An artistic calling — vibrant illustrations bring ancient artifacts into focus


For artist Dylan Karges, his profession as a technical illustrator in MSU’s Cobb Institute of Archaeology is a true marriage of work and play, labor and love.

He has worked full time on campus for more than 10 years, producing thousands of meticulous drawings of archaeological artifacts. To balance his precise visual documentations of history, in his personal time, he creates picturesque works which entice viewers toward a softer interpretation of the natural world.

During his own time, he loves to work with charcoals and pastels. In the office, he primarily utilizes pencil and technical graph paper, and in later stages of his work, pen and ink. On rare occasions, he gets the pleasure of breaking out the pastels at work, usually when he is creating a major site reconstruction or ancient household reconstruction that crosses into landscape.

During his travels to Israel, Karges captures the richness and significance of his surroundings. This summer, he accompanied a team of MSU archaeologists for the eighth time. The heat and the work is toiling for all, but everyone is motivated by the anticipation of discovery.

Each excavation site yields thousands of artifacts, and Karges steadily works. He celebrates with the students and faculty as layers of ancient times are unearthed and delicately processed for preservation and scholarship.

The most recent trip to Israel was no different, save the haste to end the dig sooner than expected due to escalating violence in the country. Karges was among 43 students, faculty and volunteers who returned to the U.S. early to avoid potential dangers as tensions between Hamas and the Israelis broke into war.

Despite their early return, the MSU team collected literally tons of artifacts from the Khirbet Summeily site, a site in the Negev Desert they have been excavating since 2011. With permission from the Israel Antiquities Authority, the team has been able to bring a portion of their findings back for additional study. Karges continues the illustration process after their return.

Karges said that when archaeologists come to what they call a “living floor,” a layer where everything that was there long ago is still there but merely covered up, the excitement builds as tools, pottery, cooking installations and thousands of independent items are discovered and documented.

“We try to keep very copious notes,” Karges said. “We’ll restore as much as we can, so we’ll look at individual vessels instead of 50 broken pieces,” he explained.

Discovery is not a question of if, but when—and what. Karges said that the Cobb Institute faculty know where major occupations existed and have identified archaeological dig sites for students who want the study-abroad experience.

“You know you’re going to find something. It’s just how complete the picture is, that is the big question,” Karges said.

“There’s a building of anticipation when we hit the ash layer,” Karges said, explaining that settlements sometimes were abruptly destroyed by attack or fire. Even when attacks were to blame for destruction, fires typically followed, Karges said. As burning homes and other structures folded down in flames, the layer of ash that was created helped preserve the artifacts left for future generations to discover.

Associate professor Jimmy Hardin, who led this year’s field excavation indicates that if the political picture is clear for U.S. travel, he anticipates returning with MSU students for continued studies. The Cobb Institute has been sending student groups to Israel regularly since 1983.

“We’re pretty excited about the site and there are some specific lingering questions that were about to be clarified in the work that was cut short this summer,” Karges said.

Back on campus, Karges works as the full-time technical illustrator to support the publication efforts for the archeological projects in the field. He helps produce archaeological volumes that showcase everything from individual artifacts to architectural and spatial reconstructions of dig sites. He also works on plans and sections (like blueprints) of the sites, which are scaled and measured drawings in precise stone-for-stone detail. Accuracy, not artistic interpretation, is the top priority.

“I’m best served not by my art background, but by the two years I spent in architecture school,” Karges observes.

He says the School of Architecture was his reason for coming to MSU in the first place, but he didn’t stick with the discipline.

Instead, he earned a bachelor’s of fine arts degree with a focus on sculpture. In Starkville, a city noted for its thriving arts community, Karges is well-known not only for his pastels of landscapes which often feature scenic trees, but also for his clay sculptures. He has amassed more than a thousand “little men,” each uniquely hand created but with a motif that easily identifies individuals as part of the greater group.

Just as artistic drive motivates him to continue his creative endeavors, so does his professional drive and love of learning motivate his continued studies at MSU. This year, Karges began a master’s degree program in applied anthropology with an emphasis in Near Eastern archaeology.

He and his wife Alyson Karges, a research associate in MSU’s nationally recognized Social Science Research Center and a graduate of the Department of Anthropology and Middle Eastern Cultures, don’t shy away from the application of blood, sweat and tears, even during their “down” time.

That’s why when the couple married in 2009, they decided to honeymoon and work at the same time––in Israel on one of the Cobb Institute’s excavation trips. Alyson was awarded a travel grant and worked full time at the excavation site while Dylan illustrated in the field lab.

While the mornings started early and went long into the heat of the day, afternoons yielded time for rest and exploration, a time Karges used for his own personal creative work. Throughout his journeys, he has used charcoals and pastels to depict Eucalyptus trees, pines in Jerusalem, and other ancient city landscapes.

Karges says work and play both are essential parts of his life. Drawing distinct lines between the two is not the type of illustration he’s up for. Throwing himself head first into the tasks at hand has shown him that anything worth enjoying is also worth hard work.

By Allison Matthews, Images courtesy of Dylan Karges