During my PhD viva, my attempt to explain the physiological basis of miniaturisation was greeted with some amusement, and referring to an episode of the popular comedy series in which Father Ted tries to explain scale to the hapless Dougal, it was suggested that I had suffered a similar brainstorm. I was asked to delete the section, which I did, but again, for fun rather than scientific accuracy, here is what I had written:

There are no miniatures in nature; the miniature is a cultural product, the product of an eye performing certain operations, manipulating, and attending in certain ways to, the physical world

(Stewart 1993, 55)

As Susan Stewart suggests, miniaturisation is a function of vision, though not entirely. It is after all possible to physically touch a miniature. Our facility to understand, to make sense of miniatures, however, is, I suggest, a result of the manner in which our eyes and our brains work together. The human eye “sees” the world in miniature. The lens of the human eye creates an inverted image on the concave photosensitive area of the retina, at most about 30mm across. Thus everything we perceive visually is a highly miniaturised version of reality. Even the vast expanses of the Milky Way are reduced to specks of light on a patch of retina approximately 10 mm by 10mm.

The 120 million rods and 6-7 million cones, stimulated by photons, transmit tiny “pictures” as signals to the brain, which by some almost unimaginably complex process of neurological engineering, processes these thumbnail-sized matrices of photo-stimulated electrical impulses, inverting the pair of projected images, swapping them over and converting them into a stereoscopic, three-dimensional representation of the world which we interpret and “see” as “full-sized”.

The 1mm high inverted mountain projected on the retina is “seen” as being many thousands of metres high. The person standing in front of us, captured by our eyes as a 2mm tall image on the retina, is perceived as being 1.5m tall in reality. This ability means that we are able to look at something small-scale and convert it, mentally, into its full-sized equivalent. Model railway enthusiasts lay their heads on the baseboard and “see” their OO scale models as the monsters they once were. Dolls house lovers peer into tiny rooms and place themselves within full-sized decor. People examine grainy images on 6 x 4 pieces of glossy paper and transform them mentally into not only the Grand Canyon, but also detailed memories of their visit.

It is therefore surely no surprise that humans are comfortable when confronted by small-scale two- or three-dimensional objects. It also follows that humans are adept at the paradoxical procedure of converting a miniature image to a full-sized one using the eye/brain combination tool, then back to a miniature one (brain/eye) and then back to a full-sized mental version (eye/brain). This explains the occurrence of miniaturised art as the first creative output of humans. The objects, people and animals depicted on caves and rocks and the first sculptures are usually depicted as reduced in scale. Of course this is partly practical (but it would have been possible to paint life-sized animals). And perhaps there were early life-sized or larger statues that have not survived. It could be argued that early humans didn’t understand that the small mammoths they saw were actually reduced in size by distance, but surely even they realised that these beasts did not expand the nearer they came, but always possessed impressive dimensions.

It appears that we can look at a miniature object and “see” it as full sized. We can even look at a miniaturised giant and interpret it as gigantic (using relative dimensions, data or cultural expectations). Goliath is rarely more than a few cm tall in book illustrations, yet we nevertheless perceive him as a giant. Plastic dinosaurs are similarly diminutive, but are still “seen” as gargantuan. If asked to draw a cat, we rarely sketch one full-size, even given a large sheet of paper. A two-year-old draws its first stick versions of its parents a few cm high, independent of paper (or wall) size. We are all natural miniaturists.

Archaeologist Matt Edgeworth mulls the challenges of investigating artefacts that are very large and the very small (Edgeworth 2010, 138). Edgeworth includes examples from the mega to the nano, but he fails to recognise that we experience all these examples in miniature – via the microscope, the telescope, the camera, the computer screen. We “see” them in miniature. We can’t touch a star, the light from which has taken millennia to reach us – what we see is the past, the tiny image on our retinas. We can’t touch a long-destroyed plaster of Paris miniature figurine, but we can see images of it, or we can see it interpreted by our “mind’s eye” using data from texts.


Edgeworth, Matt (2010) Beyond Human Proportions: Archaeology of the Mega and the Nano. Archaeologies: Journal of the World Archaeological Congress, pp 138-149.

Stewart, Susan (1993) On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.