3. The Relevance of Virtual Archaeology Today

During the period since its first articulation, virtual archaeology has become predominantly associated with the use of computer graphics and 3D models of monuments within archaeological research. This is an association that has been established and reinforced through a long series of publications (inter alia, Barceló et al. 2000; Ryan 2001; Frischer et al. 2002; Goodrick and Earl 2004; Gutierrez et al. 2007; Pletinckx 2009; Bruno et al. 2010; Wittur 2013; Lanjouw 2016). There can be little doubt that these activities form a part of what might be considered virtual archaeology but they do not comfortably define the limits of the original term. There has been, particularly in recent years, an increasing body of imaginative and artistic work taking place within archaeological computer graphics that has sought to introduce subjectivity and craft practice (Cox 2016; Watterson 2012; 2015). Largely this work has been conducted by freelance practitioners working outside of research institutions. Despite this flourishing of creative and critically engaged work it would be wrong to allow, as has often been the case, this work to define the limits of virtual archaeology.

Virtual archaeology, as originally articulated, described the use of digital technologies as tools for mediating and engaging with conventional (analogue) archaeological processes and the subtle and contextual traces and residues that so often characterise archaeological 'sites' (see Joyce 2015). This definition was broad and potentially encompassed a wide range of technologies and processes. It should be made clear that the term 'virtual reality' was deliberately avoided and the importance of the non-graphical aspects of 3D computer modelling was highlighted (Reilly 1991; 1992). That an emphasis was placed on computer graphics for archaeological tasks is not surprising; the 1990s and 2000s saw rapid developments in this area, accompanied by the falling costs of technology. However, reifying virtual archaeology into any specific technological amalgam is to miss the point. It was meant also to be a generative concept and a provocation allowing for creative and playful improvisation around the potential adoption or adaptation of any new digital technology in fieldwork; in other words to explore how new digital tools could enable, and shape, new methodological insights and interpretation, that is new practices.

The notion behind virtual archaeology was, and remains, useful for emphasising the intersection between technology and archaeological practice. Virtual archaeology then described something that was inherently unstable and changeable, and which depended on the availability of technology and its potential utility within a specific situation, be it in the field, the laboratory or elsewhere (Figure 3). The articulation of these disparate parts into a coherent flow of practice is quite easily identifiable as a craft practice; the subtle negotiation of technology, skill and materials to generate new understandings and knowledge (Reilly 1985; Maguire and Shanks 1996; Berggren and Hodder 2003; Morgan 2009; 2012; Perry 2015; Crawford 2015; Caraher 2016). Hence it was entirely natural that early papers using the term virtual archaeology frequently dealt with the applications of 3D computer graphics, databases and hypertext; they were newly available and what they represented offered new horizons of possibility. The specific technological emphasis says more about the state of technological development than it does about the essential meaning or relevance of the term. What remains of paramount importance is the need to focus on the practice and culture of technological adoption as well as the technology itself. The pervasiveness of digital devices within contemporary archaeological practice, coupled with the proliferation of software with potential archaeological applications, means that this need is greater than ever.

Figure 3
Figure 3: The spirit of virtual archaeology renders explicit the dynamic relationship between archaeological practice and technology

Technological developments in the intervening period have led to an explosion of new devices and software that seek to augment and enhance the human experience of the world. Consider, for example, wearable technology, the ubiquity of increasingly powerful smartphones (and mobile devices in general), or the development of 3D printing. These technologies do not immerse but rather they augment and mix our sensorial engagement with archaeology (Eve this issue). They allow the user to engage with the material world in tandem with digital technology. They are authentically tactile in that they form part of our bodily engagement with the world, offering renewed sensorial prominence and perhaps more cognitive depth through material engagement. Such technologies require a model of virtual archaeology that could not have been foreseen 25 years ago. However, the essential need to experiment with the use of technology, to play with it and to find new archaeologically relevant applications remains constant.


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