Slow-motion videography and recording experimental archaeology (part I)

Michał Gilewski

In this paper, I discuss digital slow motion videography as a method of recording rapidly occurring phenomena that are similar to past dynamic processes. Slow motion videography has already seen use in documenting archaeological experiments with the primary purpose of demonstrating or facilitating an adequate, reflective perception of an experiment. In the past, this required expensive equipment and film. Only very recently has this type of imaging become possible with consumer grade digital cameras therefore allowing it to be utilized by archaeologists more often, for example to improve our understanding of stone tool making gestures. However, today, digital media allows for more varied footage-based research through multiple recordings, video enhancement and integration of data into computer databases and sharing and learning networks.

Keywords: slow-motion video, archaeology, archaeological research video, experimental archaeology data recording

Digital imaging techniques have long been of great importance for archaeology. The material remains of the past found during the process of excavation are static, and that is why the use of photographic still dominates archaeological imaging. Modern archaeology deals not only with creating frozen images of the past, but also with understanding the variety of dynamic processes that happened [1]. While some processes in past societies occurred over generations, others happened within the blink of an eye. Many examples of the latter are related to studies of how material culture was created, and are often recreated through experiments (Beale, Healy 1975, p. 892; Whittaker 1995, p. 149).

All such cases demand very scrupulous documentation, especially if some of the reenacted phenomena happened rapidly. Even less dynamic events may not necessarily be well understood when observed in real time. Such problems can be dealt with by introducing methods that have already been in frequent use in industrial experiments or sports coaching – slow-motion videography (Verrall et al., 2005). These approaches once required expensive equipment, but now such imaging is possible with some consumer-grade digital cameras or smartphones, placing them within reach of most archaeological investigators (Vollmer, Möllmann, 2011). Such video recordings provide certain characteristics that facilitate not only an adequate and reflective perception of the experiment, but also produce videos with considerable aesthetic qualities as a ‘by-product’ which are suitable for dissemination among non-academic audiences. In this paper, I argue that the digital format brings certain qualities that allow further analysis based on computer applications.

First, I will discuss the very brief history of using videography (especially slow motion videography) in anthropology and archaeology. I will then present the method in more detail and explain how the new technological means allow for its wider use and new applications. This will be followed by a case study: a test recording of a flint-knapping experiment prepared specially for this paper. I will also include a brief discussion of how video can be analysed using computer technology.

A history of slow-motion videography
In slow motion videography, a series of photographs is captured to record a motion picture. The images are captured at a higher frequency than in regular videography, which usually utilizes a frequency of around 25-30 images per second. In slow motion, this frequency may be many times larger, getting as high as thousands or millions of images (frames) captured every second (Barbash, Taylor, 1997, p. 255).

Slow motion videography has a long history of use in cinematography. The predecessor of this technique was developed in the 19th century through the projects of Eadward Muybridge, which studied motion of humans and animals through so-called stop-motion photographs. They were series of high-speed pictures taken by automated cameras that captured both rapid phenomena that cannot be seen and to “fragment” the time and motion (Wickstead, Barber, 2012; Weinburger, 1992, p. 49). The most famous set documented the motion of galloping horse in twelve photographs and through this process Muybridge was able to prove that in one time the horse can take all its four hooves off ground (Wickstead, Barber, 2012, p.80). This lead to the development ofanalogue, intermittent movie cameras, which could have easily been set to film in slow motion (up to 600 frames per second; see Malkiewicz, Mullen, 2009, p. 39).The first important film utilizing this technique was probably Man with the Movie Camera (1929) by Dziga Vertov (Barbash, Taylor, 1997, pp. 120-121). This famous film was a documentary (in the so-called cinema verite genre) about daily life, and its slow motion cinematography portrays sportsmen practicing a variety of sports like football, hammer throwing and hurdling.

The usefulness of slow motion to document fast or rapid social phenomena led to a quick adaptation of this technique for ethnographic films and research footage (Heider, 2006). Famous ethnographic films include those made in 1947-1951by Maya Deren, which feature slow-motion recordings of extremely frenetic voodoo performances (Weinburger 1992, p. 49), and Timothy Asch’s Ax fight (1975), which utilized numerous replays and still frames to slow down and discuss the recording of a fight that broke out among the Yanomamo (Barbash, Taylor, 1997, pp. 31-32). Modern anthropology (along with other social sciences) has further developed the concept of videography as a research tool (see Heider, 2006, p. x-xi; Knoblauch, Tuma, 2011). Recently, video recorded micro-social interactions have been researched using an interpretive approach (Knoblauch, Tuma, 2011).

