Re-Presenting the Past

One of the coolest thing about the series of 3D archaeology posts that are going appear each Thursday over the next few months is that they have pushed me to think more about how we translate (or re-present) archaeological information gathered in the field to different media. I’ve had the good fortune of working with photographers, videographers, gifted map makers and architects, notebookers and form recorders, as well as interpreters and dreamers. All of these folks have engaged the translation of archaeological information (broadly concerned) from one medium to the next. The recently published volume edited by S. Bonde and S. Houston called Re-Presenting the Past: Archaeology through Text and Image (2013) contains a series of contributions focusing how we communicate the experience of archaeology.

It’s a short book, so there’s no need for a thorough review. You can just read it. It did give me a few thoughts that intersect with the work we’re doing in the Bakken, the little essays

1. Photography and the Archaeology of the Contemporary Past. Several of the articles made clear that media themselves were not accurate or inaccurate alone, but accurate and inaccurate according to a particular purpose. Photography, which was to save archaeology from the drudgery of trench side illustration, developed in practice as a complementary technology capable of communicating different kinds of information from hand-drawn plans. Our recent work studying contemporary workforce housing in the Bakken has relied more heavily on photography than any of my other projects. To this end, we have even worked with professional photographers which has helped to make more explicit some of our own assumptions about the media. Our use of photography, for example, has largely remained focused on the exterior space of units respecting the privacy of home, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, privileging a view of the individual units that locates it in a very immediate environment. This reflects the limits of the tools at hand which can preserve suitable detail of both the unit and objects associated with it at 3-5 m distance and the realities of the environment where cramped conditions and flat topography can often make views that document the larger context of the man camp difficult. It also succeeds in reproducing the focus of activity of the residents of these units which tends to focus in the narrow space between the unit and the boundaries of its designated lot. In effect, the limits of photographs that we take reflect the limits of the space that we’re documenting.

2. Texts, Maps, and Landscapes. A few of the contributions explored the way in which we re-present entire landscapes either verbally, in immersive 3D environments, or through more traditional maps. As many of these scholars have noted the medium, no matter how high tech, caries with it important contextualizing cues (which followers of Michael Shanks have termed metamedia). Accuracy becomes a function of the maps context. The textual description of a Medieval ritual route functioned in a different way from an 17th century map of Athens or a modern effort to document the varied communities and topologies surrounding the San Andreas fault. 

This got me to thinking about my own primitive efforts at map making. I’ve become more sensitive to the requirements of legibility over the pressures for precision. That so many archaeologists must now be amateur cartographers, drafts(people?), and graphic designers, the widespread use of GIS has exposed more and more archaeologists to the complex negotiations that go into producing legible maps and plans. As a result, the foibles of previous generations of archaeologists, geographers, and cartographers suddenly seem understandable and our own obsession with precision requires a more critical gaze. A survey of mapping since the wide-spread circulation of GIS applications would certainly be revealing.

3. Three Dimensions and Practice. No collection of articles on re-presenting the past is complete without at least some treatment of both 3D data collecting and 3D rendering of archaeological sites. The contributions ranged from the 3D scanning of Mayan epigraphy to the rendering of archaeological sites in both Second Life and (Autodesk’s) Maya software. Very little time, however, was spent considering any aspects of 3D modeling and practice. This was pretty surprising to me because so much of the archaeological discussion has revolved around archaeological methods and practices. I don’t mean to suggest that this volume should have been an instruction manual for digitizing a site or producing a 3D environment online, but that the processes of digitizing or creation involves not only positioning oneself in a clear relation to the site or object and moving in a controlled, deliberate way, but also considering issues of corporality and audience in the re-presentation of 3D spaces.  

Just as I found myself constrained by the limits of propriety and the space in using photographs to document workforce housing in the Bakken Oil Patch, the archaeologist as viewer and creator encounters the site in a different way in the process of 3D production. As another example, my colleague Dimitri Nakassis remarked how preparing RTI (reflectance transformation imagining) images of Linear B tablets from Pylos led him to look at these texts differently. I’ve been struck by the mechanical precision that Brandon Olson effects while taking photographs of a site to produce an Agisoft modeling

4. Dating this Volume. One of the fun little challenges set up by the editors is for the reader to guess when the symposium that spawned this volume occurred. The volume references the use of ArcGIS 9.1 and Maya 7.0. ArcGIS 9.1 came out in 2005 and Maya 7.0 around the same time. Few entries in the bibliography date to after 2008. Finally (and the clincher) is the reference to a “epic ice storm” in mid-March. Looking back at historical weather trends for Providence, RI, the best candidate for a storm described as “epic” is the snow and ice event on March 17, 2007. 

This volume has gestated for close to 5 years which is quite a long time in the fast moving world of digital archaeology. Hopefully our more conversational contribution to this field will appear more quickly!


  1. I’d be happy to review your “more conversational contribution to this field” when it appears!


    1. Erik,

      Great!! Check back on Thursdays over the next couple of months for a preview of the contributions and we’ll make sure you get a copy of our completed publication early next year!



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