more generic images as kernels of their understanding of biological and physical processes." V.

Notebooks of the Mind

(New York:

Harper & Row, 1985) p. 109.

6. The idea that a visual environment has "Gestalt
qualities" was first introduced by psychologist Christian von Ehrenfels as a way of defining the overall
aesthetic characteristics of a perceptual scene. Primary research by Max Wertheimer around 1912,
with subsequent work by Wolfgang K6hler and Kurt
Koffka, helped establish the Gestalt principles of
perceptual organizatioii and the school of thought
now known as Gestalt psychology (K6hler, p. 46).
"Now the term (Gestalt) usually means the whole
effect, the structure of total arrangement of things,
rather than parts. Thus, artists often squint to view
their work or look at it from far awayin order to see
the general layout instead of the details. The usual
synonyms for Gestalt are 'structure' or 'organization."'

R. Behrens,


as an Art (NJ:

Prentice-Hall, 1986) p. 198.

Author Gaetano Kanizsa notes the difficulties in
defining Gestalt. "There is a terminological problem that may seem insignificant at first sight but
that has led to considerable confusion: there is no
adequate translation in English (nor in French or
Italian) of the German word 'Gestalt.' Unfortunately, it has long been translated as "form,"a word
whose inadequacy has led to numerous ambiguities. 'Gestalt' ought to be translated as 'organized
structure,' as distinguished from 'aggregate,'
'heap,' or simple 'summation.'" G. Kanizsa, Organization of Vision: Essays on Gestalt Perception (New
York: Praeger, 1979) p. 56.
7. "To perceive an image is to participate in a forming process; it is a creative act. From the simplest
form of orientation to the most embracing plastic
unity of a work of art, there is a common significant
basis: the following up of the sensory qualities of

the visual field and the organizing of them." G.



of Vision


IL: Paul

Theobald, 1947) p. 15.

8. "But in all cases they are unitary activities until
an analysis of them causes their whole properties


dissolve into a lesser unit-plus-relation structure.

"Asa result, not only things but combinations of
things have shape." H.G. Barnett, Innovation: The
Basis of Cultural Change (New York: McGraw-Hill,
1953) p. 419.
9. Because there is often no direct physical evidence of function other than the piles of stones
themselves, it is impossible to determine with abso-

lute certainty whether a rock cairn is related to a



or other kind of activity or

purpose. Cremation cairns may have some associate

human remains, but these are not excavated or otherwise disturbed. Determination
of a vision-quest
or cremation site is usually inferred through ethnowith the
graphic evidence or direct communication
peoples who may continue to use such locations for
spiritual and religious purposes.
10. According to Alan Watts, the mythic world of
man and nature is divine and whole. "It is this as-

sumption into a universal wholeness which gives

the individual a significance in the mythic vision far
beyond anything that he may have in the factual vision. This is why the lives, the occupations, and the
artifacts of so-called primitive peoples are so deeply
permeated with ritual. This is notjust formal politeness or good taste, just as the symbols upon their
artifacts are not decoration. It is the recognition
that all which happens here is a reflection, or dramatization, of what happens in divinis. " A.W.
Watts," The Two Hands of God: The Myths of Polariy

(New York:George Braziller, 1963) p. 15.

11. Kandinskythinks of the geometric point "in relation to the greatest possible brevity,i.e., to the highest degree of restraint which, nevertheless, speaks.
Thus we look upon the geometric point as the ultimate and most singular union of silence and speech."
W. Kandinsky, Point and Line to Plane, 2ind Ed. (New

York:Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation for the

Museum of Non-Objective Painting, 1947) p. 25.
12. "Configured wholes are, we may say, 'made up'
of parts. But no amount of adding incremeiits to or
subtracting bits from elements will ever add up to
the attributes of a totality. The problem is not a
quantitative one. It is a matter of relatioiis." See
Barnett [8] p. 429.
13. "The older psychology, now coiidemned to
death, is blamed not only for being atomistic. In describing it the publications of leading Gestalt psychologists also make use of such expressions as



tive,' 'mosaic-like,' 'additive,' 'piecemeal,' 'mechanistic' and 'mechanical.' Each of these characterizations is supposed to hit upon a weakness of the
older psychology." D. Katz, Gestalt Psychology: Its Nature and Significance, Robert Tysoin, trans. (New

York:Ronald Press, 1950) p. 3.