Archaeology has also taken advantage of filmmaking technologies (see Beale, Healy, 1975; Van Dyke, 2006; Morgan, 2014). The first archaeological films were made in the 1920’s and the 1930’s (Beale, Healy, 1975, p. 889). As Beale and Healy claimed in 1975, many different genres of archaeological films can be defined ranging from excavation training videos made for professional use to popular science films about sites and whole past cultures [2]. One of the genres distinguished by Beale and Healy are “films of experimental or ethnographic studies which demonstrate or help reconstruct ancient crafts and technologies” (Beale, Healy, p. 891). As they note, such films can be used for study and research, since through film, one can observe phenomena that are difficult to register using still photography. Additionally, film can slow down rapid phenomena that the naked eye is unable to register, such as the example of “the slow motion shots of Donald Crabtree flint knapping in the lithic technology films one can actually see how the blade or flake is formed as a blow or pressure is applied to the blank” (Beale, Healy, 1975, p. 892).

Since flint knapping depends on making a series of very rapid movements, slow motion recording has frequently been used to record this phenomenon for popular science, training films and arthouse cinema (Whittaker, 1995, p. 149, Witold Migal, personal communication). This is, however, not without its limitations, as the archaeologist and flint-knapper Witold Migal recalls. Migal showed me a flint-knapping performance during the shooting of an artistic short film Litofon (1995), where he performed flint-knapping to process stones required for the replication of a musical instrument based on such stones. Slow motion filming utilizes large amounts of analogue film, thus greatly increasing material costs. The authors of the film limited the slow-motion recording to only a single take because analogue film was used, and almost all film tape in the camera’s film magazine was consumed in a few seconds of recording (Witold Migal, personal communication).

The slow motion technique has been used mainly for demonstration purposes, while recording research footage was apparently much less frequent. Some techniques were used for understanding very specific problems related to the use of atlatl spearthrowing devices (after Whittaker, 2010, Whittaker, 2012). In my literature survey, I was unable to find more research footage or any detailed description that has been clearly identified as recording with slow motion.

Instead of using expensive film, digital imaging techniques use electronic sensors, with the resulting implication that digital video production does not involve the same high material and processing costs. Because of this, archaeologists and archaeological experimenters have been using this technology since the 1980s (Van Dyke, 2006; Whittaker, 2004). For most of this time period, however, a slow motion videography mode was not featured on the recording devices intended for mass-market customers. Instead, it was only featured on specialized, high-cost camera models and thus not feasible for low-costs projects.

Meanwhile, regular video recordings have become an important part of the flint knapping process. John Whittaker (1995, p. 149) explains: “[t]he physical actions of flintknapping are difficult to explain in words […] illustrations are inaccurate, and […] inadequate to convey complex three dimensional motions […]”. John Whittaker in American Flintknapping notes the important role of videos in teaching and documenting knapping experiments. Such videos were even shared using videocassettes (Whittaker, 2012). The Internet has made video sharing significantly easier with thousands of flint knapping videos existing on the popular video sharing service Youtube. However, when this article was prepared, only one digital slow motion video of flint knapping experimentation had been posted on Youtube, illustrating that slow-motion videoformat has yet to become a widely-accepted trend.

The first consumer camera able to shoot in slow-motion mode was introduced in 2008 and allowed the slow-motion technique to be applied much more often (Vollmer, Möllmann, 2011). Such videography modes are now available in an increasing number of cameras and digital video recorders (especially so-called sports cameras) and are even featured in the leading smartphone devices (such as the Samsung Galaxy and iPhone series). It should be noted that modern smartphones can run special “couch” applications that allow for the recording of sport videos that can be annotated with drawings and voice recordings for the purpose of performance self-analysis. Beyond these initial stages, further advances in affordable slow-motion capture are promised by the recent announcement of, crowd-funding projects aimed at designing low-cost specialized equipment on the internet (Blain, 2014).

My experience in working with slow-motion began with shooting research footage of the archaeological experiment that I observed during a practicum in the National Archaeological Park Tak’alik Ab’aj in Guatemala (see Gilewski, 2015). This application of digital slow motion videography convinced me that this technique is a very useful tool for archaeological scientific research. Because of this, I decided to prepare a test recording of flint knapping, which, in my opinion, is the most obvious application of this technique, to determine how this kind of research footage can be used for analysis.


[1] This relates to some important theoretical discussions in archaeology (see Johnson, 2010, p. 52).

[2] However, Collen Morgan (2015) suggests the “archaeological film” definition should be applied only to films created by archaeologists.

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