My first draft PhD Proposal

Posted By mcarter on Sep 8, 2015 | 0 comments

**Update the final approved PhD Proposal can be viewed here**


First Draft:



In reimagining a 15th century Northern Iroquoian Longhouse within a virtual 3D environment we attempt to address issues of agency, authenticity, authority and most importantly, transparency within virtual heritage reconstructions. Virtual Archaeology and our ability to harness the technology in an applied, innovative and experiential way has allowed scholars, Descendants and the public to “envision the unseen” within the archaeological record. As such, archaeological virtual reconstruction through virtual reality has become a powerful tool in the interpretation of archaeological landscapes and artifacts as a means of knowledge building and meaning making. Thus, Virtual Archaeology is moving from being evidenced based to evidence informed through a natural progression allowed by the evolution of technology and growth of capabilities, user experience and expectation.


In the 1960’s, Ivan Sutherland envisioned a time in the near future in which people would be able to physically enter into an alternative, “digital” world. With the ability to not only see the environment around them, but also the ability to touch, smell, hear and be affected by the environment itself; a unique digital phenomenological experience where the viewer becomes participant and builds on his or her own personal narrative in a non-linear almost life-like virtual experience (see Sutherland 1965).

Within the study and practice of archaeology, we have seen amazing leaps and bounds over the last 20 years in the use of digital technology to inform and scaffold the theories and methods of archaeological research. My proposal is to harness those technologies, theories and methodologies to approach virtual archaeology from a phenomenological perspective in order to empower stakeholders, may they be scholar, Descendent or public within archaeology proper. Dawson, Levy and Lyons called this phenomenological experience presence; “the emotional connectedness of being transported to another time and place” (see Dawson et al. 2011). Although their study group were descendent participants, can this same experience be true for non-descendants as well? Can archaeologist use this technology and methodology in a phenomenological way to envision what isn’t seen in the archaeological record to better inform current and future research (see Watts 2009)?

To situate this research, I propose to virtually reimagine a prototypical Northern Iroquoian longhouse within an interactive virtual 3D environment. Using existing archaeological data gleaned from excavations of Iroquoian longhouses, oral and historical accounts as well as theoretical opinions on longhouse construction methodologies; I will reimagine a 3D Iroquoian Longhouse within a virtual environment. By referencing the known archaeological data, I will attempt to build the longhouse step by step, which will hopefully inform and suggest what challenges and ingenuities Iroquoian builders faced themselves. Once built, I will place this reconstructed model within a virtual delivery platform so that stakeholders, namely heritage professionals, may experience a sense of “presence” within the virtual world. This will be accomplished with the addition of simulated atmospherics such as natural and artificial (fire hearth) light, particle systems that simulate dust, pollen and smoke as well as the addition of natural sounds that would accompany living within these massive architectural marvels. In following The London Charter, a template for working with heritage assets within the virtual environment, I hope to provide a weekly blog that will discuss the insights, challenges and discoveries as I build this virtual longhouse environment. Called “paradate”, this additional information of the process and decisions being made during the 3D assets building and implementation, will allow scholarly engagement and transparency as we continue along the path of virtual simulation.

Lastly, I intend to seek professional opinions from the archaeological community themselves, not only during the building stage through blogs, Twitter or personal outreach, but by allowing heritage professionals to experience the virtual environment first hand. These initial sessions and the reactions and opinions generated will lay the groundwork for future public and Descendent engagements as the project hopefully moves from the research to public deployment stage.


I graduated with an Honours Bachelor in Visual Arts and Archaeology in 1993 and immediately went to work as a “Salvage Archaeologist” on a multi-stratified mitigation site that contained among other eras, a late Iroquoian level, over a 6 month period. During those long hours of labour intensive test pits, bad weather and accidently destroyed post hole stains, I envisioned and yearned for an alternative “computer aided archaeology” predictive methodology to determine longhouse pole placement and positioning. Something that would not only allow researchers to predict where the positions of poles would be but also allow stakeholders (researchers, descendants, the public) to enter in and interact with a 3D “virtual” recreation of a longhouse directly on site using the archaeological data as a starting point.