14. Bruno Petermann and other Gestalt schola-s
have suggested

that the "'whole' determines the 'parts'

. . .the parts are not determined in their own right,

but 'adjust themselves in accordance with their situation in the whole unit.'" B. Petermann, The Gestalt
Theory and the Problem of Configuration, Meyer Fortes,

trans. (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, aind

Co., 1930) p. 46.
15. ". .. the situation of art has now become a situation in the process of development. Far from being
fully accounted for and catalogued, it deploys anid
poses problems in several dimensions. In short, it is
an 'open' situation, in movement.
A work in progress."
U. Eco, TheOpenWork,Anna Cancogni, trans. (Cambridge, MA:Harvard Univ. Press, 1989) p. 23.
16. See Levi-Strauss [2] pp. 239-242.
17. In Chinese philosophy, the creative principle is
represented by the circle and the receptive principle by the square. "The Receptive is closed il a
state of rest, and in a state of motion it opens;
therefore it creates that which is vast." R. Wilhelm,
The I Ching, or Book of Changes, 3rd Ed., Bollingein

Series 19, Cary F. Baynes, trans. (Princeton, NJ:

Princeton Univ. Press, 1967) p. 301.
18. "In the scientific context, horizontal and vertical lines form a grid; they create Cartesian space,
an effective way to organize an area.... Within this
space, science endeavors to identify the general
laws that govern the movement of stars as well as
atoms.... Within this grid marked by co-ordinate
signposts, every point is the same as anly other
point. Every object is held in precise numerical relationships with every other object; the space itself
becomes an object, independent of the observer's
eye." G. Careri, "Horizontal and Vertical Lines in
Science and Art," Leonardo16, No. 4, 310 (1983).
In Chinese philosophy, the grid has these attributes: "Straight, rectangled, and vast are attributes of the earth, which is symbolized by the
square." H. Wilhelm,

Eight Lectures on the I Chi.g,

Bollingen Series 62, Cary F. Baynes, tranis.

(Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1960) p. 61.
"Tosurvey and control the earth we must reduce
its formations to the formal abstractions of geometry, and translate it into the flat and dry symbolism

of maps. But as Korzybski so often repeated, the

map is not the territory." See Watts [10] p. 14.
"All routine or periodic phenomena, from the
marching of men to the sequence of our personal
habits, are embodied in time configurations.
Grouping in this dimension, like that in any other,
is indicative of a need to reduce diversity and confusion. Regularity in events, like stability in things,
is a comforting solution. The temporal frameworks
which we impose upon the stream of natural events
testify to the importance of this factor." See Barnett
[8] p. 420.
19. Rudolf Arnheim, ThePowerof the Center(Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: Univ. of California Press,
1982) pp. vii-viii.
20. M. Shapiro, "On Some Problems in the
Semiotics of Visual Art: Field and Vehicle in ImageSigns," Semiotica1, No. 3, 225 (1969).
21. According to author Gaetano Kaniza, the term
Gestaltis "appropriately translated" when "the accent is on the concept of 'organization' and of a
'whole' that is orderly, rule-governed, nonrandom.
This concept is opposed to that of a merely arbitrary, random, and unstructured grouping. But in
addition to its being used to describe the product
of a process of organization, the term 'gestalt' also
indicates the structural properties of the process itself." See Kanizsa [6] p. 56.
22. P. Klee, TheInward Vision:Watercolors,
Writings, Norbert Guterman, trans. (New York:
Abrams, 1959) p.
23. "Toperceive any object or event means to see it
as a configuration of forces, and an awareness of
the universality of such configurations is an integral
part of all perceptual experience." R. Arnheim, Toward a Psychologyof Art: CollectedEssays (Berkeley
and Los Angeles, CA: Univ. of California Press,
1966) p. 243.
24. See Barnett [8] pp. 411-447.
25. "These Gestaltin are in no wise less original
than their parts. 'Frequently the whole is apprehended before the parts come to consciousness at
all' (v. Wartensleben, loc. cit.). Hence pure description of experience can no longerbeorientedbythe conceptof sensation (in its descriptive form). It will have
to commence with the Gestalt and its properties."
See Petermann [14] p. 30.
26. "Similarityof the individual objects as to shape
or color, or both, facilitates their appearance as one
group. But again, when some of the individual objects are similar or equal in such properties, while
further objects, again similar or equal to one another, have other shapes or colors, then the whole
assembly tends to split, that is to appear as a combination of two sub-groups." See K6hler [6] p. 57.
"When more than one kind of element is present,
those which are similar tend to form groups. Grouping may also occur when only certain parts of elements have similar color or form. An object often
appears unitary because all areas of its surface have
similar color; this similarity may be due to natural
or artificial causes." See Katz [13] p. 25.
27. Katz expresses this principle as the law of common movement. "Elements are grouped when they
move simultaneously and in a similar manner." See
Katz [13] p. 27.
28. J.R. White, "A Closer Look at Clusters," American Antiquity45, No. 1, 66-73 (1980).
29. "Although grouping may occur when the distances between the member-objects are considerable, the grouping is facilitated when the distances
are smaller. Moreover, when a number of individual
objects are nearer to one another than they are to
other objects in the environment, then not one but
two such groups tend to be formed." See K6hler
[6] p. 56.
"Other things being equal, in a total stimulus
situation those elements which are closest to each
other tend to form groups." See Katz [13] p. 25.

