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1. Hype or Hyper-reality

Most of the computational techniques grouped loosely beneath the term virtual archaeology have been available to the archaeologist for tens of years. However, it has only been in the last decade with the development of powerful personal computer systems, allied to the relative ubiquity of three-dimensional graphics acceleration systems developed for game playing within them, that the visions of creating virtual worlds became feasible for the archaeological community. It was then possible for virtual archaeology to be used as a research tool. There is now a growing pool of researchers, spread throughout the world, who would describe themselves as archaeologists, but who concentrate to a very great extent on both the implementation and innovation of computer techniques. This pool is complemented by specialists from graphic design, architecture1, geography and art who produce computerised representations and reconstructions of archaeologically significant material (see Bateman 2000, 1, 3).

For the purposes of this article (and elsewhere) we define virtual archaeology as implying the use of interactive, virtual reality systems. However, given the complex history of interaction between these interactive methodologies and non-interactive applications such as animation, and the considerable overlap in terms of theoretical treatment of such approaches, we consider both divergent strands in what follows. Clearly visualisation studies do not only include work on virtual reality. In fact, the continuing argument over what virtual archaeology really is demonstrates the range of visualisation techniques currently employed by archaeologists or in an archaeological/historical context. The definitions outlined by Goodrick, the Cultural Virtual Reality Organisation (CVRO) and others continue to be overlooked both by the popular media and by the majority of archaeologists more peripheral to the technical development and implementation of computer visualisation techniques for archaeology (Goodrick 1999; Frischer et al. 2001).

Previously there was some concern that, since archaeologists were required to implement computer approaches via a computer specialist, the moderating factors resulting from experience of dealing with and understanding the nature of archaeological evidence could be undermined.2 It was for this reason, for example, that courses in advanced statistical method became increasingly common in archaeology syllabuses. This also explains in part the archaeological computing community's past rapid, sometimes unconsidered, adoption of new methodologies. It may be accepted that, to a considerable degree, any new computer-based approach introduces a further level of abstraction between the past and its interpretation (Lock 1995, 14). The rapid development and adoption of archaeological reconstruction in some contexts is an extreme example of this.

Virtual archaeology was perceived as an important way forward and a number of projects adopted the methodologies.3 Unfortunately, in this rush to adopt virtual reality as a technique a rift developed with its implementation, forming two ends of a spectrum. Firstly, highly funded development projects used virtual archaeology to show the power of sponsors' software and hardware developed by virtual reality specialists, taking a photorealistic objective often at the expense of archaeological accuracy, and failing to tackle specific problematics. The second group of developers were the 'techies', either archaeologists working in computing or often associated academic departments using archaeological projects as case studies (Bateman 2000)

The end result was an impression that virtual archaeology is:

  1. very expensive
  2. technically very demanding
  3. of little interpretative value

Therefore it can be of little surprise that, with this perception, the wide archaeological community has failed to utilise virtual archaeology as an everyday research tool. One exception to this case is the deployment of the export facilities of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and Computer-Aided Design (CAD) systems. Unfortunately such pre-packaged solutions usually fail to live up to expectations, being limited in both adaptability and the efficiency of models produced. This has tended to reinforce scepticism as to the utility of virtual reality in archaeology, relegating it to a system for producing pretty pictures, a situation familiar to early adopters of GIS.

To some, gaining control of the methodologies for reconstruction was required by the failure on the part of computing experts to accommodate archaeological principles. It could be argued that the wide range of (high quality) aesthetic models presented over the past years frequently lacked qualification of their relevance to archaeological data, and were used for presentation of technology. One need only examine the interpretative content of many virtual archaeologies to identify a clear divide in motives, and the establishment of the Cultural Virtual Reality Organisation may be seen as one timely response to this. However, in looking back over the development of the discipline such a conclusion may be turned on its head, suggesting rather that it was a failure on archaeology's part which led to what may be perceived as a bifurcation of approaches — the reaction of some being the avoidance of the most computationally taxing techniques in favour of archaeologically accessible, interpretatively validated techniques, and for others the welcoming of computing techniques in all their graphical glory, perhaps unqualified and overly optimistic.

Archaeology is not alone in this position. The humanities, social and physical sciences have all wrestled with computational approaches: collaboration with computer science requires a considerable input on the part of the specialist responsible and a clear acceptance of the responsibilities such collaboration entails. Our discipline has perhaps avoided many of the benefits offered by computer science on these grounds, although it may be that all that is required is the shared vocabulary only gradually permeating archaeology and computer science departments. Most recently the archaeological campfire at Siggraph 2001 (Chalmers and Brown pers. comm.; see also Chalmers et al. 1993) demonstrated a considerable interest in what might be seen as an encouraging position — the desire on the part of computer science for an informed and informing exchange between our interlocked disciplines — and a commensurate perspective on archaeological reconstructions showing considerable depth, breadth and potential.

Thus, archaeology commonly provides and seems likely to continue providing example datasets for the application of new graphic techniques, whether within research and commercial computing or the media. This can be seen as a product of a number of factors. Arguably most significantly, archaeology is of common and diverse interest.4 Models of archaeological sites can be seen as 'breathing life' into the past (one example of a range of similar terminology used in archaeological documentaries and on websites); presenting views previously restricted to the informed visitor or the artist. Secondly, archaeology provides data complexity, couched in terms increasingly recognised if not fully understood by a wide audience. A final factor has proceeded from considerations of the necessarily subjective nature of archaeological data analysis. The considerable lacunae within a conventional site or artefact report can be filled by speculative reconstruction, although the understanding and theorising of this process — at the core of our archaeological practice — has in the main fallen beyond the scope of computing/archaeological collaborations. Virtual worlds are able to convey pasts that are as distant from our own present as imagination and the technological implications of the medium allow. In this the only constraint is the perceived interpretative validity of such models, exemplified in the tension that exists in all reconstruction between 'emphasising "otherness" and maintaining comprehensibility' (James 1997, 34). Acting against this is a normative approach to archaeological data, and in particular to the monumental past, fostered by the same perceived understanding of what a site was and how it looked. These factors have resulted in a large body of reconstructed archaeology but not always in a comprehensive discussion of its interpreted and interpretative significance (although see, for example, Chalmers and Stoddart 1996; Earl 1999; Forte 2000; Miller and Richards 1995; Ryan 1996), or indeed any exploration of the range of possibility (see Bateman 2000).

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