Over the past half decade, Mediterranean and Old World archaeology has entered a bold new world of inexpensive three-dimensional documentation. Using photogrammetry software like Agisoft Photoscan, increasingly powerful laptop computers, low-cost drones and airships, and high-resolution digital cameras even projects without access to robust digital infrastructures can now produce centimeter accurate 3D models of trenches, architecture, and even topography. These new resources bring opportunities for new ways to document sites and, of course, opportunities to reflect on the role of technology in archaeology. Over the next two months, this blog will feature a series of contributions from a wide range of authors describing how new a range of technologies have expanded our ability to produce high-quality three-dimensional images of archaeological sites in European and Mediterranean archaeology. The goal is to initiate a conversation among both practitioners of 3D modeling technology and those genuinely interested in these techniques to explore the practical and conceptual limits of these new approaches.
My post today is designed to serve as a bit of an introduction, but right now it is a bit challenging because I am not exactly sure what the various authors will propose in their contributions. When I proposed this meeting of minds, I offered four prompts:
1. How do we understand the current crop of 3D modeling technologies in context of the history of archaeological imaging? Are the most optimistic readings of this technology mere echoes of earlier enthusiasm for photography in an archaeological context or is this somehow qualitatively different?
2. Is there an emerging consensus on best practices in 3D imaging of archaeological sites? What are the current limits to this kind of technology and how does this influence the way in which data is collected in the field?
3. How do we understand archival considerations for 3D models and their dependent data? For example, what happens when we begin to prepare archaeological illustrations from 3D models collected in the field and processed using proprietary software? How do we manage the web of interrelated data so that future archaeologists can understand our decision making?
4. What is the future of 3D modeling in archaeology? At present, the 3D image is useful for illustrating artifacts and – in some cases – presenting archaeological and architectural relationships, but it has yet to prove itself as an essential basis for analysis or as a robust medium for communicating robust archaeological description. Will 3D visualization become more than just another method for providing illustrations for archaeological arguments?
These first three prompts reflect an interest in the way in which the current generation of 3D imaging tools will shape archaeological workflow from the edge of the trowel to the final publication. Just as photography promised to revolutionize the field in the late 19th century, efficient and inexpensive 3D modeling tools seemingly offer a simple solution to documenting spatial relationships. The new tools certainly offer remarkable advantages over longstanding techniques for documenting three dimensional relationships (and displaying it). The process of collecting images from the trench might offer markedly greater efficiently over careful trench side drawings, but it also eliminates or transforms a process prone to produce important insights from the arrangement of features in a trench.
Reproducing the processes responsible for creating 3D images is another issue. Many projects use commercial software that operates with proprietary algorithms and which receive regular updates and improvements. While it is perhaps methodological overkill to preserve the software as well as the data processed, there remains some value to ensuring that the process of documentation is reproducible. Finally, as archives and digital publication opportunities develop there remain serious questions about the durability of these media and the delicate chain that links interpretation to evidence.
The final prompt nudged the contributors to reflect on the future of this kind of technology in archaeological practice. By imagining future directions for this kind of work, we have another avenue to identify present challenges and opportunities. Over the next couple of months, we will get a glimpse of the rapidly changing present and approaching future in the world of 3D imaging in archaeology.
A blog serves as a useful vehicle for this kind of conversation because the pace of development in this field is so rapid. The speed with which we can disseminate these contributions over the web and (hopefully) move them to a quick digital publication befits the pace of change in some of the technical aspects of our field. Once a week, on “3D Thursday”, I will post a new post from a contributor. I chatted with some of the contributors and we all felt that once a week gives everyone plenty of time to read and comment on a post before the next one appears.
I encourage comments on that post here or using our Twitter hashtag #3DMedArch.
Once the last posts are made, Brandon Olson (whose article in the Journal of Field Archaeology 38 (2013) inspired this conversation) and I will collate these into a little ebook (and we’ll probably make it available as print book using a print on demand service) and include comments and Tweets whenever appropriate. The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota will kindly provide lay out advice and a glorious book cover.