3.2 Digital heritage debates

As our research progressed, critical engagement with relevant literature on the application of digital heritage technologies raised a series of questions about the original aim of the project, which had been designed largely to provide an aesthetically pleasing computer graphical reconstruction of the original scheme. In this way, the project mirrored the trajectory of many archaeological applications of virtual reality technologies, generating a visually pleasing computer graphic that was designed to evoke the visual experience of the original building (Giles 2007). However, within the digital heritage field there has been increasing concern about the use of virtual models in this rather uncritical way. Scholars have pointed out that the creation of 'a' virtual model inadvertently closes down alternative and multiple interpretations of the same evidence (Ryan 1996). Virtual models can also mask or conceal the 'gap' between the archaeological site, as recovered in excavation, and the model, which is the result of subsequent subjective scholarly interpretation (Gillings 1999; Reilly 1991). This can be compounded by the increasingly photorealistic qualities of heritage technologies, which further remove the user from the process of archaeological recording and interpretation (Eiteljorg 2000; Zhukovsky 2001). Miller and Richards (1995, 20) have warned that, as a result, archaeology is in danger of creating a 'data-naïve public' consuming images and reconstructions that are 'divorced from the academic discussion ... associated with their development'.

Increasingly, conferences such as CAA (Computer Applications in Archaeology) and communities of digital heritage practitioners have called for the development of a more critical and reflective approach to the use of computer reconstructions within the scientific community (Barceló 2000; Goodrick and Gillings 2000). Much of this debate has been dominated by a call for 'transparency' in the creation of virtual models. Scholars acknowledge that visualisations need to be subject to the same kind of critical assessment as other conventional archaeological methodologies. If the process of creating a visualisation is analogous to the philological analysis of a text (Frischer et al. 2002): commencing with the verification of sources, the analysis of their reliability and the interpretation/integration of the data, it needs to include information about the evidence, including missing data, so that its reliability and validity can be critically evaluated. The development of appropriate standards is therefore seen as essential to the wider acceptance of digital heritage methodologies within the academic community.

The most recent response to this issue has been the development of 'London Charter for the computer-based visualisation of cultural heritage' initiative (Beacham et al. 2006). The charter seeks to explore the aims, methods and sources of 3-D visualisation (Principles 1-3), and to ensure that all 3-D visualisations 'provide sufficient information to allow the aims, methods and outcomes to be understood and evaluated appropriately in relation to the contexts in which they are used and disseminated' (London Charter, Principle 4). The term 'paradata' has become increasingly used to describe this kind of information (after Baker, see Beacham 2008). While the charter acknowledges that the nature and extent of such paradata will vary from project to project, of primary importance is that the nature and degree of factual uncertainty in hypothetical reconstructions is communicated (Section 4.1) and that in some cases 'it may be necessary to disseminate documentation of the interpretative decisions made in the course of a 3-D visualisation process' (Section 4.5).

Although the London Charter is still being discussed and disseminated within the digital heritage field (see the forthcoming case studies in Bentkowska-Kafel and Denard 2012, for example, and an innovative approach to including paradata in a digital heritage project at York by McCurdy 2010), it has had an important impact on high-profile projects such as the King's Visualisation Laboratory's Theatron Project (Beacham 2008), and on cutting-edge archaeological visualisations, such as The Portus Project. It has also continued to generate much discussion within CAA and other AHRC-funded initiatives such as the Visualisation in Archaeology Conference at Southampton University, where the Guild Chapel project was initially presented in 2008.


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