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.

A Permeable Sealed Context and a Stratigraphic Conundrum

Surfaces have a special status in the archaeological record. They present an unique aesthetic peculiar to the trenches. Archaeologists like to photograph and draw them prior to making a new, hopefully equally pleasing, or intriguing, surface when they have finished excavating (aka dematerialising) the context or feature.The contexts themselves, however, are more complex and draw attention to the concept of boundedness; inside and outside.

Boundedness poses some problems to conventional understandings about the nature of the archaeological record in the case of the excavated ‘material’ being composed of interior ‘spaces’. Sometimes a bounded space denotes the inside of a place, such as a painted cave, hypogeum, catacomb, or mine, or the worked insides of a hollow artefact such as a mesopotamian sealed bullae (clay envelops with accounting tokens sealed within). Juxtaposed to these are negative spaces, or voids, delimiting exterior boundaries of a dematerialisation. Immaterial now but, sometimes, still profoundly intransigent, absent presences witnessed as imprints. The classic examples being the poignant ’empty’ moulds at Pompeii, reservoirs full of final dispair; fossilised echos of the final moments  of the people who succumbed to the pyroclastic surges and who were then buried in the ashes of Vesuvius. Conceptually, neither structure, artefact, nor deposit, sitting on the cusp of being either (or neither) positive or negative stratigraphic features, they are sealed contexts. However, stratigraphically, this immaterial assemblage is also simultaneously earlier, co-terminus and later than the volcanic spew. The boundaries of these stratigraphic features present a conundrum.

Boundaries can also be ambiguous in virtual archaeology, and here I’m thinking of 3D printed things. Paradoxically, although the additive manufacturing digital code defining the physical thing is extremely stable, in the sense it doesn’t decay, the encoded entities thus defined are actually very permeable and extensible. Whereas the limits of the physical objects may be clearly defined surfaces, the boundaries of the digital object are drawn by the same file format in which they are encoded, that is the same digital code that marks the content and the voids. Such digital artefacts and assemblages besides being porous are easily networked, replicated, aggregated, augmented, processed or transcoded into other formats (D.M. Berry 2014), and thereby extended. They are also susceptible to new kinds of exploration and analysis. Indeed they can be reconceptualised and recontextualised.

Where does the digital assemblage end (or begin) and the material context begin (or end)?

Husks, Seeds and winter is coming

It’s autumn here and the farmers are still working hard in the countryside to gather in the last of their crops and prepare their fields for the future. The grain harvest looks to be bountiful; winnowed husks given to the winds; the precious seeds meticulously separated, stored and preserved.

Husks and seeds have captured my imagination at the moment. I’m working on a paper which explores some potentialities of additive manufacturing (AM) technologies, e.g., 3D printing, to better inform us about archaeological remains – physical deposits, structures and objects – and the methods archaeologists deploy to ‘record’, ‘restore’ or ‘preserve’ them.

Researchers around the world are doing extraordinary creative things with AM technology. Museum curators, for example, at the Smithsonian in USA , are able to scan exquisite, rare and exciting, materially vibrant objects from around the world and make them available to be rematerialised anywhere else on the planet possessing an internet connection, a web device, and a re-fabrication unit. This is without a doubt a novel, profoundly important, multi-valent arena in the cultural heritage industry in which many new voices can be added to the narrative.

But what are these objects that are being created? They aren’t exactly copies because they can be scaled up or down, reiterated in different materials, at uneven resolutions, features enhanced, and so on. Yes, they resemble the prototype they are based on, but they are not the same. In some ways they are like our autumn husks, empty, devoid of content, or filled with an undifferentiated, but expensive and sterile polymer-impregnated space. On the surface they may be aesthetically pleasing, indeed very cool or sexy. However, more prosaically, like the original object they were based on, they are still subject to decay, mishandling and abuse, and so, ironically, as Victor Buchli (2010) shows, it is the “immaterial code” that the printers use to reprint the object of interest that emerges as the most stable entity in this extended assemblage. Both the old originals and the new originals are mortal. They are potent, but not as virile as those digitally recorded prototypical encoded seeds, immutable, transcendent, and promiscuous, and instantly transportable to any transcultural domain to be reproduced, abused or, possibly, recontextualised.

Ontologically fecund, but winter is coming

CAA2015, Siena Round Table session proposal

So my academic year kicks off with a joint proposal, with my good friends and colleagues Jeremey Huggett (University of Glasgow) and Gary Lock (University of Oxford), for a round table session at the Digital Archaeology conference highlight of the year: the International CAA 2015, to be held in Sienna 30th March — 3rd April. What a problem to have!

As we agreed in our well attended and lively CAA2014 session held in Paris, we are seeking to continue the discussion and start defining concrete steps to help move our digital archaeology to a new level. Here is the proposal we just submitted to the CAA 2015 Siena organisers. Comments and contributions welcome.

CAA2015, Siena, Round Table session proposal
“Challenging Digital Archaeology – the discussion continues”
Jeremy Huggett, Gary Lock, Paul Reilly

Following on from the vibrant discussions at the CAA 2014 round table “What do you want from Digital Archaeology”, the premise of this session is to develop and refine some grand disciplinary challenges which will generate transformative impetus and direction to the practice of digital archaeology and at the same time contribute significantly to the development of theories and methods in the discipline of archaeology more generally.

In this session we invite contributions which discuss areas which can truly revolutionise and challenge digital archaeology, and at the same time seek to engage the international expertise of CAA to help identify and agree some concrete steps to engage with selected grand disciplinary challenges.