Proximity grouping is "a special case of similarity

grouping in which it is predicted that things which
occur together in space will appear to belong together and those which are separated in space will
appear to belong apart. It is grouping by similarity
of location." R. Behrens, Design in the Visual Arts
(NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1984) p. 56.
30. "In the secondary process there are two ways of
going beyond the information given. The first consists of making an identification or recognition. Ascribing a given object to a set of functionally
equivalent objects allows one to know something
more about the object itself. In this sense we can
say that categorizing is the simplest way of going
beyond the information given. The second way of
going beyond the information given is literally
called making an inference. This may be of a statistical or of a formal type, and consists of interpolating the missing elements when two or more of the
elements are given." See Kanizsa [6] p. 5.
The principle of closure is "a unit-forming factor
or principle of perceptual organization in which it
is predicted that patterns which are incomplete will
tend to be completed (by the viewer) in the process
of being perceived." "The artist creates clues and
gaps. The primary task of the viewer is to re-create
those parts which might best resolve the gaps. The
closure principle predicts that clues and hints will
cause the mind to try to solve the unresolved, to finish what is not complete, to see as continuous units
things which have been broken or which are in part
concealed." See Behrens [29] p. 63.
In The Sphinx and the Rainbow,Gestalt, intuition
and closure are discussed as being part of the
mind's forecasting ability. "ThisGestalt intuition, in
other words, is an intuition that detects gaps, missing pieces, or hidden relationships within the patterned pressures of the whole array of perceptual
information. It is a closing of gaps or rounding off
of the jagged edges of perceived wholes." D. Loye,
The Sphinx and theRainbow:Brain, Mind, and Future
Vision (Boulder, CO, and London: Shambhala Publications, 1983) p. 52.
31. "The Gestaltists have developed the concept of
'closure' to account for the psychological straining
toward the completion of a configuration ....
When this missing part is realized, the Gestalt is
closed; and the subject thereupon experiences a
relaxation of the tensions that were occasioned by
the incompleted process." See Barnett [8] p. 434.
In experiments with a series of successive yet incomplete figures, subjects felt a certain amount of
confidence that the patterns and designs were leading up to some sort of closure. "Something that
must be called 'an impression of completeness'or even of 'rightness'-seemed to spread over the
whole perceptual situation, setting the attitude of
the subject into one of ease and finality." F.C.
A Studyin Experimentaland SoBartlett, Remembering:
cial Psychology(New York: Cambridge Univ. Press,
1932) p. 25, quoted in H.G. Barnett, Innovation:The
Basis of Cultural Change (New York: McGraw-Hill,
1953) p. 434.
"Forces of organization driving toward spatial order, toward stability,tend to shape optical units into
closed compact wholes. Confronted with a complex
optical situation, the beholder searches for the
form with the most stable unity, or with the least
disturbed relationship to the environment." See
Kepes [7] p. 51.
32. Loye sees forecasting as related to the spatial
processing abilities of the "rightbrain." This activity
is closely related to the Gestalt principle of closure.
The Gestaltists "labored mightily to show that we
were governed by the kind of instantaneous, holistic
pattern detection we know is right-brain oriented."
In other words, this kind of Gestalt intuition operates within us through our sensitivity to what both
physicists and Gestalt psychologists have called the
forces of a field. See Loye [30] pp. 48-51.
33. In "The Field of a Precept," a chapter in his
book Dynamics in Psychology,K6hler acknowledges
the mathematical and magnetic field theories of C.
Maxwell as a basis for figure-ground relationships.

