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1.1 What is virtual archaeology?

What, then, is the apparent nature of our virtual archaeologies? Over a number of years one of us has been collecting web references, some being textual sources with others describing wider projects or simply presenting examples of archaeological/ architectural reconstructions and models. Recently, by the time an arbitrary cut-off was assigned (exhausted by screen text and whirling cameras) several thousand links had been followed and critiqued. This, and a subsequent random sample of only one hundred sites, provide an indication of what virtual archaeology is, at least as represented via the web (this sample and its wider implications are discussed in greater detail in Earl (forthcoming)). Our discipline continues to represent itself and to be represented to an increasing degree across the web and as such the form deserves comment and critique to a degree equal to other representative strategies.

In all media the question of what constitutes a virtual archaeology has been a 'leitmotif' throughout discussions within our loosely defined discipline. Such debates are well covered in terms of printed publications elsewhere (for example, Barceló et al. 2000; Bateman 2000; Gillings and Goodrick 1996; Gillings 1999; Goodrick and Harding 2000), but in the web context virtual archaeology is a confused concept. The sample of sites as a whole indicates a diversity of understandings of the discipline. The most common implementations of the methodologies grouped together under the blanket terms reconstruction and virtual archaeology share a theoretically low-order emphasis (to quote Reilly 1992). Those most readily accessed by the more public routes5 continue to promote the concept of powerful computers providing time-travel visits in exciting ways. We may wonder what the public is that is referred to here, and the apparent context of the sample reveals it to be one primarily interested in visual correlates to the more usual modes of archaeological presentation on the web. Ideas more recently put forward in publications concerning reconstruction (for example Eiteljorg 2000; Frischer et al. 2001, 7; Huggett and Chen 2000; Ryan 2001) are represented in the web sample but with varying quality both of implementation and explanation. Concepts of authentication and visual critique are increasingly referenced, if not pursued, although theoretical questions receive little attention; (for example, see Barceló 2000; Bateman 2000, 2; Gillings 2000; Heim 1993; Heim 1998)

To generalise somewhat, the vocabulary used in the web representation of virtual archaeology tends not to match the product as far as it is represented. The visitor is given the impression that the site provides an exciting and informative tour or insight into an ancient space, and that the benefits to archaeological practice are numerous and profound. The reality would seem more likely to deter further visits to virtual archaeologies, given the error-prone techniques of online virtual reality and the fact that the majority of images fall far short of those available elsewhere on the web and indeed the rhetoric surrounding the images themselves. For example, a visit to an architectural consultancy or to a software site such as LightScape followed by an archaeological reconstruction would generally indicate a discipline lacking the resources and the expertise to make full use of the technology.

We do not suggest that archaeological modellers must feel in competition with such media producers but if we are to accept that archaeological constructed realities do not require the fidelity of an architectural work then this must be explicit where such realities are presented. If, alternatively, we consider that visually impressive, emotive imagery is required, at least in part by our archaeological projects, then it can only fall upon those with the resources to demonstrate their own abilities, or to take every opportunity to collaborate with others such as schools of architecture and computing.

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