Paul Reilly had coined the term Virtual Archaeology in 1991 and the use of 3D visualization was starting to take hold in archaeological research and practice. Empowered with a vision to combine my archaeology and visual arts skills for 3D visualization, thus I applied to Sheridan College in 1994 for their Computer Graphics program and upon completion was accepted into their prestigious post-graduate Computer Animation program with the sole goal of learning the technology to enable “Virtual Archaeology of Longhouse Sites”. Unfortunately the practice and use of technology in archaeology was still in its infancy within Ontario and Canadian archaeology, so pressed with a career choice of multiple offers within the new and rapidly expanding 3D Animation and VFX industry or struggling to be heard within archaeology, I chose the latter which propelled me on a twenty year journey as a film and television 3D animation and VFX industry expert.

Virtual Archaeology has now become a highly debated topic that is now contested not only by the stakeholders it tries to serve, but the practitioners of the theories and methodologies who strive to improve academic rigor and the virtual experience for an ever sophisticated, participatory audience. As technology has increased, what was only a dream 20 years ago can now be made into reality. The process of creating virtual archeological landscapes, objects and environments has also become less of a “black art”, allowing for non-artists to engage in designing, developing and deploying more and more sophisticated heritage inspired virtual reconstructions.

The study of Northern Iroquoian longhouses is a mercurial archaeological endeavour. Fragments of these once grand physical manifestations of social, cultural and political agency within the Late Iroquoian phases of the Ontario complex (Birch & Williamson 2013) are little more than “ghosts” below the soil line within the archaeological landscape. Soil stains are all that remain of the supporting posts and exterior walls of these unique cultural buildings representing only a small glimpse into how these dwellings once functioned or even looked.

These soil stains and the cultural material associated in and around the boundaries of these transitory structures, as well as historical Eurocentric writings and drawings and the oral traditions of descendent cultural groups, are what now form our archaeological understandings of the lifecycle of a longhouse, and more importantly, the cultural significance these structures played within Iroquoian life (Woodworth 1998). However, the enigma is that our understanding arising from these data points is imaginatively speculative at best and thus the challenge is to not only visualize these lost cultural manifestations, but also to embody all of the senses that the archaeological landscape cannot preserve; the haptic, olfactory and auditory – in other words the phenomenological (see Watts 2009). The ability to experience the application of sight, sound, smell, and touch in context, helps to embody the overall phenomenological archaeological experience (Dawson et al. 2011) and in turn may provide further understanding to the archaeological record. These are some of the challenges that frame the current debate on what a longhouse is and how it shapes our understanding of the lifeway of the people who thrived within these architectural representations of Iroquoian culture.


Longhouses occupy a special narrative amongst descendent Iroquoian societies and modern archeologists. An active and engaged oral tradition has given the longhouse a spiritual existence in which the North American modern day longhouse continues to be a powerful symbol of community for those descendent populations, representing an architectural lineage that exemplifies agency and a unique way of life (see Heidenreich 1972; Kapches 1994; Mohawk 1978; O’Gorman 2010; Watts 2009; Woodworth 1998).   At the base level, the longhouse represents community in both physical and metaphysical traditions, embodying the physical to convey societal, cultural and political worldviews (Hayden 1968; Heidenreich 1972; Mohawk 1978; O’Gorman 2010; Ramsden 2009; Varley & Cannon 1994). For Iroquoian culture, the longhouse was a symbol of how the community functioned and was politically structured within their larger world, forming the boundaries of their influence, and symbolic of the longhouse itself (see Allen & Williams-Shuker 1998; Heidenreich 1972; O’Gorman 2010; Mohawk 1978). Though limited physical remnants remain of these structures, they are subjectively alive in the contested colonial writings and descriptions of historical explorers, the oral traditions of cultural descendants and the visual imagination of modern writers and filmmakers (Boyden 2013; Heidenreich 1972; Thwates 1896-1901).

