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!

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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

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)?