"Since it is the presence of the figure which causes

this current we are justified in saying that its flow
constitutes a functional halo or field of the figure. It
was our intention to explain the fact that percepts
seem to interact over distances." W. K6hler, Dynamics in Psychology(New York:Grove Press, 1940) p. 80.
34. Gestalt scholars do not readily acknowledge the
role of experience in certain perceptual matters.
R.L. Gregory suggests that experience plays a very
important role. R.L. Gregory, "The Confounded
Eye," in R.L. Gregory and E.H. Gombrich, eds., Illusion in Nature and Art (New York: Charles
Scribner's Sons, 1973) p. 288.
Anthropologist Barnett questions and supports
the role of experience in certain perceptual matters. See Barnett [8] pp. 439-448.
"Itis easy to overestimate the significance of laws
illustrated by artificially and ingeniously contrived
figures; they are so far removed from the actual environmental conditions to which adjustment must
be made. Like optical illusions, point and line figures are instructive and fruitful for Gestalt theory.
But how many individuals have ever really fallen
victim to such an optical illusion in ordinary experience?" See Katz [13] p. 24.
Recent research in neuroscience has concluded
"thatone exposure to an image, such as a word or a
specific picture, reduces the time required for the
brain to recognize the same image on a second exposure, a phenomena called priming." R. Guard, "Scientists 'Photograph' Brain's Memory Formation," in
EugeneRegisterGuard992, pp. 1-4, section A.
35. "Configurations give us the impression of being
detached from their surroundings. If a phenomena
[sic] fails to evoke the experience of distinctness, it
is not a whole.... Any complete idea that embodies a configuration in any modality... is complete
because it is discontinuous with the ideational set
that precedes, coexists, or follows it.... Another
particular aspect of segregation in addition to
shape is what might be called the protrusion or elevation of a configuration out of its environment."
See Barnett [8] p. 437.
See also K. Koffka, Principlesof GestaltPsychology
(New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1935) pp.
36. "A Gestalt stands out from the background, it
'exists,' and the relationship of a figure to its
ground is what we call 'meaning.' If this relationship is tenuous or non-existent or if, for whatever
reasons (cultural, educational, emotional) we are
unable to recognize and understand, we say: 'it
doesn't make sense.' It is absurd, bizarre, meaningless." L. Perls, "Some Aspects of Gestalt Therapy,"
paper presented at the Orthopsychiatric Association, 1973.
37. R. Behrens, "On Visual Art and Camouflage,"
Leonardo11, No. 3, 203 (1978).
38. "Within the Gestalt-totality, the properties of
the parts are not determined in their own right, but
'adjust themselves in accordance with their situation in the whole unit"' See Petermann [14] p. 46.
"The figure depends for its characteristics upon
the ground on which it appears. The ground
serves as a framework in which the figure is suspended and thereby determines the figure." See
Koffka [35] p. 184.
39. R.R. Musil, "Archaeological Investigations at
the McCoy Creek Site (35HA1263), Harney
County, Oregon," Heritage Research Associates Report No. 105, 1991.
R.R. Musil, "Adaptive Transitions and Environmental Change in the Northern Great Basin: A
View from Diamond Swamp,"unpublished doctoral
dissertation, Univ. of Oregon, 1992.
40. There is some indication that the reversible figure-ground effect is the result of repeated observations and concentration. See K6hler [33] pp. 68-70.
"The most frequently observed effect of this kind
was a displacement of such other objects, a displacement away from the area in which the originally inspected object had been located and, more