Although the archaeological record reveals several centuries of longhouse and village-like settlement patterns for the Late Woodland, the modern perception of what a longhouse hypothetically looked and felt like is really derived from the latter part of the Late Woodland (sometimes referred to as the Terminal Woodland; see Ferris and Spence 1995), where archaeological and historical data come together to provide a general “convention” for what a longhouse “should be” (Snow 1997; Williamson 2004; Wright 1995). Further, it is these idealized non-native interpretations that continue to reinforce not only the academic but also the public’s notion of what a longhouse was and is (Williamson 2004). It is from these qualitative and quantitative data points that we will explore what a longhouse is physically within the archaeological and historical record.

My understanding of the visualization of longhouses from the archaeological record arises principally from the work of four archaeologists; J.V. Wright, Mima Kapches, Christine Dodd and Dean Snow. Due to the lack of any real physical evidence, models of longhouse use, style, agency, and construction have been hotly contested for decades (see Kapches 1994; Snow 1997; Williamson 2004; Wright 1995). The work of these archaeologists, in combination with continued observations and challenges from other exemplary researchers, form a base of understanding that helps to frame how longhouses were constructed. Using Dodd’s extensive quantitative research gleaned from an exhaustive review of longhouse data derived from field excavations (1984) and based on the qualitative and quantitative observations of Wright (1971), Kapches (1994) and Snow (1997) among others, a basic template for the construction of longhouses emerges. It is this template we seek to replicate virtually.

With rapid advancements in technology, there now exists a cornucopia of progressively successful attempts to engage the archaeological record within virtual reality or virtual archaeology. As with most applications of theory in reality, there too is a split between the qualitative and the quantitative nature of the technology and how it is implemented. Reilly, Barceló, Frischer and others see the digital tools, the process and the outcomes as part and parcel of the quantitative, scientific nature of archaeological research; data that should be represented by and through scientific means. Dawson, Levy, Lyons and Forte, see virtual archaeology as a phenomenological emotional experience in which the participant isn’t a passive viewer, but an equal partner in the exploration of the multivocal archaeological landscape. Where the data, material culture and the visual (re)imagination of the archaeological environment are engaged through the users eyes.

The transformative nature of technology and in particular our ability to manipulate digital data freely, whether visual or not, has given form to a multivocal approach to the interpretation of the archaeological record (Forte 2011, 2014a, 2014b). Following Hodder, Forte sees multivocal engagement within virtual archaeology as the ability to allow for multiple voices to engage and contribute to the overall interpretation of the virtual archaeological environment (2008; 2011, 2014a, 2014b). This authentic multivocal experience can lead to new research questions and hypotheses, disrupting the notion of the archaeologist as the interpreter of the “truth” (Earl 2013; Forte 2014b). As (digital) archaeologists, we are no longer the singular authoritative voice, but providers of material and assets in which stakeholders and the public themselves can construct and reimagine their own cultural presence within virtual space (see Earl 2013 & Perry 2014; Dasgupta 2006; Forte 2011 & 2014b).

Virtual reality by definition is an interpretation of self within a different space, time or plane (see Sutherland 1965). It is narrative generating and thus both the technology and the process of creating virtual reality have borrowed heavily from the entertainment industry (see Frankland and Earl 2011 and Denard 2012). In doing so, by taking a creative approach to the interpretation of the archaeological data, the agency of that data is now layered upon and seen through the creators lens; what “artist’s impression” intend the virtual space to convey (see Earl 2013; Frankland and Earl 2011; Frischer et al. 2000; Moser and Smiles 2008; Perry 2015).

The digital reproduction of objects, landscapes and narratives have agency both in the real and virtual worlds and as such must be treated with equal consideration and respect (Earl 2013; Forte 2014a; Huggett 2012a, 2015; Pauketat and Alt 2005; Richardson 2013; Robb 2010). Virtual archaeology is moving from being evidenced based to evidence informed through a natural progression allowed by the evolution of technology and growth of capabilities, user experience and expectation.

