Power, Authority and the Virtual Image!
This eight-month journey has been an exploration of virtual archaeology through research, production and knowledge mobilization. As Ingold would point out, both virtually and theoretically we have made course corrections or wayfaring points (2011) throughout the process that have been reflective of cultural historical norms, technological advances, production sensibilities and participant engagement. In making this environment, the materials and the materiality (Ingold 2011) of both the physical and the virtual space has informed and on more than one occasion, dictated the decisions that have accumulated in creating this final virtual representation of archaeological meaning-making. Although this is the final part of this project, it is only the beginning for the continued exploration of power, authority and the virtual image!
The project is bookended by Paul Reilly’s 1991 paper; Towards a Virtual Archaeology which I read in 1992 and which inspired me to attend computer animation school and Dawson, Levy and Lyons’s 2011 paper, Breaking the 4th Wall, which solidified the approach I chose to examine for my PhD research on power, authority, authenticity and phenomenology in virtual reality.
In 2011 virtual reality was still grounded with the notion that large, physical, very expensive, immersive domes, as the only viable option for an authentic experiential virtual experience. My own predilection based on years of being in the animation business was a more cinematographic film-like approach. However in the summer of 2012 a chance opportunity to port our initial 3D longhouse assets into an Unreal game engine and another change opportunity to have a group of High School students play with the test game environment (see Longhouse 2.2) convinced me that building and deploying our longhouse research within a gaming environment was the ideal deployment strategy. It would not only enhance the phenomenological virtual experience, but would be on a platform technology that most archaeologists and non-archaeologists would be comfortable in using with little or no training. It also provided an opportunity to democratize the research in an easy deployable manner. The rendering above is an example of how a participant viewer would engage the virtual experience in Oculus Rift or through normal projection within the virtual environment. The assets were first built in Autodesk Maya along with any additional objects or environment texture maps. These assets were then ported into Unity5 and assembled into a 3D representative environment where basic interaction controls such as walking, head movement, jump, crouch, and direction were added. In addition, Unity5 provided the ability to add additional environmetrics such as smoke, dust, water, fire, localized sound and most importantly, interactive lighting.
Informed by public project blog participants some immediate modelling and texture map changes where made to better represent their perceived vision of longhouse architecture, use and asset placement. Adjustments were made within Unity5 on some elements with the reduction of texture maps and modelled objects for lower resolution to increase user interaction. Some animated visual effects such as smoke, were reduced to their simplest forms to give the impression of the effect without loosing screen refresh speed. Environmental elements such as the land, trees and sky again were chosen to provide the best visual possible with the less impact on interactivity.
These negotiated decisions where dictated by the ability of the technology to handle overly complex models and realistic textures, the availability of known archaeological or cultural historical data and the artistic skill set of our team. To initiate the actual 3D build, we immersed ourselves in the cultural historical material hoping to faithfully reproduce the oral, written, visual or archaeological data provided. It was clear that the notion of an authentic representation was far less important than providing a phenomenological experience in which the concept of presence (Dawson, Levy & Lyons 2011) or a visual impression of the cultural historical data could be explored. Further with the stylized nature of the real-time visual rendering of Unity5, forced us to accept that photo-real rendering did not have to be representative of an authentic virtual archaeological experience.