Wenger,Visual Art, Archaeology and Gestalt


specifically, away from the boundary of that first

object." See Kohler [6] pp. 99-100.
41. K.A. Toepel, R. Minor and R.L. Greenspan, "Archaeological Testing in Diamond Valley, Malheur
National Wildlife Refuge, Harney County, Oregon,"
Heritage Research Associates Report No. 30, 1984.
42. "The appearance of any item in the visual field
was shown to depend on its place and function in
the total structure and to be modified fundamentally by that influence. If a visual item is extricated
from its context it becomes a different object." See
Arnheim [4] p. 54.
43. With respect to the relations among things,
Arnheim suggests that "Pairing affects the partners." In an example using contrasting colors, he
suggests that "confrontation may single out, highlight, and purify, a particular quality." He uses, by
way of example, a haiku by theJapanese poet Basho
that describes a frog jumping into a quiet pond. In
an interpretation of the poem that could correspond to the interruption of the archaeological setting, Arnheim notes that "silence is sharpened by
the opposition of a noise.... The character of the
pond is truly revealed to the senses only through
the momentary interruption of its timeless tranquillity."See Arnheim [4] p. 60-61.
44. "Here I shall only mention Worringerr's emphasis on abstraction as a general means for introducing lawfulness into the chaotic, for controlling the
uncontrollable (or, in my terms, as a means for introducing order with the help of permanent relations between measured events or between parts of
an artwork)." G. Careri, "On the Idea of Order in
the Natural Sciences and in the Visual Arts,"
Leonardo15, No. 1, 21 (1982).
45. "This continuum 'lacks appearance'-that is, it
is not immediately accessible to sense perception.
But through the dynamism inherent in existence,
images are differentiated out of the continuum
that by their structure and position partake of the
laws of the continuum; they are, in a sense, individuations of this continuum." (After Wang Fuchih, 1619-1692 A.D.) H. Wilhelm, Heaven, Earth,
and Man in the Book of Changes (Seattle, WA, and
London: Univ. of Washington Press, 1977) p. 11.
46. "Reflection on the simple fundamental facts of
our experience brings immediate recognition of
constant change. To the unsophisticated mind, the


Visual Art, Archaeology and Gestalt


characteristic thing about phenomena is their dynamism. It is only abstract thinking that takes them
out of their dynamic continuity and isolates them
as static units." See H. Wilhelm [18] pp. 17-18.
47. "Rather,it is a book that offers guidance on how
to act, and to suffer, in our world of appearances.
For those who act and suffer in this world, the representation is closer than the prototype.... potential formation becomes a shape in space, the image
becomes mere space, the process becomes the
stage." See H. Wilhelm [45] p. 121.
48. Arnheim offers an in-depth perceptual analysis
of the T'ai-chi tu or yin-yang symbol. See Arnheim
[4] pp. 222-244. Watts also discusses the T'ai-chi
tu, or yin-yang symbol, but in terms of traditional
meanings. See Watts [10] pp. 49-71.
49. "Von Hornbostel has emphasized as universal
the difference between the concave and convex,
the embracing and the aggressive, which correspond to the figure-ground difference. It is as
though the dynamics of each field part, the forces
to which they owe their existence, were at least
vaguely revealed in consciousness, i.e., in properties of the behavioral environment." See Koffka
[35] pp. 192-193.
50. To the Taoists, time and change are evidenced
by a number of configurations and functional phenomena that correspond to the alternation between figure-ground and concave-convex in the
T'ai-chi tu or yin-yang symbol. These include the
alternation between firm and yielding, opening
and closing, above and below, inside and outside,
expansion and contraction, and the appearance
and withdrawal of vegetative matter in a seasonal
sense. See R. Wilhelm [18] pp. 262-355.
51. In an appendix to Innovation: The Basis of Cultural Change entitled On Things, anthropologist
H.G. Barnett discusses various shapes and configurations of time that parallel the Taoist idea that the
simultaneity of experience is an ideal. "Weare thus
led to the conclusion paralleling the one arrived at
with respect to spatial configurations; namely, that
simultaneity is not a fundamental aspect of time
configuration. It is as illusory as absolute contiguity."Barnett [8] p. 422.
52. See Kohler [33] p. 59.
53. R. Fischer, "A Cartography of the Ecstatic and
Meditative States," Leonardo6, No. 1, 59-66 (1973).

54. "If a continuous boundary cannot be relied

upon for the definition of a unit of experience, and
if, furthermore, wholes are alwayssubject to decomposition into lesser wholes, often simply by a shift
in attention, it does not seem that much is left of
stability in the world that we must think of as stable
if we are to cope with it realistically.... Lacking this
assurance, we might seem to be on the verge of
resting the case on subjective judgments and thus
abandoning an essential of scientific procedure."
See Barnett [8] p. 432.
55. Barnett considers circularity and repetition in a
way that corresponds to Taoist thoughts about time
and change as the visible alternation between figure-ground and concave-convex. "Circularity and
repetition are frequently characteristic of time configurations because they have the utilitarian virtue
of regulating and standardizing behaviors into a
comparatively few familiar and predictable sets. A
comforting feeling of constancy, from which we derive much of our sense of security, is thereby
gained; and the shocks and frustrations that attend
the unexpected and the alien are minimized." See
Barnett [8] p. 420.
56. See Arnheim [4] p. 239.

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