Technology is at the point where we can provide an almost hyper-real experience to the participant viewer, may they be scholar, descendant or the public (Frankland and Earl 2011; Forte 2014a; Gabellone et al. 2013; Giddings 2015; Morgan 2009; Moser and Smiles 2008). Further, that same technology allows the particpant to interpret and modify the objects and material being displayed/provided, giving them the ability to reorder, reinterpret or remix at will (Fisher and Twiss-Garrity 2007; Frankland and Earl 2011). These are the machinations that now loom over virtual archaeology.

The London Charter has provided practitioners with a set of guidelines which attempt an assurance of authenticity and authority over Digital (virtual) archaeology (Denard 2012; Gabellone et al. 2013). Dawson, Levy and Lyons provide one example of how participants can obtain presence within a virtual archaeological landscape, as well as demonstrating that the foundations of The London Charter can be implemented effectively to maintain rigorous archaeological authority over the virtual material being provided. Our challenge is providing archaeological data to non-archaeologists in ways that are recognizable as visualizations and virtual experiences.


# 1

What is a longhouse? What data and assumptions within archaeological, historical, and oral traditions go into informing our understanding of what an ancestral northern Iroquoian “longhouse” was and is? What are the challenges and opportunities these divergent lines of evidence present to our efforts to build, engage, and research this form of habitation within virtual contexts?


How has virtual reality been used in archaeology and heritage studies and what might be achievable in the future considering current and upcoming technological advances. How can virtual reconstructions facilitate transformative and innovative research in archaeology?


Ancient, immersive archaeological landscapes and settings can provide audiences with a real sense of being in a place and space; but these are only approximations based on interpretation, supposition, and artistic license. How are issues of authenticity addressed, or not, when developing virtual spaces, and what are some of the main issues when immersive representations are presented as, or assumed to be, authentic? Should intended and unintended audiences only experience virtual representations of the past passively, or should they be able to engage with and challenge the context they explore against what “feels” right to them, whether they are scholar, Descendant or public?


We have seen with Dawson, Levy and Lyons that an embodied experience for descendent stakeholders is not only empowering to the participant but beneficial to the archaeologist in unlocking unintended knowledge that further enriches the archaeological record (2011). That digital reproduction of objects, landscapes and narratives do have agency both in the real and virtual worlds and as such must be treated with equal consideration and respect (Earl 2013; Forte 2014b; Huggett 2012a, 2015; Pauketat and Alt 2005; Richardson 2013; Robb 2010). As such virtual archaeology is moving from being evidenced based to evidence informed through a natural progression allowed by the evolution of technology and growth of capabilities, user experience and expectation.

By using the archaeological record as it pertains to the physicality of longhouse construction and use, we are able to envision the unseen. Many cultural, economic, societal and environmental factors help to inform this inquiry, however my desire and goal is to develop both a theoretical and virtual model of the fundamental features of a longhouse that is the manifestation of the dynamic archeological landscape, oral and written histories as well as the creative imagination of the artists and technicians who will ultimately be tasked with digitally reimagining these elusive, iconic and culturally significant architectural symbols of the Northern Iroquoian existence (Watts 2009; Woodworth 1998).

Lastly, archaeological virtual reconstruction through virtual reality has become a powerful tool in the interpretation of archaeological landscapes and artifacts as a means of knowledge building and meaning making (see Dallas 2009, Earl 2013, Forte 2014a & 2014b, Huggett 2013 & Perry 2014). It has become a “mediating tool” allowing researchers to experiment with the data and to tease out the tensions that arise from a multivocal environment (see Dallas 2009 & Earl 2013). These alternate visions help to “stimulate interpretation” creating multi-channeled narratives which spur on additional and unforeseen research questions (Earl 2013). As such, what is apparent is that the practice/study/craft has transcended beyond the internal realm of archaeological study to be fully accepted externally as representative of archaeological studies without it really establishing itself as an accepted cannon of archaeological research (see Earl 2013 & Perry 2014).


A strong theoretical foundation of my research will reflect elements such as agency, authority, authenticity and transparency as it is relates to virtual archaeology and archaeology in general. Using reflexivity and critical testing, I hope to understand and demonstrate the application of phenomenology, virtual reality and virtual archaeology to facilitate transformative and innovative research within Iroquoian archaeology, providing a template for future use and deployment within other fields of archaeological study.

