The paradox of ‘proper’ archaeology

The paradox of ‘proper’ archaeology

Field archaeology, specifically excavations, to some people might seem, not without reason, to represent some kind of externalisation of an anarchic, destructive, drive in the archaeological psyche. The excavator in creating one kind of archaeological record effectively devours, and efficiently effaces, the original, ‘proper’, archaeological traces or residues from which the record is censored, and an archive created. The archive then becomes, according to Jacques Derrida, the place where things begin, the new starting point the nexus of a new reality, where impressions, collected while ‘digging’, become reality, embedded in the self-replicating topology of the archive. Many other potential realities become lost in a fog of institutionally induced amnesia, where all the selections and decisions that brought the excavator to this point along the path are largely forgotten, with other voices being muted, and nuanced narratives deflected into the margins.

Embryonic virtual archaeology

In the 1980’s archaeologists embraced the rapidly expanding field of computer modelling and visualisation as a vehicle for data exploration. Against this backdrop ‘virtual archaeology’ was conceived. The term was originally intended to describe a multi-dimensional approach to the modelling of the physical structures and processes of field archaeology. It described the way in which technology could be harnessed in order to achieve new ways of documenting, interpreting and annotating primary archaeological materials and processes, and invited practitioners to explore the interplay between digital and conventional archaeological practice.

Exhibit ‘Towards a virtual archaeology’[]

This animation – which has been abridged and annotated in the interests of saving time — was presented at a CAA conference in 1990 and is a very early example of using Constructive Solid Geometry (GSG) or Set Theoretic modelling of digital solids in archaeology (actually in any discipline). The intent was to incite an epistemological rupture in conventional archaeological recording and representation of excavation data by demonstrating the arbitrariness of conventions, such as section or plan drawings and photographs, whilst demonstrating the possibility of developing new (radical) recording strategies, the relative advantages of which could be examined, discussed and evaluated in a non-destructive archaeological context.

It should be noted in parenthesis that the term ‘virtual reality’, then already in wide circulation, was conspicuous by its absence, and although the primary vehicles for illustrating the argument where graphical, the emphasis was firmly on 3D modelling of solid entities.

Initial reactions were muted, but the few comments made during the meeting pointing out deficiencies in the rather utopian definition of the model seemed to auger well. Indeed they produced a result at CAA91 where, in response, the utility of voxels and volume rendering techniques were proposed as one potential approach to dealing with the common, but slippery, problem of modelling contexts which present themselves initially, by way of illustration, as an amorphous brown-grey feature but terminated as an amorphous grey-brown feature, both ends of the spectrum being clearly differentiated but the transition between the two defying delineation.

Virtual Archaeology Nowadays

Today, virtual archaeology is synonymous with interactive Virtual Reality exhibits.

I often wonder how did we get here from analysing the intractable, poorly-defined and opaque, buried material continuum to structured, highly ornate depictions of space from the view point of disembodied spectres?

Can there be a new beginning for virtual archaeology too?