Annihilation Event – Digital Old Minster, the archaeology of a digital file

From the 22nd to the 29th March 2017 there is a really great event at the Lethaby Galleries near Kingscross St Pancras, London. Called Annihilation Event, it’s billed as having “no singular origin, but many strands and streams.  This is a project about copies, prints, scans, derivations, reconstructions, casts, and virtual models. The 6 day programme in the Lethaby Gallery will bring together a contrary group of artists, archivists, archaeologists, historians, technical experts and theorists from all over Europe.” Go and pay a visit.

I put two annihilation events into constellation here. One was a talk about the ontological status of casting the voids left by Pompeiians in the aftermath of Vesuvius’ eruption in CE 79. The other was the eradication of the Saxon Priory Cathedral of Winchester in 1093/4. I have already blogged and co-authored an article about the finding and restoration of the digital files of the “Old Minster”.  It’s significance is that its the earliest known virtual tour of a constructive solid model (CSG) re-imagination of what was probably the largest building in Europe at the time, before the Normans demolished it and replaced it with the edifice you can visit in the city today.

For this event, I worked with renowned sculptor Ian Dawson based at the Winchester School of Art to create a new instantiation of the Digital Old Minster of Winchester (see figure 1).


Figure 1: Digital Old Minster, the archaeology of a digital file, 2017, Paul Reilly & Ian Dawson.

The biography of the Digital Old Minster assemblage not only endures but continues to throw out new threads; this stage moves the 3D print into an art work.

Also in the exhibition, through the help of my collaborators on the original digital restoration project, namely Stephen Todd and Andy Walter, is a VR exhibit of the Digital Old Minster in which some exhibits have been placed. Visitors are invited to explore this exhibition space.

I’m thrilled that parts of our exhibit are in the exhibition and parts of the exhibition are in our exhibit!

Everyone is welcome to visit. Please do!

Different expressions of the same mode: apprehending the world through practice, and making a mark

TAGsoton next week. I’m presenting in session 5 with my friend and collaborator Stefan Gant from the Department of Fine Art in the University of Northampton.

We will explain more in the session I’m co-Organising with Gareth Beale who is Digitally Creative in Archaeology at the University of York

If you are at TAG on Wednesday 21st December 2016 Please join us in Session 5 & 10

S5. Digital Visualisation beyond the Image: Archaeological Visualisation Making in Practice

This is the abstract for our paper

Different expressions of the same mode: apprehending the world through practice, and making a mark

In this paper we discuss pertinent features of shared experience at the excavations of an Iron Age Hillfort at Bodfari, North Wales, referencing artist, archaeologist and examples of seminal art works and archaeological records resulting through the collaboration. We explore ways along which archaeological and artistic practices of improvisation become entangled and productive through their different modes of mark making. We contend that marks and memories of artist and archaeologist alike intra-actively emerge through the object of study, the tools of exploration, and the practitioners themselves, when they are enmeshed in the cross-modally bound activities of remote sensing, surveying, mattocking, troweling, drawing, photographing, videoing, sound recording, and so on. These marks represent the signatures of the often anonymous practitioners, the voice of the deposits as well as the imprint of the tools, and their interplay creates a multi-threaded narrative documenting their modes of intra-action, in short their practices. They occupy the conceptual space of paradata, and in the process of saturating the interstices of cognitive artefacts they lend probity to their translations in both art form and archive.

Qian specular.jpg

RTI of seminal artwork by stefan “Linear Phrasing, Gant, S. 2016. Card” Here I’m reappropriating my hand gestures and illuminating them virtually…

CfP TAG2017 Session – Digital Visualisation Beyond the Image: archaeological visualisation making in practice

 TAGSoton Call for Papers are open until 15 Nov 2017 

I’m organising a session with Gareth Beale on

“Digital Visualisation Beyond the Image: archaeological visualisation making in practice”


The emergence of digital visualisation and representation has led to some of the most significant developments in archaeological practice of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. While a great deal has been written about digital visualisations, very little has been written about the way in which they are produced. This session constitutes an exploration of the diverse and often highly personal stories of practice which constitute digital visualisation making. We will examine the craft of digital visualisation making in its  broadest sense, allowing for wider and more nuanced connotations (e.g. imagination and conceptualisation) and for other mechanisms for receiving impressions or conceiving representations of things, in other words multi-modalities of perception including haptic, sonic and olfactory stimuli. We invite contributions which question the passive and neutral character of the visualisation maker and which draw attention to human variability in perception. We are also keen to include explorations of teaching, learning and translation.