My research will be informed by and include theoretical elements from Dawson, Levy and Lyons (phenomenology and presence), Reilly, Barceló, Frischer, Forte, Dallas, Huggett, Gillings (virtual archaeology) and Watts, Ferris, Robb, Frankland, Earl, Perry, Gosden, Denard (agency, authenticity, authority and transparency) among others.

My project will incorporate existing academic literature, research and data as it pertains to the knowledge in the construction methodologies and visualizations of Northern Iroquoian Longhouses primarily influenced by Dodd, Kapches, Wright, Snow and Williamson among others in the field.

I will test my hypothesis by engaging with the archaeological and heritage community to participate and engage with the project in a contextual manner, so as to measure their level of interest in using these techniques in their own areas of specialization and interest. To further determine if these methodologies meet the academic rigor while also providing an informed, innovative and experiential application of archaeological research and community engagement.


Year 1: Literature review and research on Northern Iroquoian Longhouse use and construction, the previous and current uses of Virtual Archaeology within archaeological discord and the theoretical and methodological concerns of the representation of heritage material and landscapes within virtual environments.

Year 2: Review and research the application of virtual reality production and virtual reality platforms suited to a robust, interactive and phenomenological multivocal virtual archaeological experience. This will also include gap-filling research on areas of concentration in Year 1 and the development of a “paradata” methodology to allow for the transparent engagement with the research process.

Year 3: The recruitment of computer animation knowledge experts, the development, creation and application of 3D assets, the decision and implementation of a virtual reality delivery platform and consolidation and the analysis of the final virtual reality experience by members of the archaeological community.

As I am a part-time PhD student, I am ineligible for research funding. However, as the full-time administrative Director of a graduate program in Digital Media at the Ryerson University, I have access to the technological hardware and software resources needed in the design, development and deployment of a virtual reality project. Further, this project is being generously funded by the Dr. Neal Ferris from the Museum of Ontario Archaeology/Sustainable Archaeology and Dr. Ron Williamson from Archaeological Services Inc. to allow for the hiring of artistic and technical specialists.


I am proposing to design, develop and implement a method for the visualization of archaeological data and speculative academic insight within virtual archaeological environments. That this method is grounded in the theories that have formed around the study of virtual archaeology, specifically: agency, authenticity, authority and transparency. In doing so, by using an area of personal interest, I hope to build upon the continued work of Dodd, Wright, Kapches and Snow with regards to Northern Iroquoian longhouse construction and use.

The potential implications of this project could entail the lack of sufficient archaeological, oral and historical data to effectively visualize a Northern Iroquoian longhouse. As such, academic and artistic license as well as time and cost of production will be required to enable only one potential visual interpretation. That the intended technology cannot delivery the virtual effect intended or that the artistic or technical talent required is either unavailable or beyond the scope of my personal skills.

The impact of this study could be substantial. Apart from the pioneering phenomenological work done by Dawson, Levy and Lyons, current research has indicated that no other project is attempting to phenomenologically recreate a 3D virtual Iroquoian Longhouse to the level and sophistication usually reserved for high-end gaming or film production. Further, following the recent development of The London Charter, this project will endeavor to develop a body of transparent knowledge, which is community based and encourages debate and opinion throughout the visualization process. Lastly this project will impact and contribute to the ongoing research and debate on virtual archaeology, it’s application, use and substantial contribution to the study and discipline of archaeology.

This project will be disseminated in multiple forms. The 3D virtual environment and all assets will be made available as an open source tool for the continued use by scholars, Descendants and the public. The accompanying blog and Twitter feeds will provide an ongoing deployment of “paradata” to support the development of continued debate and development of the virtual environment. A conference paper will be proposed and it is my intention to publish on the findings of this work.



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  1. My second draft PhD Proposal - theskonkworks - […] is my second draft of my PhD Proposal.  My first is located here to compare.  In this round, I…
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