2.2 3D Computer representation and archaeology: a brief history

Archaeology is by necessity a very visual subject. Data collected are often large and complex, and the exploration of different configurations and interpretations of the evidence is possible through graphical representation, whilst at the same time displaying large amounts of information. Over the last thirty years, various computer systems have been employed by archaeologists to illustrate data and facilitate their interpretation. Computer Aided Draughting and Design has been used, adopted from the engineering industry, to automate the draughting of plans and drawings. In recent years, Geographical Information Systems have been used by archaeologists to provide the analytical engines necessary for the automated investigation of archaeological data. Since the 1980s, there has been a steady increase in the use of solid modelling applications to solve archaeological problems (Daniels 1997).

Computer modelling, as an attempt to understand the real world by the construction of a simplified representation, can facilitate the description and analysis of the large amounts of data associated with three-dimensional reality, and so is immediately attractive to archaeologists. Both surface and solid modelling have been used to create three-dimensional models, encouraging an awareness of how elements are related in a structure, and, in the case of the more complex solid models, providing scope for scientific analysis of the physical properties of structures. For example, solid modelling was used to reconstruct the temple of Roman Bath. The integration of data from plans and elevations into the computer model enabled the viewer to appreciate how the temple precinct builders had made use of space to emphasise the symbolic relationships between various elements of the precinct. Similarly, a solid model of Furness Abbey was used to gain a stronger understanding of the monument's structural history, and to evaluate the need for repair and conservation in different parts of the building. A model of the Roman legionary bathhouse at Caerleon was constructed and used to create an animation which is on permanent display in the museum, providing information of interest to the public (Wood and Chapman 1992, 134).

The early application of solid modelling to archaeology is characterised by the reconstruction of elements of monumental architecture. Whilst it is possible to use solid modelling as a means of low-level hypothesis testing of possible reconstructions, the models created have mainly been technical showcases, reconstructing architecture such as Furness Abbey about which a great deal was known in the first place (Reilly and Rahtz, 1992). The commercial sponsorship of such models by large computer firms (both as a means of publicity and a way to test their developing technologies) has resulted in high-profile projects with perhaps little archaeological significance. Often, the final objective of the project was to create an animated fly-through of the site, which, generated from a solid model, is computationally expensive. Although animated fly-throughs prove popular with the general public, it seems that the technology behind these is not being used to its full potential. There is no doubt that solid and surface modelling can produce a means of interpreting a site by providing a three-dimensional reconstruction, but such modelling is very expensive, time consuming, computationally slow, and has been criticised for its unfriendly user interfaces which are more suited to calculation than visual design. Such models are also platform dependent, and run the risk of becoming technically obsolete in the future. Solid and surface models have their place as analytical mediums, but the use of these to create animated models is unsuitable, and provides no means of interaction for the user.


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Last updated: Mon Nov 29 1999