To a certain extent the divide outlined above for virtual archaeology, where the definition is taken to be interactive, three-dimensional environments, mirrors that between research and non-research visualisation work more generally. It is our impression that if research is taken to be the archaeological goal, it is normal for a virtual reality technique to be regarded more highly and in some way more research-orientated than the static and directed approaches employed by, for example, the media and other graphics specialists. Space and spatiality have such a considerable currency in archaeology that the interactive aspect of virtual archaeology is wholly appropriate. As a result this article concentrates on the needs of virtual reality archaeology. However, there is further potential for research involving static techniques.
One might take the photorealism debate as one example which still continues after more than a decade of writing and thought. We are aware of the dangers of photorealistic impressions — the apparent power of computer methods and in particular the putative bypassing of critical evaluation sometimes observed with realistic visual stimuli. However, it is clear that we as archaeologists and indeed the viewing/consuming public are able to utilise increasingly complex artistic critiques of computer images. The visual vocabulary we use in terms of a building elevation or schematic, a map, a photograph or a piece of photorealistic or impressionist art now has additional signs for describing and re-evaluating computer images. In a recent conference one of us presented examples from the popular media, including the British BBC 2 spoof documentary programme 'We are history'. In these the use of computer or other media reconstructions, with their limited or lack of basis in fact, satirised popular archaeology's, and indeed other disciplines', use of such techniques (Earl in press).
As with all kinds of visual appreciation and critique, context is vital and can determine whether the viewer is instinctively (politically, culturally, socially) accepting of the image. Hopefully popular parodies of the computer image indicate that we are all increasingly likely to critique them when used in other situations — for example as static images in a text or in a museum display9. Both of these contexts redouble the authoritative standing of the image itself. It is therefore perhaps in these contexts that we should concentrate on the ideas of interactivity, multiple presentations and so on discussed again over the last decade or more, rather than in the popular media. Coincidentally this situation fits with the television or film formats where uncertainty is seldom an option — either for reasons of preserving the narrative or due to constraints of time and budget. Having been involved with a number of 'reconstruction' projects for television, for museums and for specific research aims it is very clear to us that the producer in the television sense wields control, with the archaeologist or computer artist as producer in a museum potentially, but not always, subject to more creative and practical constraints, and the research archaeologists fully in control of their product, constrained only by the (significant) practicalities of time and expense.
Museum installations provide an opportunity for interactive, varied virtual archaeologies and television, particularly with its growing interactive support, need not constrain itself to static or constrained representations. However, if we are to consider both archaeology in the media today and static images per se to be valid areas of research, we need to continue to work on their consumption. Two areas for spatial experience which currently lie beyond interactive visualisation techniques are photorealistic explorations of perception and the auralisation10 of archaeological environments. Thus photorealism need not be restricted to the domain of untheorised representations but in fact may offer new research opportunities. For example, we may consider work on the colouring of medieval pottery as related to lighting or the production of specific types of cave art under 'realistic' lighting sources (Chalmers and Brown pers. comm.). Both of these require highly computationally intensive techniques (Lucet 2000), and hence interactivity may only be provided in the form of light mapped virtual environments. It should, however, be understood that even 'photo real' is only a point slightly further along a continuum of reality, not an accurate representation of such, photos for instance sharing with computer representations the problems of a colour gamut significantly narrower than the human eye. Current developments in High Dynamic Range Imaging (HDRI) enable images from models to contain a colour gamut nearer to that perceived by the eye.
We cannot shy away from these kinds of more realistic approach if they are available to us as archaeologists and we understand their biases. For non-interactive environments these need not necessarily be research areas which are demanding in the financial sense, and the technical knowledge is currently more accessible than innovative virtual reality techniques. The hardware required is no longer beyond the reach of the majority of archaeologists working in research and much of the software is free or available at significantly reduced rates. Similarly, computer science and graphics consultancies continue to offer collaborative opportunities which should be exploited, aware of their potential pitfalls but similarly mindful of their vast potential.
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Last updated: Wed Jan 28 2004