My third draft PhD Proposal

**Update this is the approved version!**

Happy New Year everyone!  After reading a tonne over the holidays and in the hopes that I’m “third time lucky” here is my third draft of my PhD research proposal.  In comparison, my first draft can be viewed here and my second draft here. It’s my additional hope that for future graduate students, some measure of writing progression can be demonstrated by comparing all three.  I can’t stress enough how important it is to have a group of dedicated Mentors and Supervisors to help navigate the process, provide support and suggest new insights.

As always, do not hesitate to comment, suggest or even challenge what you have read!






Keywords: Virtual Archaeology, Virtual Reality, Archaeological Visualization, Archaeology, Northern Iroquoian Longhouses, Agency, Authenticity, Authority, Transparency, Making, Materiality, Wayfaring.


My PhD research will include the construction of a virtual, archaeologically-based Late Woodland ancestral northern Iroquoian longhouse. The build and subsequent participant interaction with that space will facilitate an interrogation of archaeological meaning making informed by material and historical data as made “real” in virtual space. The virtual build of archaeological spaces will allow me to test cultural historical assumptions about the architecture and internal layout of these residential structures manifested virtually, and to experiment with the physics and logics of these assumptions. And once constructed, this virtual space will allow me, through semi-structured interviews and participant observations, to examine whether Virtual Archaeology (VA) is an effective means to enhance and expose the conceptual frameworks and mental templates archaeologists operationalize to help bridge the gaps between physical, contextual data and archaeological meaning making.

By specifically focusing on the virtual visualization of a typical northern Iroquoian longhouse, I have chosen a unique cultural manifestation that apart from the remnants of post-hole stains, below ground cultural features and fire hearths, is an archaeological enigma lacking significant above ground visual representation archaeologically or historically. Conversely, there exists a more generally understood “pre-existing mental image” (Ingold 2011:22) of these structures derived from limited historical and oral descriptions, albeit generalized from a narrow period of time and from a range of regional and cultural variations in material expression. Thus I will explore, through the use of virtual 3D model creation, how archaeologists internalize archaeological data and landscapes, material artifacts and oral and written histories in order to “envision the unseen” within virtual reality.

Through the process of making and manipulating the material, and the material – in turn – manipulating the maker, there are also a series of wayfaring points. Wayfaring is a process for taking stalk of the moment in time in which the act of making and the materiality of the raw material requires the artisan wayfarer [1] to stop, evaluate and make course corrections in order to achieve a representative version of their vision (Ingold 2011, 2013; see also Crawford 2015), a process that past and present longhouse builders work through during their construction of such buildings. Likewise, in the act of making within 3D space, there is a similar wayfaring experiential process, one that both mirrors the physical experiential process of longhouse construction while confronting archaeological knowledge and assumptions embedded in that research on ancient longhouse architecture and living.

([1] Defined as a craftsperson that uses their accumulated knowledge through the reflexive application of the physical, material and materiality of the making process.)

In this process of making, and as makers who make course corrections at wayfaring points, the decisions made embody elements of power, agency and authority (Crawford 2015; Ingold 2011, 2013) that draws into question the authenticity of the representative virtual form created. As such, as a virtual artisan wayfarer, I embody and assert a technical, creative and archaeological “expertise.” This creates a unique perspective to archaeological meaning-making that requires me to be reflexive of the power, agency and implicit authority I embed in the process of making within virtual space. Thus as a wayfaring artist, I will need to transparently negotiate the process between virtual builder, viewer and archaeologist, in order to reveal the “continuous correcting” that occurs as decisions are made virtually through the build and through the (re)imagining of a longhouse within the 3D environment (Ingold 2011, 2013).

While it has been a dimension of archaeological practice for over 30 years now, VA continually has failed to build and emerge from a solid foundation of robust archaeological inquiry (Reilly 2015). Rather, this practice has tended to focus more on the application of the tool as novelty and as a visual aid within archaeology, with little consideration on how these tools can expose and even shape our understandings of the archaeological record (Dallas 2007; Gillings 2005; Huggett 2012). It is my claim that virtual archaeology has the potential to provide transformative ways of thinking not only about the practical construction and material realities of longhouse building and dwelling, but also about the mental embodiment of longhouse culture and use that archaeologists have employed in their constructions of ancestral northern Iroquoian lifeways. Thus, the proximate aims of this research are to examine archaeological understandings of agency, authority, authenticity and transparency manifest within a virtual archaeological environment. Ultimately, the aim is to enhance understandings of archaeological meaning-making as applied to and revealed by virtual visualization and interaction in archaeology.


