Longhouse 1.75

Longhouse 1.75 came about as a request from Dr. Neal Ferris to organize and present at a session on Virtual Archaeology at the Canadian Archaeological Association Conference (CAA) in London Ontario of May in 2014.  The presentation entitled VFX Methodologies for Scientific Visualization in Archaeology was an opportunity to expand on some of the tools and methodologies being developed, as well as provide some insight into the world of visual effects and animation to the archaeological community.  Once again I worked with longtime VFX Technical Director Andrew Alzner to establish a more robust procedural virtual longhouse modeling tool based on our previous Longhouse 1.0 and Longhouse 1.5 research and to start exploring the concept of a phenomenological experience of the viewer.  Several additional prototypes were designed, however the technology and computing power required to essentially create a real-time visual tool fully rendered put it out of reach of most general consumers and archaeologists alike.

Coincidentally during this time, fellow colleague VFX Supervisor Noel Hooper, had just completed VFX work for Yap Films Inc. and Dr. Ron Williamson, c0-founder of ASI, on a new documentary called Curse of the Axe.  The documentary narrates the discovery of a European trade good found in a massive pre-contact Huron Wendat palisaded longhouse village now called Mantle.  Beyond the discovery of the cultural material, the site itself is stunning in terms of occupation length, community size and town or city-like organizational systems apparent throughout the archaeological record.  Archaeological data indicates there were 98 longhouses within a 3 row palisaded enclosure, occupying 9 acres of living space which housed an estimated 2000 inhabitants.  This town/city harvested over 60,000 trees over its lifetime to build the community and may have farmed over 80 square kilometres of land to feed its population.  The image below is a reimagined representation of a partially constructed longhouse created for the film’s publicity.


Lost in the rush to embrace 3D visual effects in representing material culture, I failed at the time of the presentation to mention one of the first representations of Iroquoian longhouses in visual media; Bruce Beresford’s 1991 movie adaptation of Brian Moore’s novel, Black Robe.  The phenomenological experience of the practical set gave the audience a sense of what it was like to live within a communal longhouse.  Although practical effects heavy and some scholars would say, highly European centric in vision, it eludes to how longhouse life might have been; densely populated, laden with everyday goods and heavily saturated with atmospherics such as smoke, fire light, dust and external light.  It was a gritty visual artistic account of what longhouse living was like.


Additionally, in 2012 Ubisoft Games released Assassin’s Creed III (AC3) which would take place during the Revolutionary War, presented a new direction in experiential narratives.  AC3 included a main character of Haudenosaunee decent in which part of the game play would include Haudenosaunee inspired longhouse reconstructions.  Below are screen shots of the game play associated with some of the longhouse sequences.


In developing AC3, Ubisoft brought on Thomas Deer and Dr. Kevin White, both Mohawk descendants, to consult throughout the project.  Obviously artistic license plays out liberally throughout AC3, however there are some areas of longhouse design and construction which seem to correspond to the archaeological record.  In the image above, the shingles are roughly 1 x 2 metres in dimension, which corresponds to the historical and oral histories of longhouse building.  The entrance and the height are obviously designed for game play, yet the outer support lattice work is suggestive of European historical accounts and drawings.


Although lost in the middle back portion of the image above, we see a partially constructed longhouse missing the rounded vestibule of the finished versions in front and to the right side of the image, again acknowledging the archaeological record. Although Dean Snow has indicated that Haudenosaunee longhouses were thinner and subsequently lower in height compared to Northern Iroquoian examples, these examples are virtually gigantic in size.  However, it did allow users to interact with the 3D environment and in doing so, opened up the possibilities of further expanding how the public could interact more effectively with the archaeological record.

The VFX for Curse of the Axe, the game design for Assassin’s Creed III and the set design for Black Robe, all focused on the esthetics of the narrative being told.  That the audience had to suspend belief in order to be enveloped by the story.  Although from a scientific perspective, the procedural longhouse model building methodology was more closely aligned to Paul Riley’s concept of Virtual Archaeology; the combination of actual archaeological data in the creation of 3D visualizations. Our attempt to concentrate exclusively on the mechanics of the actual longhouse build lost sight of the personal experiences and narratives today’s public and more importantly, stakeholders not only desire but expect.  A pivot had to occur in order to better embrace what we were attempting to develop visually within the archaeological environment.

