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2. The Origins of Virtual Archaeology

Four principal factors led to the conception of virtual archaeology in 1990 (Figure 1). The initial factor was the Rescue and Salvage archaeology lobbies in the UK and North America, which over the previous decades had successfully built a polluter pays platform by positioning archaeological remains as priceless, irreplaceable resources under threat. Public outcry about the treatment of several high-profile archaeological remains had helped precipitate PPG 16 in the UK. Henceforth, developers in England and Wales were held responsible for determining the archaeological impact of development and to provide mitigation or protection (McGill 1995). If the remains could not be preserved in situ then archaeological investigations were to be conducted, with the goal of achieving 'preservation by record'. This often led, as noted by Bradley, to an expedited and superficial record, structured according to conventions and not, as one might hope, in response to the archaeology and the expert knowledge of the archaeologist (Bradley 2006; Carver et al. 1992).

Archaeology, however, particularly fieldwork, and especially excavation, can usefully be thought of as a craft discipline (Reilly 1985; Bradley 1997). The use of tools, be they material, digital or conceptual, is the crucial factor and their influence on the direction of work done is not merely important but frequently decisive. Concepts of skill are of central significance in understanding how digital tools have been used within archaeological research and fieldwork. Embodied skill enables the generation of knowledge in dialogue with tools and the unfolding archaeological environment, be it physical or digital (e.g. Edgeworth 2003; 2014; 2016). Put simply, new tools make possible the production of entirely new sorts of data, information, interpretation and, ultimately, archaeology (Reilly 1985; Reilly and Rahtz 1992; Lucas 2012; Morgan and Eve 2012; Huggett this issue). In the 1980s archaeologists were embracing the rapidly expanding field of computer modelling and visualisation as vehicles for archaeological data exploration. Hypertext was also a very exciting emerging technology, and a number of innovative simulation studies evaluating survey methods and data had been published (e.g. Scollar 1969; Fletcher and Spicer 1988). These new technologies were not immediately emancipated. Unfortunately, the inertia of pre-existing traditions of field recording practice and their epistemological assumptions were largely re-assimilated with little critical attention and now, propped up by computerised scaffolding, were affixed with a veneer of self-evidence. For example, the existing proforma recording sheets were simply converted into data entry screens, with error trapping and language control capabilities (i.e. non-standard inputs were prevented), which were then ingested into a standardised backend relational database management system. Plans and sectional drawing schema and conventions were retained but now scanned into GIS or CAD systems (see Jensen this issue). In addition, reports were produced using templates fixed within desktop-publishing packages.

Despite their long presence in archaeology, the impact of computer applications has been surprisingly limited in that they have not been part of any radical departure in how we conduct archaeology (see Lock 2003, chapter 8). Of course, this does not mean that the advent of computers and digital instruments did not change how we performed specific tasks. Field workers certainly can collect, process, and store data much faster and in larger quantities, but the changes seemed to have been more quantitative than qualitative, and one is forced to ask to what degree can any of this be seen as new information? In the words of Llobera (2011, 216-17): 'How much has it changed the way we conduct our analysis? We have the capacity to process and visualize information in novel ways but are we actually doing this? More importantly, are we even thinking about new possibilities? How do these new developments relate, if at all, with theoretical orientations currently found in archaeology?'

Figure 1
Figure 1: The origins of virtual archaeology

In the early 1990s an excavation could still be described as an 'unrepeatable experiment' (Barker 1993, 1). The challenge, it seemed then, was to overcome this perceived methodological oversight by demonstrating that the decisions on how to explore the raw archaeology still in the ground would have a decisive influence on the reported outcomes and on the ability to work imaginatively and autonomously with these outcomes following the conclusion of fieldwork. This could only be done with something that could be taken to pieces and explored repeatedly in many different ways.

The impasse was broken by invoking the concept of virtuality (Reilly 1991). Virtual archaeology described the way in which technology could be harnessed in order to achieve new ways of documenting, interpreting and annotating primary archaeological materials and processes, and invited practitioners to explore the interplay between digital and conventional archaeological practice but also to explore and to represent that practice in new ways.

Figure 2: An animated 3D computer model of hypothetical excavations of a 3D archaeological assemblage, or 'site', presented at CAA in 1990 was the first example of applying solid modelling technology as 'virtual archaeology'

An animated 3D computer model of hypothetical excavations of a 3D archaeological assemblage, or 'site', presented at CAA in 1990 (Figure 2 - video) was the first example of applying solid modelling technology as 'virtual archaeology' (Reilly 1991, 133–36). The intent was to incite, using the terminology of Bourdieu (1977), an 'epistemological rupture' in conventional archaeological recording and representation of excavation data by demonstrating the arbitrariness of conventions, such as sectional or plan drawings and photographs, while demonstrating the possibility of developing new, radical, recording strategies, the relative advantages of which could be examined, discussed and evaluated in a non-destructive disciplinary context.

In other words, virtual archaeology was not only about 'what was' and 'what is', or just about developing digital tools to perform routine archaeological tasks using digital technology. It included a licence to imagine 'what ifs' and 'what might come to be'.


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