1. Introduction

3D visualisation in archaeology and cultural heritage has a long history stretching back to the 1980s (Arnold et al. 1989; Reilly 1989; Reilly and Shennan 1989), as foreseen by Wilcock in 1973 when discussing the possibility of computer reconstructions of temples and monuments (Wilcock 1973, 20). During the 1990s, methodological and theoretical issues relating to the use of 3D reconstruction and visualisation in archaeology were discussed and considered in the field (Reilly 1991; Wood and Chapman 1992; Forte and Siliotti 1997; Sims 1997). By the beginning of the 21st century the spread of 3D visualisation into archaeology was sufficiently widespread to allow consideration of best practices in the field (Frischer et al. 2002; Fernie and Richards 2003). Today, 3D visualisation is so well established that it has given rise to a new breed of professionals with hybrid backgrounds, combining humanities and social sciences with ICT (Information Communication Technologies) skills for the creation and development of 3D platforms. Three types of platforms can be identified: 1) applications concerned with documentation and analysis for use by cultural heritage professionals; 2) applications with a component of dissemination; and 3) applications that combine the previous two purposes.

These platforms have affected methods of preservation, data sharing, and the communication of heritage today. For instance, digital archives and libraries of ancient artefacts are considered necessary comparative collections for scholars with limited or non-existent access to original collections. Such access issues primarily result from laboratories and archaeological sites or laboratories and artefact storage facilities being far apart (Martinez-Carrillo et al. 2009; Weber and Malone 2011). 3D visualisation is an effective means by which to introduce aspects of artefact study to large numbers of students, and can also be used in museums for virtually re-contextualising objects preserved inside display windows where their past functions and meanings can be explained (Simon et al. 2009; Forte et al. 2010). Scholars and institutions (e.g. ICOMOS and UNESCO) recognise the value of 3D visualisation for preserving ancient material culture in contexts where artefacts and monuments are at risk of degradation or destruction as a result of urban development, and, especially of late, conflicts (Emberling 2008; Forte et al. 2010; Di Giuseppantonio Di Franco and Galeazzi 2013).

Far from being a comprehensive analysis of the state of the art of 3D visualisation in archaeology, this essay describes different kinds of infrastructures and approaches for the exploration and analysis of 3D cultural heritage data, based on our own personal experience. This work aims to be a practical guide, describing some of the infrastructures currently available in the archaeological and heritage sectors and proposing some guidance on how to select them based on the specific needs of individual projects.

The article is organised as follows: Section 2 describes off-line visualisation systems and their main characteristics through the presentation of some case studies. Section 3 describes cyber-infrastructures that allow the integration of 3D visualisation and data archiving, focusing primarily on a case study, the ADS 3D viewer, to discuss best practices for the design and development of web-based applications. Section 4 describes possible evaluations of these kinds of systems and also proposes novel evaluation methods borrowed from the cognitive sciences, which favour the assessment of perception, 'presence' and human–object interaction in the virtual world. The last section discusses some advantages and limitations in the use of the different 3D visualisation systems and proposes strategies for their design and long-term preservation.


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