In tandem with the traditional virtual archaeology approach to our longhouse research, two additional projects were started. Longhouse 2.1 explored more of the interactivity of the user within 3D gaming space and Longhouse 2.5 delved into the practical application of longhouse construction through the eyes of modern architects and architectural visualization.


Longhouse 1.5

Longhouse 1.5 was a further attempt to test the notion of user engagement through procedural model building within 3D space.  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 (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.

The integral structural element in any longhouse was its major support posts (Wright, 1971, 1995; Kapches, 1990, 1994; Snow, 1997). These elements framed the interior structure, provided guidance for the construction of the living areas and supported the external shell of the longhouse. Currently there are three major internal structural forms or supports that make up the external visual differences in longhouse construction as described in historical accounts that have been theoretically suggested (Snow, 1997; Williamson, 2004):

  • Wright’s reconstruction of a longhouse at Nodwell suggests a π shaped internal support infrastructure existed which would have supported a visual ratio of 4:1 in height between the main building and a separate arbor roof (1971, 1995);
  • Based on extensive historical European oral accounts and two specific visual representations of Seneca longhouse floor plans from the 1700’s, Snow suggests that longhouses might have had a 60/40 split between longhouse body and a separate upper roof (1997);
  • Kapches, using Iroquoian oral history, suggested that the longhouse walls and roof might have been entirely integrated by long exterior posts lashed at the center roofline forming a continuous arbor effect (1994).


It is clear that framing techniques would have varied from one Iroquoian group to another and the material archaeological record is entirely void of any tangible references that could support or refute these framing theories (Snow, 1997).   However when support posts are identified, they present a pattern that is consistently 5-15cm in diameter with an average of 8-10cm’s (Dodd, 1984; Kapches, 1994; Snow, 1997; Williamson, 2004; Wright, 1971). All framing techniques support the notion that external walls were constructed by lashing pliable smaller diameter new growth poles onto the internal framing structure (Dodd, 1984; Kapches, 1994; Snow, 1997; Williamson, 2004; Wright, 1971).

One of the main questions of architectural design that remains enigmatic is the actual longhouse height, but this can only be qualitatively gleaned from the annals of European chroniclers, which state that height was equal to width (Thwaites, 2008). It also has been suggested academically and historically that a longhouse’s height was equal to its width, however we have no archaeological evidence in which to verify this notion (Bartram, 1751; Kapches, 1994; Heidenreich, 1972; Snow, 1997; Thwaites, 2008; Wright, 1995). We know based on Dodd’s extensive analysis of Huron and Neutral longhouses, that the average mean widths of longhouses were between 6.5-7.2m (1984), with Wright (1971), Snow (1997) and others indicating ranges of 6 to 7.5m as minimal and maximum width/height variables.

Archaeologically, total longhouse length is easily measured from the physical record when excavated (Dodd, 1984). There is a substantial historical and archaeological range in length between 5 to 72m with unique examples both above and below that range, but Dodd and others have suggested a mean value of about 19.8 m for most common longhouse lengths (Heidenreich, 1972). Length is also correlated to the number of hearths within a structure (Dodd, 1984).   Champlain and Sagard reported seeing longhouses with 8 to 12 hearths and the archaeological record supports this (Heidenreich, 1972); however, as Bartram also demonstrates, exceptionally long longhouses can also have single hearths fitting into the category of structural use anomalies (Snow, 1997).  In Varley and Cannon’s (1994) work on hearth spacing, house length and use, hearth position and numbers are not always consistent within the archaeological record and hearth position could and likely did move throughout the interior of common longhouse structures (Heidenreich, 1972). However, generally archaeologists acknowledge that most residential longhouses had 3-5 hearths, with two families sharing each hearth with a bark-enclosed raised compartment on either side (Allen & Williams-Shuker, 1998; Chapdelain, 1993; Heidenreich, 1972; Wright, 1974).

Using low resolution 3D proxie model objects within SESI’s Houdini and the published longhouse architectural data from Dodd, Snow, Wright and Kapches, a 3D template was developed based on basic archaeological assumptions.  The sequence below is an example of the procedural engine in which changing one variable like height or width, will also change other variables that are dependent on those unique architectural features. For instance, when the length increases so does the number of fire hearths.

Although not clear in the video above, we were also able to change between the Wright, Kapches and Snow interior support framing automatically having all other architectural elements ripple through accordingly.  The initial goal of this test was to see if a procedural model from the archaeological data could be developed.  Additionally, user controls were created to allow other stakeholders to easily change parameters easily without having to know 3D animation.

