Re-engaging the spirit of virtual archaeology

Some thoughts Gareth Beale and I have been discussing of late…

Virtual archaeology, as first articulated, described the use of digital technologies as tools for mediating and engaging with conventional (analogue) archaeological processes. This definition was broad and potentially encompassed a wide range of technologies and processes. It should be made clear that the term ‘virtual reality’ was deliberately avoided and the importance of the non-graphical aspects of 3D computer modelling was highlighted. That an emphasis was placed on computer graphics is not surprising; the 1990s and 2000s saw rapid developments in this area accompanied by the falling costs of technology. However, reifying virtual archaeology into any specific technology amalgam is to miss the point.

The notion behind virtual archaeology was, and remains, useful for emphasising the intersection between technology and archaeological practice.  For want of a better term, the spirit of virtual archaeology describes something which is inherently changeable, and which depends on the availability of technology and its potential utility within a specific situation be it in field or laboratory conditions. Thus it was entirely natural that early papers which used the term virtual archaeology frequently dealt with the applications of 3D computer graphics, databases and hypertext. The specific technological emphasis says more about the state of technological development than it does about the essential meaning or relevance of the term. What remains of paramount importance is the need to focus on the practice of adopting technology as well as the technology itself. The ubiquity of digital devices within contemporary archaeological practice coupled with the proliferation of software with potential archaeological applications means that this need is greater than ever.

Recent technological developments have led to a proliferation of devices and software which augment, and often enhance, the human experience of the world. Consider, for example, wearable technology, the ubiquity of increasingly powerful smartphones, or the development of 3D printing. These technologies do not immerse but rather they augment. They allow the user to engage with the material world in tandem with digital technology. They are authentically tactile and blended with the physical world, offering renewed sensorial prominence and perhaps more cognitive depth through material engagement. Such technologies require a model of virtual archaeology which could not have been foreseen twenty years ago. However, the essential need to experiment with the use of technology, to play with it and to find new archaeological applications remains constant.