Contributions from across the spectrum of archaeological visualisation making are encouraged including practitioners in “artisitic”, “scientific” and “interpretative” styles. We also wish to highlight the importance of ‘non-expert’ digital visualisation making and the role of digital visualisation in everyday archaeological discourse.

Got to submit your proposal

Digital Archaeology – Where are we and how do we fit in?

reilly-beale-ia-fig-2I was delighted to learn the multi-thread, multi-format session proposed by myself and my colleagues John Pouncett and Steve Stead to CAA Atlanta (March 14-16, 2017) has been accepted ( It seems to be a natural response to one of the main obstacles to making progress on the disciplinary “Grand Challenges” in digital archaeology that we have been discussing these last three years; namely, getting one’s arms around the challenge. This is an attempt to break the elephant-sized obstacle down into bite-sized pieces!

CAA 2017 Session Proposal: Digital Archaeology – Where are we and how do we fit in?

Abstract: Digital technologies are integral to many facets of current practice in archaeology (universities, field units, museums, archives, CRM etc). However, we see little evidence of disciplinary-wide coordinated programmes but clear indications of fractures and silos. For example, spatial data collected in the field is typically held separate from what we might call the rest of the archive. The result is a kludge of technologies and applications with no clear overview of what is available (let alone best of breed or best value) and, equally important, what is needed.

The premise of this multi-format/session thread is that we need to bring clarity to the CAA membership and the wider archaeological community regarding where, how and what archaeological computing and digital technologies are available to benefit the discipline, and where there are gaps or opportunities to add most value. As far as we are aware there is no high-level enterprise, business, process or functional model of the discipline of archaeology showing how it fits together together and functions. Consequently, there are no maps elucidating where archaeological computing or digital archaeology plays a significant role.

The aim of this thread is to catalyse a dialogue which will produce a high level model of our discipline, allowing us to start the process of identifying and mapping our assets and resources. To this end we are proposing a three-stage community effort at CAA Atlanta with three session formats to start the dialogue between practitioners:

  • Stage/Session 1. We invite individuals and groups to send a single page diagrammatic description of the discipline (block diagram, flow chart, Value chain etc) to Each model will be displayed as part of a “poster” session, and CAA members are encouraged to leave comments/questions using post-its;
  • Stage/Session 2. A moderated forum where, following a position paper, each poster contributor briefly presents their model (max 5 mins each) leading to a moderated, minuted discussion;
  • Stage/Session 3. A facilitated ‘birds of a feather’ session in which small groups each develop selected parts of a consensus model and begin mapping assets and resources, and document issues.

Hope to discuss this with you in Atlanta! Thanks for your interest.

New life in Old Digital Models

The 3D computer-generated models and animations of the Old Minster of Winchester were remarkable in 1984-6 for producing the earliest animated tour of a virtual archaeological monument. Thought to be lost, thirty years on the original model files were rediscovered buried under layers of now unsupported code and recovered. The models written in a proprietary CSG modeller called Winsom turned up again last spring (2015). The full story of their rediscovery, restitution and recent transmogrification,  written with Stephen Todd and Andrew Walter, will be found – with models and animations- in (Reilly, Todd and Walter 2016).

In short the original models were transcoded from Winsom into an opensource solid modeller (i.e. OpenSCAD), and in modernising the digital Old Minster the original virtual model of the final phase of the Anglo-Saxon Priory Cathedral reimagined prior to its demolition in 1094 has also been translated into a material one in the form of a 3D-print.

Exhibit: WebGL rendering of half section of final phase of ‘Old Minster, Winchester’ re-imagined prior to being demolished in CE 1093/4 (

Digital assemblages and objects like their physical counterparts gather histories around themselves as they accumulate new significance, connections and meaning throughout their existence (see, for example, Reilly 2015c). The biography of the digital ‘Old Minster, Winchester’ is a case in point. The rediscovery in April 2015 of model definition files, previously thought lost, led to the recovery of the original solid models’ exact geometry. This, in turn, enabled them to be transcoded and then re-presented graphically.  Advances in additive manufacturing technology now enable new kinds of intra-actions with these models, and allows nascent objects, such as cut-away models, inherent in the model files to be instantiated as physical outputs in a variety of different materials and scales (i.e. 3D printed Virtual Heritage ) for further multimodal exploration.

