The number of archaeological projects really using virtual reality for approaching specific research questions, as opposed to the presentation of these questions,6 remains comparatively small.7 More commonly the presentational value of the models is emphasised.8 The association between virtual reality and presentation appears to be irresistible to the archaeological community and this has further compounded the impression that this is its true purpose and that realism must therefore be its goal. We will return to the relative value of such techniques below but the interactivity of virtual environments certainly has a proven (if underexploited) value for archaeological research. In a number of contexts many of us have seen the benefits to understanding and interpretation provided by interactive visualisations (Earl 1999). One example known directly to us was the interest of a Neolithic specialist in a virtual reality model of Avebury. Upon interacting with the model the specialist immediately began asking questions such as 'what if that stone was there', 'what if we approached from here', and so on, making emotional-response judgements to the artificial space. In part this prompted the current model which presents the different interpretations of the orientation and configuration of missing stones. Noticeably, however, such explorations of models are rarely presented in print.
However, the adoption of interactivity as a desirable needs a critique in its own right. If we consider movement to be an element in the internalisation and definition of space, following for example Gibson (1979) or Thomas (1993), then virtual reality would seem to offer us the opportunity to approach social reaction and engagement by constructing anew the time-geography of the past dweller. This is theoretically complex and dependent upon the range of perceptions we understand to be included in our explorations (Carr and England 1995; Gillings 2002). The virtual world may be an ideal environment within which to explore archaeological spaces, although it is one complicated by definitions of whose social space we are exploring. Exploring a virtual world is not the same as observing it since exploration requires embodiment and a sense of interacting elements, and as Brody suggested (1991), virtual reality is just as geographically and temporally situated as reality. Computers are not only symbol processors, they are reality generators (Bricken 1991, 1): virtual reality has to be constructed and through this construction meaning is incorporated, and only then through the reading of its material presence. This reading will in turn relate to the readers, and act in context — taken as a given within the context of a research application but less commonly presented in wider public spheres.
If virtual reality worlds (at least in a research context) will eventually produce a real sense of presence (if not place) the significance of this situated reality is increased by an order of magnitude and its significance only dependent on the extent to which it is able to hide its unreality (Foster and Meech 1995, 214). Thus, as with other forms of archaeological representation, even immersion will always proceed from a contemporary perspective — a landscape as modelled must represent and encapsulate the reworking of space by the past through agency. Following Tilley, one might suggest that this need not be seen as a barrier to access to 'the past' but rather as provision of starting points from which our imagination can begin to extrapolate and distort the contemporary (as Tilley notes in his dialogue with Bender 1998, 82; see also Walsh 1995). By allowing this extrapolation to function at least in part through virtual environments we provide the ability to 'sample, quote, and seamlessly manipulate the visual world' in line with our context, offering great scope for presenting 'pasts of richer texture, more attuned to our contemporary selves, and more edifying' (Shanks 1997, 74). We become immersed in a virtual world defined by our own context through which we explore archaeological landscapes, which consciously reflect our views.
As Edmonds and McElearney note, with a virtual world we can ask
'How did the form and setting of a chambered tomb or the banks of a henge encourage certain patterns or structures to proceedings? Where might we see rock carvings from, and from where could they be approached?' (1999).
Such questions do of course require that we utilise the full potential of our virtual reality techniques in order to provide a context for our explorations. Whether we consider the context to be a room, a cave, a street or a landscape it must form an element of the past to be explored rather than as a backdrop or even a theatre within which that exploration occurs. As Huggett and Chen note, in most models '[the topography] provides a stage for viewing the model, but is hardly integral to the model itself' (2000, 3.3).
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Last updated: Wed Jan 28 2004