The sublime organic nature of ancestral northern Iroquoian longhouses I am exploring in this research is that they are ideal examples of Ingold’s (2011:19-32) notion of “materials versus materiality.” The organic materials used in the construction of these structures and dwelling spaces dictates the style, use and longevity of the physical materiality of the longhouse itself, which eventually melds back into the environment in which it came, with no above ground traces of those materials or that living materiality left behind (Ingold 2011:26). For archaeologists, this material absence serves as the foundation for imposing archaeological understandings of the ancient materiality of longhouse embodiment. Thus to visualize and describe the material, mental and social properties of longhouses over their life history as ancient-built conceptions of structures, residences and living spaces is to “tell the stories of what happens to them as they flow, mix and mutate” (Ingold 2011:30).  Hence the virtual construction of a longhouse represents the physical and mental interpretation of what that longhouse was, and is this much more than visualizing data. It is also a contemporary narrative in which multiple voices, conceptions and opinions are expressed along the pathway of knowledge creation.

Compounding the challenges of archaeologists to visualize remaining, below-ground vestiges of a three dimensional material space and conception virtually is that, in popular forms of virtual reality, the pervasive use of photo-realism in the entertainment industry has created an expectation –and fallacy – that if it “looks” real, it must be authentic (Denard 2012). This is a theme that plays out time and again in the use of archaeological visualization, whether it is for knowledge makers or for the general public (Colley 2015; Earl 2005; Frankland and Earl 2011). Although the tradition of archaeological illustration has altered little since antiquity scholars began their renaissance studies (e.g. Moser 2012) virtual reality puts a unique spin on this tradition of presenting archaeological visual data in an authoritative and authentic manner (Perry 2015). In doing so, by taking a creative approach to the interpretation of archaeological data within virtual representations, the agency of that data becomes layered upon and seen through the creators lens: what that “artist’s impression” intends the virtual space to convey (see Earl 2013; Frankland and Earl 2011; Frischer et al. 2000; Smiles and Moser 2005; Perry 2015). The digital production of objects, landscapes and narratives makes overt issues of authenticity and authority in archaeological meaning making, creating an interpretive agency in both real and virtual worlds, and as such need to be acknowledged overtly and transparently (Bentkowska-Kafel et al. 2012; Cochrane and Russell 2007; Colley 2015; Earl 2013; Forte 2014a; Huggett 2012, 2015; Pauketat and Alt 2005; Perry 2009; Richardson 2013; Robb 2010).

Rationale and Objectives

Virtual Archaeology has become a powerful tool in the presentation and interpretation of archaeological landscapes and artifacts as a means of knowledge building, meaning making and heritage accessibility (e.g., Dallas 2009; Earl 2013; Forte 2014a, 2014b; Huggett 2013; Perry 2015). It has become a “mediating tool” allowing researchers to experiment with the data and to tease out the tensions that arise from limited and multiple conceptions of the past – a multi-sourced and even multi-vocal environment created to “stimulate interpretation,” explore alternate tellings of the past, and advance new research directions in archaeology (Dallas 2009; Earl 2013; Huggett 2013). Nonetheless, while the practice/study/craft of archaeological visualization has managed to present itself and its output as representative of archaeological meaning making and authoritative presentations of the past, this has occurred without the practice really establishing the basis for that authority (see Earl 2013; Perry 2015). Thus the challenges VA represents within the broader field of archaeological theory and method is going beyond the perceived notion of the technology being a novel means to illustrate archaeological data, and to demonstrate that VA can be a transformative vehicle to engage with material pasts in a way that allows for multiple visions of that heritage to be represented, tested and valued.

Case study

 The proposed research in VA I have and will continue to advance for this PhD is to create an interactive, phenomenological virtual representation of an Iroquoian longhouse. This longhouse will be modelled on an example documented archaeologically from the pre-contact 16th Century of southern Ontario, and specifically from the ancestral northern Iroquoian community identified as the Lawson Village site, located on the grounds of the Museum of Ontario Archaeology (MOA). The process of designing, developing and implementing virtual archaeological data is a relatively new approach to Iroquoian archaeological research and broader knowledge dissemination within Ontario, although physical world public interpretive reconstructions and as case studies of experimental archaeology have been undertaken over the last several decades (e.g. Fecteau 1979; Williamson 2004) As such, my current research will reflect on my own and participants’ experiences of interpreting the data from a visual knowledge building perspective, while addressing and developing protocols to address agency, authority, authenticity, transparency and traditional Iroquoian archaeological research within virtual reality.

