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 (http://caaconference.org/program/sessions/#title14). 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 p.reilly@soton.ac.uk. 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.

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Free Access to Rediscovering Digital Old Minster paper in DAACH

Available until 26 July.

Free copy of my paper ‘Rediscovering and Modernising the Digital Old Minster of Winchester’, in “Digital Applications in Archaeology and Cultural Heritage” written with Andy Walter and Stephen Todd.

Please download a copy!

http://authors.elsevier.com/a/1TA3p7szebZ9nn

p.s. videos not available yet

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 (http://programbits.co.uk/minster/minst.html)

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.

References

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. http://www.academia.edu/15076178/Putting_the_Materials_Back_into_Virtual_Archaeology

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?”

What do Digital Archaeologists do?

Digital Archaeology 1100101

Ask any archaeologist what they do, or what does archaeology involve, and I suspect more than one different answer for every practitioner you approached! Similarly, the dark arts of digital archaeology are likely to generate an ‘infinition’ – a suitably obscure word for a suitably vague connundrum. This raises a question: should there be a definition, a high level description of the major activities or responsibilities that archaeologists have in the various front and back offices of units, academia, museums and so on?

The short answer is ‘yes’. At a minimum, it seems to me that we need some kind of architecture, a blue-print, that we could point to and say “that’s were I fit in: remote sensing” or “that’s me: trowel blazer”, or perhaps “I fit in several boxes entirely and bit of this and a bit of that” (at which point we might want to drill down to reveal…

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Archaeology and Technology

Digital Archaeology 1100101

One of the things which we will be looking at in this blog is the relationship between archaeology and technology. Archaeological computing as a sub discipline has existed since the 1950s and has provided an academic space for people wishing to develop digital methodologies for archaeology. During this time though the role of digital technology in our lives has changed fundamentally. Computers have gone from being inaccessible and specialist instruments to being relatively common to being ubiquitous. Not only have computers become more accessible they have also become a normal part of our everyday lives. Every day people negotiate strategies for living which are inherently digital with software and hardware developed in order to meet the demands of our digital lives. Archaeological computing now faces the challenge of responding to the innately digital character of everyday life. How do we devise new methodological approaches which capitalise on the fact that…

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Conserving the immaterial?

The hollow spaces which mark the final resting places of many hundreds of Pompeiians continues to fascinate and perplex me. These ‘voids’ are powerful testimonies to the final moments of the people who once lived and breathed in these spaces. Devoid of the mortal remains these voids are full of human existence. So what becomes of these spaces when you fill them with liquid plaster (gesso), when the layers are excavated, and the casts lifted?

The context is a void. What is the ontological status of the cast? What has the curator captured and conserved? Significant questions arise: when we fill the voids with material, are these immaterial contexts obliterated by the injected substance (e.g., gesso plaster) used to obtain casts? And, afterwards, when the cast is lifted and the void is ‘restored’, is the context reinstated?  Additionally, if the cast had never been made, and the volcanic deposits simply trowelled away, the void would still be there occupying the same, original, space, but now unbounded and undetectable. Is it still there? I think so.
Another paradox raises its ironic head: excavation in this context is non invasive, at least until the dig ends and the trenches are reinstated. It would seems that it is only when then trenches have been backfilled that these contexts are finally obliterated.