4. Introducing New Virtual Archaeologies

The range of distinct technologies at work within archaeology has increased rapidly since the early 1990s. This proliferation has led to diversity in the dynamics of technological development and changes in the manner in which the archaeological appropriation of technology takes place. It is no longer sufficient, as perhaps it once was, to think about an archaeological 'technorati' as gatekeepers to technology, nor is it sustainable to talk about technology in terms of specific bounded digital interventions within an essentially analogue archaeological practice. The processes through which new technologies are developed, discovered and appropriated have changed but they have also become pervasive and increasingly diverse. The following section introduces three case studies; computational photography, additive manufacturing and games. The case studies describe the application of a suite of technologies within archaeology but they also explore the way in which the technology entered into use within the discipline and the underlying social dynamics of this process.

4.1. Computational photography

The use within archaeology of digital imaging and computational photography in particular has seen enormous growth in the past decade or so. This growth has been facilitated in part by the proliferation of digital cameras, but it has been accelerated by the availability of image processing and image management software (Lee 2012). While a lot of this software has been produced by large companies operating on a commercial basis there has also been a growth in small-scale, often open source and/or not for profit development. Much of this work has taken place within the heritage sector, with DStretch (Harman 2016) and Reflectance Transformation Imaging (Cultural Heritage Imaging 2016) being two of the most notable examples.

The falling cost of digital cameras, camera phones and cameras integrated into tablets and so on, has vastly increased access to digital imaging devices among archaeological researchers, be they amateur or professional. During recent research excavations, we were able to count more digital imaging devices than people. The impact of this change upon photography as a distinct archaeological medium has been substantial (Shanks and Svabo 2013). Particularly interesting from the perspective of archaeological research has been the accelerating development of free and open source software that has accompanied this growth and the diverse forms of archaeological practice that have evolved from this (e.g. Wilson and Edwards 2016).

Digital imaging in archaeology was extremely limited as recently as 10 years ago. Digital cameras were comparatively rare and highly prized objects. In addition to these we also had 'specialist devices' such as laser scanners and structured light scanners, which were dedicated to the creation of 3D data. The costs involved in these processes at the time were considerable. They also required the involvement of specialist researchers who were able to operate equipment and process data (see also Maxwell this issue).

The use of specialist devices and the need for operators with highly specialised training and expertise can disrupt established patterns of archaeological practice by isolating the necessary skills and resources required for data capture. This has the capacity to create artificial discontinuities between technology and mainstream archaeological practice. This is not to say, by the way, that the operators of these devices are not skilled archaeologists in their own right, but rather that we should not accept a divide between technicians and archaeologists as being inevitable. Field archaeologists are required to master a wide range of digital and analogue technologies, including cameras, surveying equipment and illustration tools. The ubiquity and ease of use that characterises contemporary imaging technology mean that these tools have the potential to engender mass participation in digital recording and the development of entirely new forms of digital imaging methodology. An illustration of this point can be found in the prevalence of social media groups that are dedicated to field archaeologists sharing images of archaeological finds for identification purposes (e.g. BAJR).

Recent developments have sought to exploit the ubiquity of digital imaging devices in order to bring sophisticated digital imaging (which currently equates more or less to 'computational photography') to the mass market. Sometimes this is a commercial process (e.g. Autodesk's 123D Catch or Microsoft's Photosynth) and sometimes it is an open source project driven by the combined efforts of a community of independent and organisational users (e.g. Reflectance Transformation Imaging or Gerbil Multi Spectral Imaging). The question that has until recently remained unanswered is whether the desire from within the archaeological community to use these tools is sufficient to engender more widespread adoption.

The low-resource burden and shallow learning curve associated with the use of these technologies has led to a boom in archaeological innovation within the user community. This innovation has been both technological and methodological and it has taken place across the archaeological sector within both commercial and academic settings. Open source development models have created an opportunity for researchers within cultural heritage to produce and modify digital tools in order to suit their requirements. Projects such as ACCORD (Jeffrey et al. 2015; Maxwell this issue), RTISAD (Earl et al. 2011a), the Georgia O'Keefe Museum Imaging Project research (Georgia O'Keefe Museum 2012) and the Developing Advanced Technologies for the Imaging of Cultural Heritage Objects Project (Wang et al. 2009), have not only exploited digital imaging technologies but have developed and enhanced tools in order to ensure their relevance within a given research context. The incorporation of many of these specialist tools into subsequent releases of software have helped to produce digital tools with a functionality that is greater and which has been informed directly by the needs of cultural heritage researchers. The increasing ability of archaeological research communities to build their own digital tools is, as we shall see, of profound significance.

Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) is an ideal example of a set of tools developed in this way. RTI developed from Polynomial Texture Mapping (PTM), a graphics technique for improving the realism of 3D pictures, which originated in Hewlett-Packard Laboratories in 2000 (Malzbender et al. 2001). It enables the capture and representation of a broad range of reflectance characteristics for any surface (e.g. surface inter-reflection, subsurface scattering, and self-shadowing) affording virtual lighting. Although the first peer-reviewed papers were very technical, and focused on the potential for improved rendering of computer graphics models, from the outset its inventors and an early development community saw applications in the cultural heritage arena. Very early applications of the technology included the demonstration of superior definition, and therefore easier decipherment, of cuneiform characters on Sumerian tablets (Malzbender et al. 2001).

Crucially, Hewlett-Packard Laboratories provided PTM viewing software freely for non-commercial use. Tom Malzbender and his computer scientist colleagues had effectively packaged the technology into a form that almost any non-technical user could pick up and apply productively, without necessarily assimilating the intellectual capital that went into its production (archaeologists being just one set of beneficiaries). In one fell swoop, a powerful application escapes from the corridors of a multinational computer giant to be socialised and nurtured in the creative open spaces of virtual archaeology and virtual heritage.

The technology was, however, sufficiently simple that subsequent investment by cultural heritage organisations, such as Cultural Heritage Imaging, led to the development of RTI - a tool that was optimised for use within archaeology and cultural heritage. RTI remains highly unusual as a digital imaging tool developed largely by and specifically for the archaeology and cultural heritage community (Mudge et al. 2005; Earl et al. 2011b). It has been widely adopted, not only by those specialising in or promoting digital archaeology but by those wishing to maximise the impact of their own research (Georgia O'Keefe Museum 2012). Most importantly, it has been applied in a wide variety of unexpected ways, by different researchers in different places, according to need (Diaz-Guardamino and Wheatley 2013). Examples include investigations of micro-landscapes such as the faces of coins (Mudge et al. 2005), and larger objects such as lithics, sculptures and rock art (see Earl et al. 2010). Inevitably, RTI applications have also been extended to include virtual archaeological objects such as macro-landscapes captured through LiDAR and other survey techniques (e.g. Goskar and Cripps 2011). More recently, experimentation with multi-spectral RTI shows clear potential to reveal hidden, subsurface and obscured details on antiquities (Kotoula 2012; 2016). Additionally, the technology has been adapted for use in underwater environments with the aid of purpose-built lighting domes (Selmo 2013; Selmo and Campbell 2014)

This increased availability of specialised imaging technology and software has driven methodological innovation. Low-cost technologies have had the effect of lowering the requirements for participation in digital research. Projects such Re-Reading the British Memorial (Beale and Beale 2013; 2015), RTIiCAN (Bevan and Gabov 2014) and ACCORD (Jeffrey et al. 2015; Maxwell this issue) have demonstrated the potential of affordable digital imaging technology as a means of engaging diverse communities in technologically sophisticated research collaborations. These projects have all sought to enhance the archaeological record on a scale that would not ordinarily be possible in projects with limited funding and very few professional researchers.

The advent of research projects that seek to engage diverse communities in digital research, coupled with a growth in digital literacy among the general population, has also meant that methodological innovation can be driven by those without a technical specialism, at a local level. An example of this process is the Re-Reading the British Memorial project in which local groups of researchers have adapted standardised RTI methodologies in order to document burial grounds. Frequently, local groups have pre-existing research projects focusing on sites in which they have a particular interest. These interests are diverse and motivated by a range of factors. As a result, the implementation of RTI as a documentation technology has taken different forms in different contexts. This has resulted in a high level of methodological innovation, driven by non-professional researchers with little or no pre-existing technical specialism (Beale and Beale 2015; Figure 4).

Figure 4: An interactive example of an RTI from the Re-Reading the British Memorial Project

The manner by which RTI has been adopted within archaeological and heritage research demands a subtle shift in the role of the archaeological/heritage technologist, from being a specialist in the use of digital technologies towards being a facilitator who specialises in guidance and support and who is able to consider how the efforts of diverse communities might be incorporated into a broader conceptual whole. Our original proposition was that the spirit of virtual archaeology was an expression of the need to focus on the interplay between archaeological practice and new technology. This example demonstrates that by focusing in this way we can maximise the impact of the limited resources that we have available and can develop technological approaches that not only reject the idea of a 'one size fits all' set of archaeological technology and practice but actually fosters pluralistic and authentically archaeological approaches to technical adoption, innovation and creativity. This is not to say that all archaeological users are capable of software development, but rather that sufficient resources exist within applied fields such as heritage and archaeology to shape and to direct the development of technologies in distinctive ways. The diversity of the RTI development and user community has helped to ensure that the technology has become a locus for critical discourse and has led to new forms of technology, new forms of archaeological practice and a larger and more diverse archaeological research community (Beale and Beale 2015).


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