Today’s post is really a brain dump of the last four weeks of virtual archaeology theoretical reading I’ve been doing and the practical application of the Lh3.x project.
The project itself is going along swimmingly but into the tough phase of honing down the assets so users can run through the experience in real time and with a variety of machine speeds. Although “polygon count” is always an issue with producing 3D assets for gaming, the focus has been on providing a higher level of authenticity to the overall virtual experience. In retrospect we probably added too much cultural historical detail, which has slowed real time play down considerably. Texture maps also pose a problem as the more complex and higher resolution they are, the more memory (like the 3D models) that has to be cached. Thus, there has been the painful decision to reduce the visual quality or to take certain asset features out in order to retain a high level of interactive play. In doing so, we are altering one set of experiences in order for another to take greater presence within the virtual environment.
However, this wasn’t the negotiated process I had hoped for when we started out. Ideally I wanted to challenge the notion that virtual archaeology was just a smokescreen for non-archaeologists to make “pretty pictures”. That the project would be evidence based and reflective of a strong scientific methodology. Working with the material however, whether virtual or not, alters your perception of what the term accurate or evidence based really means. Tim Ingold’s book Being Alive, which I’ve just recently reread (and if you are interested, here is reprint of a theory paper I wrote on Wayfaring in virtual space), stresses the material over the materiality of things (2011). The material shapes our way of knowing and in the process of working the material we gain insight into all of the artistic, technical and cultural factors involved in the cultural object being created. However, the material’s properties, may it be wood, clay or 3D polygons, still trumps all cultural intentions that have gone into the creation of it. Eventually the material will once again dominate the materiality of the object in question and as in Iroquoian longhouses, will return it from the environment in which it came.
I’ve been mindful not to use the words accurate or authentic as the project has progressed. Archaeologists make meaning from the artifacts, landscapes and environments they study. In doing so they are creating their own interpretations of what the cultural material means, drawing upon personal knowledge creation, other stakeholder knowledge and opinions from experts such as Historians, Anthropologists and content specific Archaeologists. In essence we’re creating a narrative, which is one of many narratives that can be developed when looking at a potsherd, buried viking hoards or longhouse postmold stains. Readily I admit that I haven’t reached out to Decedent stakeholders, experimental archaeologists or other non-Iroquoian built heritage specialists to garner opinion or guidance. I wanted this process to be my interpretation of the archaeological record, oral and written histories. But as you work with the material more, coming across technical, creative or research material limitations there is a negotiated process that kicks in, forcing you to make tough decisions that takes you further away from that well intentioned goal in which these stakeholders might help support.
Ingold considers these “course corrections” as part of the symbiotic relationship between the practitioner, tool and material (2011). Each movement whether deliberate or not, is part of the larger holistic process of creating and is thus valid from a theoretical perspective. In essence my struggles as both an artist and a researcher is part and parcel of larger narrative that Ingold speaks of and that our virtual longhouse embodies.
Lately I have been having difficulty as an artist choosing between the two types of visual experiences that this project has created. On the one hand, the virtual real time experience of a gaming environment allows for those phenomenological experiences to play out more readily. On the other, the still or sequenced, highly manicured rendered photorealistic images still dominates as being desirable representation of elusive “fact”.
On the left in the image above is a screen grab of Lh3.x within the Unity game engine. On the right is a high resolution and rendered version of the 3D assets. The rendering on the right has lighting that is obviously more effective and the textures are more vibrant. You can almost imagine being right in a real-life environment. Whereas the game quality version, clearly sets up our expectation that this experience will be representative but not quite realistic.
Tom Frankland suggests that our perception of photo-realistic reconstructions carries with it a false sense that the image generated is authentic and because of its perceived authenticity, it is accepted psychologically as fact by those viewing it (2010). He goes on to comment that non-photorealistic rendering (NPR), like the image on the left, might actually enhance our ability to accept different modes of interpretation and meaning-making because it frees us from the notion that what we are looking at is “fact” (Frankland 2010). Ultimately however archaeologist must take caution in the visualization approach they use and I would argue the transparent paradata they provide, so that (re)imagined visualizations aren’t perceived as sacrosanct truth.
Although the entrenched tradition of archaeological illustrations, specifically through field notes, has altered little since antiquity scholars began their renaissance studies, virtual reality puts a unique spin on presenting visual data and individual opinions in a very authoritative and authentic way (Perry 2015). 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). Essentially what I and Craig represent virtually in Lh3.x is artistic narrative building, but grounded within initial archaeological data which in no measure should be considered archaeological “fact”.
In the next Longhouse 3.5.8, I’m going to talk about our issues of populating the virtual space with material culture that is somewhat representative of the era and culture we are dealing with. In the scene below we used 3D modelled cured ham legs to give the example of drying meat, but a nudge about Experimental Archaeology from Bill Engelbrecht and a chance discussion with Archaeologist Martin Lominy from Aboriginal technologies provided a unique perspective on how the 15th Century Northern Iroquoians might have dealt with such issues as drying meat and how we might represent that visually.
2010 A CG artist’s impression: depicting virtual reconstructions using non-photorealistic rendering techniques. In Thinking Beyond the Tool: Archaeological Computing and the Interpretative Process., edited by Angeliki Chrysanthi, Patricia Murrieta-Flores, and Constantinos Papadopoulos. Archaeopress, Oxford, UK, November 11.
Frankland, Tom, and Graeme Earl
2011 Authority and authenticity in future archaeological visualisation. Original Citation: 62.
Frischer, Bernard, Franco Niccolucci, Nick Ryan, and Juan Barceló
2000 From CVR to CVRO: The Past, Present, and Future of Cultural Virtual Reality. VAST Conference on Virtual reality, Archeology, and Cultural Heritage, Arezzo, Italy.(November): 1–12.
2012 What lies beneath: lifting the lid on archaeological computing. In Thinking Beyond the Tool: Archaeological Computing and the Interpretative Process, edited by A. Chrysanthi, P. Murrietta, Flores, and C. Papadopoulos, pp. 204–214. Archeopress.
2011 Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description. Taylor & Francis.
Moser, Stephanie, and Sam Smiles
2008 Introduction: The Image in Question. In Envisioning the Past: Archaeology and the Image, pp. 1–12. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, Oxford, UK.
2015 Crafting knowledge with (digital) visual media in archaeology. In Material Evidence. Learning from archaeological practice., edited by R. Chapman and A. Wylie, pp. 189–210. Routledge, New York and London.