Currently, this apparent potential to align virtual and physical heritage appears to be under-theorised and, if left unaddressed, is set to radically disrupt current best practice in the discipline (see for example Reilly 2015a). Increasingly affordable additive manufacturing represents both an opportunity and a challenge to virtual heritage (Reilly 2015b). On the one hand, 3D printed heritage exhibits the attractive qualities of tangibility and durability, and is amenable to the well-rehearsed processes for curating physical objects. On the other, material instantiations of ‘virtual’ heritage may reintroduce intellectual opaqueness into the models once they are decoupled from the metadata and paradata that previously accorded them the status of being scientifically transparent (see Bentkowska-Kafel, Denard and Baker 2012).  What is at issue here is that like all 3D printable objects, heritage assemblages can be reiterated and, crucially, re-contextualised by anyone, anywhere in the world with access to the web.

In such circumstances, how can virtual heritage practitioners adhere to the London Charter’s central principle of accurately conveying to users the status of the knowledge that these new objects represent, such as distinctions between evidence and hypothesis, and between different levels of probability? There is a manifest need for an implementation of the London Charter guidelines focused on ‘virtual-material heritage’ outputs. Clearly, this warrants extensive and critical discussion within the expert community to establish new de facto standards to which such virtual-material outputs should be held accountable.

In the course of this rediscovery project we learned first-hand that 3D computer-based archaeological and cultural heritage models, built with emerging technology, have a very limited shelf-life unless exceptional measures are put in place to sustain them. Consequently, identifying and curating the many landmark virtual objects which have been developed on a huge array of technology bases over the last 30 years will be a weighty challenge for historians and curators wishing to take stock of the inception, early years and key developments in virtual heritage.

Finally, returning to the Old Minster, this virtual heritage model is once again a ‘needy digital object’ calling for an appropriate access and sustainability strategy to be developed (Edmond 2015). The project has returned to the status of a ‘work in progress’.  Moving forward, a number of areas within the model that were originally incomplete (because the virtual tour never visited them) can be developed to agree with the evidence available from the original archaeological, historical and comparative research. In addition to extending the biographical threads pertaining to the Old Minster models, the entangled biographical threads of the modelling technology used to instantiate these geometrically-defined hypotheses are also being drawn out. For example, the Old Minster models are implicated in the development of another reincarnation of Winsom called GOW (Grandson of Winsom) which, hopefully, will soon be released as open source.


Bentkowska-Kafel, A., Baker, D. and Denard, H. (eds) 2012. Paradata and Transparency in Virtual Heritage, Digital Research in the Arts and Humanities Series. Farnham: Ashgate.

Edmond, J. 2015. Collaboration and Infrastructure, in: Schreibman, S., Siemens, R. and Unsworth, J. (eds), A New Companion to Digital Humanities. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. DOI: 10.1002/9781118680605.ch4.

Reilly, P. 2015a. Putting the Materials Back into Virtual Archaeology, in: Hookk, D. (Ed.), Virtual Archaeology (Methods and Benefits). St. Petersburg: The State Hermitage Publishers, 2015, 12-21.

Reilly, P. 2015b. Additive Archaeology: An Alternative Framework for Recontextualising Archaeological Entities, Open Archaeology, 1 (1), ISSN (Online) 2300-6560, DOI: 10.1515/opar-2015-0013, October 2015.

Reilly, P. 2015c. Palimpsests of Immaterial Assemblages Taken out of Context: Tracing Pompeians from the Void into the Digital, Norwegian Archaeological Review, DOI: 10.1080/00293652.2015.1086812

Reilly, P., Todd, S. and Walter, A. 2016. Rediscovering and Modernising the Old Minster of Winchester, Digital Applications in Archaeology and Cultural Heritage, 2016. DOI: 10.1016/j.daach.2016.04.001

Theoretical Archaeology Group conference (TAG2016) theme – “Visualisation”

This year the Theoretical Archaeology Group conference, TAG 2016, will be hosted by the University of Southampton, 19th-21st December; another significant event to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Department of Archaeology. The overarching theme for the conference is “Visualisation”.

What is Visualisation? 

Most dictionary definitions focus on notions of image and picture making.  Strictly defined in modern terms, visualisation means to form a mental image of something invisible or unseen. However, a richer interpretation of visualisation is to regard it as a means of making something, or phenomena, perceptible or comprehensible to the human mind. This broader conception of the term allows for wider and more nuanced connotations (e.g. imagination and conceptualisation) and other mechanisms for receiving impressions or conceiving representations of things. It also makes it clear that visualisation is neither passive nor neutral and draws attention to human variability in perception; teaching, learning and translation are also implicated.

This broader reading of the meaning of visualisations is implicitly recognised by many in the visualisation community who are compelled to differentiate their version of ‘visualisation’ using prefixes such as “artisitic”, “scientific” and “interpretative”.

Our first question for TAG 2016 Southampton is therefore “what does visualisation mean to you?”