A second test was conducted using the same methodology but with further refined controls and additional architectural elements.  In this attempt the model elements were greatly simplified to allow for faster render and procedural calculations when changes were made in real-time.  However, the model built was not “birthed” from an actual archaeological site map, but became a representation of the data presented by Dodd, Wright, Kapches and Snow based on the architectural variables present in the archaeological record.

This exercise provide a unique opportunity to create new tools that could be deployed to the general public as a means of archaeological engagement.  With further work on the interface and the real-time optimization, we can envision a deployable interactive tool set that could be installed in museums or through an App/Web for school curriculum needs.  From a research perspective however, it provides an excellent base to the design, development and implementation of a 3D, virtual phenomenological experience of the archaeological record.  Next, we expanded on this procedural methodology to test other longhouse construction variables in Longhouse 1.75.

Works Cited:

Bartram, J. (1751). Observations on the Inhabitants, Climate, Soil, Rivers, Productions, Animals, and Other Matters Worthy of Notice, Made by Mr. John Bartram, in His Travels from Pensilvania to Onodago, Oswego and the Lake Ontario, in Canada. Printed for J. Whiston and B. White, London.

Chapdelaine, C. (1993). The sedentarization of the prehistoric Iroquoians: A slow or rapid transformation? Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 12(2), 173-209.

Dodd, C.F. (1984). Ontario Iroquois Tradition Longhouses. Archaeological Survey of Canada, Mercury Series 124. Ottawa: National Museum of Man.

Kapches, M. (1994). The Iroquoian longhouse architectural and cultural identity. Meaningful Architecture: Social Interpretations of Buildings, 9, 253.

Heidenreich, C.E. (1972). The Huron: A Brief Ethnography. Discussion Paper Series No.6. Toronto: Department of Geography, York University.

Snow, Dean (1997). The Architecture of Iroquois Longhouses. Northeast Anthropology 53: 61-84.

Thwaites, R. G. (1896-1901). The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, 73 Volumes. Burrows, Cleveland, Ohio.

Varley, C., & Cannon, A. (1994). Historical inconsistencies: Huron longhouse length, hearth number and time. Ontario Archaeology, 58, 85-101.

Williamson, R. F. (2004). Replication or Interpretation of the Iroquoian Longhouse. The Reconstructed Past, John H. Jameson, Jr., editor, 147-166.

Wright, J.V. (1995). Three dimensional reconstructions of Iroquoian longhouses: A comment. Archaeology of Eastern North America, 9-21.





Longhouse 1.0

Longhouse 1.0 began in the Winter of 2013 through a series of discussions with long-time 3D animation and VFX collaborator Andrew Alzner as a starting point for my Ph.D. research into Phenomenological experiences within virtual environments (see my blog on methodology & research).  Both Andrew and I had met each other in 1996 at Side Effects Software (SESI) and had travelled to Japan and LA regularly for customer support.  SESI was one of the three original Animation and VFX software companies founded here in Canada which dominated the animation and VFX production industry.  SESI was know for it’s procedural animation methodology, which would allow users to build 3D objects, animation or VFX sequences through a dynamic, interrelated and real-time pipeline through a software application called Houdini.  Basically you built a 3D object using operators that represented a single stage in the modeling process.  If you changed one operator, the changes would ripple through all of the operators essentially creating a living document of the model one was making in 3D.

Procedural 3D Modeling is a dynamic building block technique for organically creating digital assets.  The proposed pipeline has been specifically designed to allow stakeholders (public, private, academic and descendant) to access a procedural 3D model library in order to build in real-time and within 3D space, interactive visualizations of extant cultural heritage structures. Beyond initially allowing users to “build” their own archaeological engagement, stakeholders are able to experience the association between the physical structure, spatial relationships and the phenomenological experiences of these archaeological landscapes. These built digital assets can also be reapplied within any numerous engagement tools such as mobile Apps, Internet Websites or even within 3D gaming engines, further extending the narrative beyond the individual’s brief but personal archaeological experience.

In simple terms, procedural modeling is a process in which all of the steps needed to create an object in 3D are held in a dynamic relational network of building blocks that allow the user to alter, change or experiment with the final model at any stage of the building process. As in this example, a picture of a pot is superimposed in the display window. A NURBS spline is built by placing points along the outline of the pot and then a new procedural operator called a “revolve” skins that single outline spline 360º creating the 3D surface. Finally a transform operator is inserted within the middle of the procedural network and when one parameter changes, that change affects the relationship of the next modeling operation within the network, causing the model to alter accordingly.