What did become apparent was the power that our team had in terms of presenting an alternative view of longhouse construction and visualization. Working within the 3D toolkit continues to be a specialist endeavour. Both Craig and I were trained in computer animation; myself at Sheridan College’s prestigious Computer Animation program and Craig at Centennial College’s program in the early 1990’s and having over 20 years experience in 3D film, television and gaming production has given us a distinct advantage from both a production and technology perspective from our other virtual archaeology colleagues. Our roles were separated between content specialist (myself) and artistic/technical specialist (Craig). However the distinct advantage we had was our common knowledge and communication of the production process. It allowed a quicker approach to producing real assets faster and pivoting at greater intensity when changes were required. This isn’t to say the same rapport hasn’t played out with other virtual heritage projects, just that our combined computer animation experience provided a more fluid production style in which the archaeological context could become centre stage instead of the technology. The power was further enhanced by my ability to pick and choose the cultural historical data I wanted to represent and test. For instance, Dean Snow wrote convincingly of the potential lower bunk height within Iroquois longhouses (1997). I chose to take his interpretation and that of the potential use of bark shingles for the delineation of interior spaces within longhouses (Snow 1997) and combine it with Mima Kapches notion of a bent arbour construction methodology (1994) (see Longhouse 1.5). I then used JV Wright’s notion of wood types and material use to develop our (re)imagination of an Iroquoian longhouse. What has resulted is a “mashup” of cultural historical opinions that I hope in the future to provide researchers with the ability to pick and choose in 3D and real-time for themselves (see Longhouse 1.5). Our funders, Sustainable Archaeology and ASI, were consulted when data was unavailable and both Neal Ferris and Ron Williamson’s years of practical knowledge helped to inform how certain elements should or could be represented visually.
As Craig and I worked remotely, all of our communication was through email, SKYPE or when necessary, by telephone. We met for lunch at the beginning to “kick off” the project and only really connected in person when we tested the prototype Longhouse 3.5.5 at the Heritage Toronto event almost 5 months later. Production was really dictated by Craig’s availability, which in hindsight proved to be beneficial in allowing longer reflective time spans between revisions. Participant viewers were given the chance to reflect and respond to the direction and decisions I was making through the blog or personal communication, which then gave me the opportunity to better inform the revision process with Craig. Craig also played an important role throughout the project in raising concerns, observations and making alternative suggestions to the data and the direction we were taking, which is typical of a normal digital media production process.
We chose to establish to frame the initial visual experience when the game begins as a traditional mid-ground establishing perspective shot. I wanted users to take in the surrounding environment before exploring the interior of the longhouse. Based on discussions with Neal Ferris on the archaeological data regarding positioning of individual longhouses outside of palisaded villages, our longhouse was then situated about 300ft from the unseen/modeled village’s palisade wall in the background. A river was added to simulate a typical reliance on readily available water for daily use and strategic transportation needs. Mixed Ontario tree growth was represented in the vegetation added within the environment and an enhanced ground texture map suggests wear patterns through daily activities. Suggestive cooking and food drying models help to visually ground the longhouse itself in the scene as supportive object props and exploration areas. Lastly, to ensure users would concentrate on exploring the longhouse, we set software enabled boundaries along the river, palisade and tree lines to stop random exploration within the broader virtual environment. Added visual features to the longhouse included smoke simulations from the roof holes, mossy like wooded shingles and an external support skeleton as suggested by Dean Snow through personal communications. Due to real-time interactivity restrictions, I chose to not add skin or bark door “curtains” to either entrance to the longhouse as cloth simulations would have taken a considerable amount of computing complexity to replicate realistically. It should also be noted that Bill Engelbrecht had spoken about the possible use of lower door heights as a defensive measure in Iroquois longhouse construction, but that one slipped our revisions list. In the future we would likely add both a curtain and a lower door height for increased interactivity. Entering into the longhouse through the river facing front end, there is the immediacy of the storage vestibule. Cultural historical information has been limited as to the size, quantity and variety of objects that might have been stored in this area, so 3D replicated birch baskets and barrels were used to denote the storage of food stuffs. Curing or storage of rope, tobacco and meats from the rafters might have been utilized in this space so those representative objects were also added. As I chose to follow Snow’s interpretation of the existence of an inner cedar wall, the vestibule tends to have dark lighting as the only simulated sources of light are coming from the internal fire hearths and the external environment. Lastly, the construction of the virtual vestibule itself is highly improbable from a physical construction methodology, but it was the best guess at the