By virtualizing an Iroquoian longhouse and by disseminating this project by means of social media and direct participant engagement to the archaeological community, I hope to gain additional insight into how archaeologists conceptualize and “understand” these unique residential structures, since they are the perceived experts of this archaeology. What I am interested in exploring is how these archaeological understandings, as built environments and material spaces foreign to archaeologists’ own lived experiences but culturally and materially understood within the daily lives of ancient peoples (Ferris 2013) arise in interpretive models of this record.


The first stage of my research will consist of researching and then building a virtual ancestral northern Iroquoian longhouse that generally conforms to 16th century archaeological longhouse data, while interrogating the multitude of detailed physical characteristics of the above ground building and space created around and within those longhouses, which can only be assumed archaeologically. Using traditional 3D animation and visual effects, as well as film, television and gaming production techniques derived from twenty years of personal production experience, and following previous test projects conducted at Sustainable Archaeology and Ryerson University, a production schedule, budget and technical pipeline methodology for this research was developed. This also included reviewing relevant cultural material literature, experimental archaeology observations and experiences, along with archaeological community participation, in order to help inform the creation of representative 3D assets (digital artistic components used in the longhouse build) that served as templates and a technical framework for the development of the virtual Longhouse environment.

Following the successful model of employing 3D knowledge experts previously used at Sustainable Archaeology, I brought together professional technical artist expertise to compliment the creation, production and deployment of the virtual Longhouse environment. Using a conventional film and television client-service provider production model, I worked with the computer artist with my direction, informed by written, visual and verbal archaeological research, that would serve as the basis for my “artist’s impression” of the assets to be built within the 3D environment. As this archaeological data became a 3D visual reality, I reflexively made course corrections based on; i) new research I became aware of; ii) comments from the archaeological community; or iii) limitations in the artist’s rendering, technical abilities or software capabilities. Likewise, inherent hardware and software limitations to achieve the representation desired at the resolution preferred also became wayfaring points of decision. At all stages as the virtual environment was being researched and built, these decisions, observations and experiential workarounds were documented, allowing me to reflexively consider the nature of the archaeological, historical, oral and experimental information I was utilizing, as well as my own direction, interpretation and expectations of the content being developed.

This was an experiential process and as such, when new theoretical, methodological, technical, artistic or archaeological data was discovered, it was measured for fit within the project and incorporated accordingly. As such, during the production phase, new technological advances such as the now publically available Ocular Rift immersive virtual reality headset determined the delivery platform on which the final project would be ported and applied within the second stage of this research.

To date, a fully immersive 3D representation of a prototypical 16th century northern Iroquoian longhouse has been constructed. Being initially built in Autodesk Maya, its assets have been ported to a Unity3D game engine that controls not only the visual rendering of the Longhouse itself, but also phenomenological elements such as environ metrics (fire, wind, smoke), sound (flowing water, forest/nature, wind, fire) and the haptic interaction of users in this immersive environment (movement, direction). Further, the delivery platform incorporates the use of both the Ocular Rift immersive 3D glasses, or traditional screen based experiences, which allows for multiple types of participant engagement. This phase of research encompasses 4 years of preliminary pre-production research and testing, and 7 months of 3D production in 2015. As of January 2016 this phase of the research is complete and the longhouse environment It is now fully deployable for the second stage of my research.

The second stage of my research will be to have individuals interact with the virtual longhouse environment, in order to test the utility of this model, and the potential of VA to engage with and advance archaeological cultural historical studies, and reveal the operational logics archaeologists use to inform their interpretive understandings of ancient material spaces. This stage will consist of pre-participation questionnaires, semi-structured interviews during and after engagement, and observing participant behaviour within the longhouse virtual environment. All study participants will be given the option of choosing between a fully immersed virtual reality experience using Oculus Rift immersive goggles, or a less immersive experience with a hand-held controller and TV display.