It is possible to use this methodology to develop a process in which the archaeological landscape can be methodically reconstructed while retaining the ability to experiment with the assumptions in near real-time visualization. Further, once the method is in place, the technology can then be packaged in such a way to allow for more pre excavation or during excavation interpretations, stakeholder or public engagement and further research.

Using this concept of total user control, we started to develop a dynamic pipeline for the creation 3D longhouses using the SESI Houdini procedural method.  We first started with a standard post-excavation site report map.  Working with ASI (Archaeological Services Inc.), they provided an example in PDF form, which was then inputted as a base image into Houdini.


Using the post hole positions and selecting a certain diameter range used on the site map, we spawned simple 3D models of poles for every post hole. Essentially we “birthed” posts where they were recorded from the archaeological data provided.  This allowed us to visualize the initial positioning of the poles and how they related to each other in 3D space.

This process was repeated using the same technique, but this time larger pole diameters were selected in order to differentiate the mixed used of pole sizes recorded within the archaeological record.  What we were attempting to do was create an automatic pipeline that would size pole diameters from the field mapping and then cluster and group poles of equal diameter and position.


This technique worked well on site plans that had been prepared so that post positions was the only data being detected. However, substantial labour intensive work had to occur with the raw 2D data for this technique to work.  After discussions with Side Effects Software, they prototyped an additional procedural modeling network that would allow any site plan to be imputed with post points being detected, isolated and converted into 3D posts.  The notion was to allow non-3D users to be able to pick any site plan material and upload it into the pipeline to be able to create their own 3D model.

Although much slower in real-time, the process proved successful in pre-post point selection and modeling.  However, it was abundantly clear that if the public was to use the system, extensive 2D map clean-up had to occur first to allow for a faster visual experience.

In an attempt to refocus the process more for archaeological research needs and after discussions with Dr. John Creese, we wanted to test his Kernal density estimation (KDE) analysis post-clustering theories using this technique but with another popular 3D animation software application called Autodesk Maya.  Working with Toronto based VFX Supervisor Mahmoud Rahnana we took a site plan from John’s 2009 paper entitled; Post Molds and Preconceptions: New Observations about Iroquoian Longhouse Architecture and animated the birthing of the posts from the excavation data map.

This technique which we coined “3D Post Clustering” allowed us to birth poles from site excavation maps automatically. Additionally the technique would grow the height of the pole in relations to the width of the longhouse as indicated in the literature as being equal in length (Bartram, 1751; Dodd, 1984; Kapches, 1994; Snow, 1997; Thwaites, 2008; Wright, 1995).  Visually it allows archaeologists to see within 3D space how the poles might have looked and which poles would be associated with each other based on time and space.  We immediately saw a need to determine old vs new posts within the archaeological record and whether a technique could be developed to determine which posts were associated with specific longhouse construction and repair periods through the 3D visualization of the data.

Although a simple use of procedural modelling techniques, this process represented the base of future experiments in 3D longhouse construction using archaeological data bringing our research to the next stage, Longhouse 1.5.

Works Cited:

Bartram, J. (1751). Observations on the Inhabitants, Climate, Soil, Rivers, Productions, Animals, and Other Matters Worthy of Notice, Made by Mr. John Bartram, in His Travels from Pensilvania to Onodago, Oswego and the Lake Ontario, in Canada. Printed for J. Whiston and B. White, London.

Creese, J. L. (2009). Post-moulds and Preconceptions: New Observations about Iroquoian Longhouse Architecture. Northeast Anthropology 77-78, 47-69.

Dodd, C.F. (1984). Ontario Iroquois Tradition Longhouses. Archaeological Survey of Canada, Mercury Series 124. Ottawa: National Museum of Man.

Kapches, M. (1994). The Iroquoian longhouse architectural and cultural identity. Meaningful Architecture: Social Interpretations of Buildings, 9, 253.

Snow, Dean (1997). The Architecture of Iroquois Longhouses. Northeast Anthropology 53: 61-84.

Thwaites, R. G. (1896-1901). The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, 73 Volumes. Burrows, Cleveland, Ohio.

Wright, J.V. (1995). Three dimensional reconstructions of Iroquoian longhouses: A comment. Archaeology of Eastern North America, 9-21.