Towards an honest and complex view of the past

This may seem to require too much work, but I would point out that the computer automates so much of this work that it should not be difficult to produce multiple images, some realistic in the extreme and others mixing differing levels of realism for the actual and the hypothetical (Fig. 5d). The computer gives us the opportunity to provide the necessary degree of complexity to the general public as well as to the scholarly community.

Figure 5d brings up several points. First, together with the reconstructed pieces there are plants, clouds, and earth. There are no people, animals, trash, graffiti, etc. Reality is very complex, and our need to explain how and why we have made our choices is greater than we might have thought.

Second, we should make explicit the scholarly differences that make our models so complicated. We need to help those who look seriously at computer images to understand more and better, to use the scholarly disagreements and debates to improve their own understanding of the nature of the evidence and of the lines of argument that flow from the evidence. Simple answers are rarely correct, yet we too often assume that the general public cannot deal with more complex ones, much less with actual disagreement. I think we're wrong there.

Third, we must be explicit about the methods used to create the images. How do we get the textures and surfaces? How do we position lights? How do we decide reflectivity and ambient light? In short, how much reality is included in the images and how much artistry? The images you have seen here have as much artistry as reality.

Fourth, we should not try to force any specific level of detail on those who seek more information about the ancient world via the computer. Many will resist spending the time and effort required to gain a level of understanding that is more than superficial, but those who can and will spend the time deserve to be rewarded. They should not have to read long scholarly volumes to get more information, whether they are tourists, museum visitors, Web surfers, or whatever. This means that our presentations must be interactive; the users must be able to decide the questions to ask and the kinds of information to seek. People will come to a presentation with different backgrounds, interests, questions, and concerns; each should be able to follow the appropriate path. Here I include scholars as well as the general public.

Taken one way, much of what I am saying is that we should popularise. But please note that I believe most scholars need the same kinds of sophisticated presentations. Furthermore, my real message is that we must be careful either to use the technology to present our material well and thoroughly or to resist the temptation to use computers altogether. We must not allow ourselves to use the technology to do half the job if doing so misleads.

At the risk of offending some, I would offer this comparison. How many times does one go to a museum to see an exhibit and find the artefacts on display with labels that show provenance, findspot, date, and a description, perhaps including information about manufacturing techniques but no maps, no explanatory labels for general concepts included on the labels, no time line or other indicator of how the items fit into a larger context, and so on? I saw a display in the spring of 1998 at a museum in New York that precisely typified such an exhibit. The subject was rare tapestries from Asia. There were few, if any, maps. There were reasonably detailed descriptions, but they contained terms not defined in the exhibit and unfamiliar to the average visitor. This is not education. In the case of the persuasive image, there may also be little education. In its place we have propaganda - not a good trade at all.

In conclusion, images available to us today are excellent. They are so good and so persuasive that they must be used like kindling, to start a fire not to stoke it. In this context, I am reminded of a quotation from Plutarch, who said, 'A child is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled'. In many ways, we are all children in the face of this new technology. Think of the fires that can be kindled!


© Internet Archaeology URL:
Last updated: Tue Aug 22 2000