I intend to work with three sets of up to five (5) Heritage stakeholders, each group representing specific expertise in ancestral northern Iroquoians. These participants would encompass: i) academic and professional archaeologists who have had limited exposure to Virtual Archaeology, but moderate to substantial experience working with ancestral northern Iroquoian archaeology; ii) academic and professional archaeologists who have moderate to substantial exposure to Virtual Archaeology, but more limited experience working with northern Iroquoian archaeology; and iii) heritage and descendent professionals who have or have not had experiences with VA, but do have experience in knowledge dissemination of Iroquoian history/material culture to the broader public. To develop a representative base, I will seek a broad set of adult individuals in age, gender, professional experience and backgrounds. My goals are to: i) document overt participant preconceptions for both their anticipated VA experience and longhouse environments; ii) observe how participants engage with and choose to interact with the virtual longhouse; iii) observe how and discussion participants perceive the virtual environment in terms of authenticity, authority and agency; iv) document their interpretation of the representation and placement of digital assets, landscapes and built structures, as well as v) record any alternative meaning-making they themselves express or advance after interacting with this virtual environment.

As the Oculus Rift goggles, hand held controllers and computer platform that controls the data is highly portable, interviews will be ideally conducted in private at the participant’s place of choosing or at a private, controlled room at Sustainable Archaeology or Ryerson University. Once the subject is in position and engaged with the virtual environment, I will observe the participant’s choices and movement through the environment, and non-prompted verbal responses. I will answer questions only when asked. Lastly after the participant has engaged with the virtual environment, they will be interviewed in a semi-structured manner for no more than one hour with the allowance to provide additional feedback via email if desired. All observations and interviews will be video and audio recorded along with detailed field notes.

Prior to the virtual experience, I will ask participants to describe, based on their academic and professional expertise, what their vision of a 16th century northern Iroquoian longhouse should look and “feel” like. Through the post experience interview, I will seek to understand their perceptions of the virtual environment, the degree to which they felt the representation of that archaeological space mirrored their pre-expectations, and the “accuracy” or authenticity of architectural details, objects and interior and exterior space as rendered. Lastly participants’ will be asked to discuss the role of this virtual environment in archaeological interpretation, and whether they feel VA serves as a visual aid to conventional archaeological interpretation, or how it might facilitate new forms of interpretation. Pre-entry and exit comments provided by participants will assist in gaging if they feel virtual archaeology has no, little or substantial effect on their mental templates and conceptual understanding of longhouses, on the use of virtual archaeology for interpreting longhouse archaeology and the social environment of this lived space.


Although this research seeks to advance the use and intent of virtual archaeology as a means of reflexively evaluating archaeological meaning-making, it also will contribute to examining the contested materiality and embodiment of ancestral northern Iroquoian longhouse lifeways by challenging cultural historical norms that bridge archaeological data and assumptions of longhouse construction and use. By deploying the latest 3D asset building and visualization tools, this research can contribute to developing a methodological template for further VA applications and knowledge transfers. Lastly, this research will test the concepts of authority, authenticity and transparency in approaches to archaeological visualization.


In progress: I have already constructed a 3D representation of a prototypical ancestral northern Iroquoian longhouse using available archaeological, historical and oral data, along with associated household objects and materials. These assets were created in Autodesk Maya and then ported into the Unity3D game engine. Testing is currently being conducted on the use of Ocular Rift as an immersive engagement platform and Beta deployment of the Longhouse representation has been tested with a limited number of archaeologists for antidotal impressions of the theme and technology used.

Following The London Charter, all steps in the design, development, current implementation and knowledge dissemination of this virtual archaeological research have been recorded and made available specifically to the archaeological community and the public at large through the use of social media.

November 2015 – January 2016: Completion of the 3D construction of the longhouse and associated assets within Maya with a final porting of those assets into the Unity game engine (development began in March of 2015). Technical testing of the delivery platform(s) using Oculus Rift, Desktop and Internet based systems.

January – May 2016: Relevant ethics protocols will be acquired for my case study of user experiences by archaeology and heritage professionals. Once approved, I will undertake participant questionnaires and VA engagements, to be completed by end of May 2016.

June – December 2016: Analysis of interviews and begin writing of dissertation.

January – June 2017: Completion of dissertation and revision as needed.

Research Deliverables: 1) Longhouse 3.x – a completed and interactive digital version of the VA environment used by participants. 2) An article-based dissertation (3 articles i – on the longhouse build; ii – on participant experiences; iii – on theoretical and methodological implications of VA on archaeological meaning making).


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