time. Clearly this is an area of additional research that needs to be addressed.Continuing into the main longhouse interior, some of the main features I wanted to emphasize was the potential individual bunking system, hearth placements and the layer of smoke that would have inhabited the upper recesses of a constantly active longhouse. As Ron Williamson and his fellow researchers experienced in their 1979 experimental archaeology longhouse stay, constant internal hearth fires and external weather conditions would have kept a substantial amount of smoke within the upper rafters. Interactive smoke proved to be too computationally heavy for real-time interactive play, so a less interactive layer of smoke was used for suggestive purposes.Huge efforts were made to ensure there was a feeling of the dirt and grime build up that normal communal living would have produced. Although not readily seen in the rendered version above, finger prints were added to the surfaces of the poles and posts to denote typical grab points in the bunking systems. We also stripped the poles to their wood surface to suggest that the bark, which was a major construction and utility resource, would have been immediately harvested during construction. Additional dirt splatter was added to the poles that where placed into the ground and creosote textures added to the rafters and tops of the internal roofing systems. The floors were also modelled and textured to represent a dirt surface along with wear patterns in the normal traffic spots. 3D modeled objects of actual Iroquoian pottery from the Lawson Museum’s collection were added throughout the space. These objects were lower resolution versions of actual 3D scans conducted at Sustainable Archaeology and are representative of the 15th century northern Iroquoian pottery styles. Additional pots, baskets and wooden utensils were modelled from suggestive modern reproductions of Iroquoian goods. Reed mats, furs and cedar bough bedding and storage of wood and other items under the bunks are suggestive and as with all of the material inhabiting the virtual space, meant to be points for discussion rather than de facto representations of authenticity.
The fire hearths were very important to represent effectively as they would have played a major part in the daily lives of the longhouse inhabitants. In one of the hearths, a pot with boiling liquid is active and everything from the burning wood texture maps, to the representation of ash was considered. The addition of the sound of burning wood was added along with the occasional flying ember and smoke streams to create a phenomenological effect.Curing food, drying cordage was also added to the rafters for effect, but in my estimation is likely far less that what have really been stored in the upper sections of the longhouse. Again this was primarily due to the computational issues of representing a substantial amount of detail within a real-time game engine.
A substantial amount of time was spent trying to be informed by whatever cultural historical data we could find. At times a negotiated process occurred where we wanted to visually suggest a detail or feature but really had no description to go with. This mirrored the internal issues of the reality of Iroquoian longhouse archaeology; nobody really knows anything more about longhouses construction or use other than the post-hole stains that survive in the archaeological record.
The use of a gaming medium has greatly improved our research capability. It democratizes the research material, provides a unique opportunity to interact with a virtual environment and provides a real-time engine that can be retuned for a variety of hardware applications. Although in our study the use of the game engine has been strictly for the ability to freely explore the archaeological environment, it doesn’t have any real interactive game play. The next phase would be to determine what if any interactivity should be implemented. Further discussion between stylistic and photorealistic rendering needs to be fully researched especially in terms of perceived authenticity, but I feel this initial visualization provides a perfect launching pad for further investigation.
Does this visual (re)imagination inform archaeological research? This is our next phase of the research! To determine the validity of virtual archaeology as a means of knowledge mobilization where there is a pre-existing mental image and perceived meaning of the archaeological material. Can virtual reality allow for the exchange of ideas, the remodelling of perceived meaning-making or even just to inform the possibility of new perspectives? Over the next few months, trial sessions using Oculus Rift and screen based play will occur with archaeologists and heritage professionals. The actual Longhouse 3.x Unity 5 game module will be made public but through the auspices of Sustainable Archaeology as our commitment to open source research, immediately following our interview program.
I want to thank Craig Barr for his dedication, artistic and technical skill in delivering my interpretation of northern Iroquoian longhouse construction and use. Further to our funders, Sustainable Archaeology, ASI and the Museum of Ontario Archaeology for their support. Lastly to the public and private contributors who helped inform this research and provided encouragement and support.
Continue to monitor this production website for updates as we move into the next phase of research. As always, feel free to leave comments to this blog or contact me directly on anything you feel we could have done differently.
Dawson, P., R. Levy, and N. Lyons
2011 “Breaking the Fourth Wall”: 3D Virtual Worlds as Tools for Knowledge Repatriation in Archaeology. Journal of Social Archaeology 11(3): 387–402.
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1997 The Architecture of Iroquois Longhouses.Northeast Anthropology 53: 61-84.
Williamson, Ronald F.
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