3D Imaging in Mediterranean Archaeology: What are we doing, anyway?

This is the eighth in a series of posts exploring 3D modeling in Mediterranean and European archaeology. For more on this project click here. We hope these papers will start a discussion either in the comments of the blog or on Twitter using the #3DMedArch hashtag.

James Newhard, Associate Professor, Department of Classics, College of Charleston

I come to the topic of 3D imagery from the perspective largely of the ‘end user.’ While I’m involved with projects that are capturing and using 3D imagery (such as the Palace of Nestor Linear B project), my expertise does not lie in this area. As such, my perspective and contributions lie on the level of one who sees 3D imagery largely in the context of its use, and in the broader context of digital applications in archaeology.


To be fair, I have a notorious quirk. I can overlook easily the next great thing (in 1989, I announced to my friends that electronic mail ‘chatting’ was foolish and a waste of time, when a simple telephone bolted onto a wall would do just fine if not better). It usually takes me a period of time between being introduced to a new application, before suddenly – miraculously, even – rediscovering it and seeing not only its utility but near necessity. Similar stories can be told of my first contact with PDAs, multispectral satellite imagery, LiDAR, tablets, smart phones, and (gasp) GIS.
Some would call this quirk a fault. I would call it a bit of pragmatism. The world is full of toys these days. Innovation is all around us and there is an urge towards the faster, smaller (or bigger), thinner. Many crave hardware and software that can hold more, process more, and in general find the answer quicker than ever with more data than ever before considered.

But what’s the question? Why do all this? To what end?

Over the past couple of years, there has been an efflorescence of visualization applications. Photogrammetry, 3D imaging, GIS, and other approaches have increasingly taken on usage, to the point that they are beginning to be viewed as a common part of the archaeological toolkit.

I have a couple of questions about these new tools, and will endeavor to supply some answers:

1. In what part of the toolkit to these tools lie? Are they like my wrench set, or more like the $50 thingy I bought for that one project, and won’t need again?

2. How are these tools to be used? Collect and present data? As questions and evaluate answers? A little bit of everything?

3. Do these new tools come with instructions? Are they for everyone to use, or are they specialized tools, best left in the hands of professionals? Who are the professionals, anyway, and how do I either become or obtain one?

To help answer these questions, it is useful to take stock of where we sit in the development of 3D imagery and its applications. I view it as typical of the way technologies have often entered usage; a few brave souls engage in the medium at an early stage, but are rather alone in the world, owing to the steep learning curve of the program and a sense of limited application to questions that are more easily addressed via other means. With time, the software becomes more user-friendly and cheaper, allowing more people to experiment and play. Applications of the method still tend to be ‘carryovers” from earlier – in the case of GIS, mylar-layer maps were replaced by digital layers. In the third phase, the software and basic applications have become pervasive enough that people start to become formally trained in the applications, and begin to think of the innovation in terms of added value. Again, in the case of GIS – moving from the display of information to modelling, hypothesis generation, and testing.

In regards to 3D imagery, the Mediterranean world seems to be largely in the second phase of development. Software and imaging capture have become widely accessible, and we’ve moved beyond the initial ‘pioneer’ phase where a few intrepid scholars spent hours with clunky GUIs to effect rough approximations of reality. The vast majority of applications of 3D imagery still reside in the realm of display and presentation. Incredibly refined and detailed, surely, but largely the digital equivalent of 3D dioramas of bygone ages.

In terms of what kinds of tools we are dealing with, it would appear that the methods are becoming more like a wrench set and less like a specialized, expensive tool rarely used. Increasingly accessible by the rank and file archaeologist, their greater applications beyond basic rendering still remain in the hands of specialists, although forming collaborative teams of people is a time-worn trail of overcoming these hurdles.

Next Steps in 3D

As we gain facility in attaching data to our representations, moving from a presentation/display mode to one that is involved in dynamic modeling should be engaged. Alternatively, as 3D modelling becomes more commonplace, a system by which the various parameters that went into the model could be formalized and adjustable by the end user, much in the way that current models in GIS can be set up such that an individual need not know the methods to render, yet with a few inputs or choices, be in in the role of questioning and discovery.

I see several trends in or applications of 3D imagery:

1. Physics/engineering: If we can reconstruct structures in form, we can further use models to explain the relationship between form and function.. Using physics, one could use 3D imagery to analyse the strength of structures, thereby shedding light upon a variety of questions – the capabilities of buildings to withstand various levels of earthquakes, for example.

2. Metrics: How many pots do we have? The gain from digitizing artifacts in 3D – even the lowly body sherd, is that surface area and thicknesses are readily obtained. For periods where standard sizes of wares are known, one could compute the amount of material recovered of a particular ware type and get a sense of how much is represented. In addition to other information normally collected (number of rims, weights, etc.) this information could be added to provide additional measurables useful for ascribing function to space.

In cases where ware types are ill-defined, such metrics could be useful for retrieving data helpful for classification purposes and addressing issues of specialization and other topics related to the organization of production (Karasik 2012)

3. Viewsheds/cityscapes: With the capacity for building up, the opportunity to understand the built landscape is even more possible. The more that the base model mimics the actual environmental conditions, studies that model lines of sight and viewsheds will become most effective.

4. Gaming/engagement/education: The great draw of 3D imagery is in its ability to engage. There’s nothing wrong with that – in fact, there is a lot of good. As a form of dissemination that presents in an instant the cumulative knowledge of the research, these applications are powerful. Using 3D as a means to communicate and engage is an important element of the process, long overlooked in a discipline that rewards monographs and articles over media that is approachable by the lay person. For both the lay and professional, these products are effective communication devices in their own right.

Overriding all of these applications is the notion of modeling – using the available information to construct a hypothetical that is in some way reflective, iterative, testable. Ultimately, I view the development of methods in modelling a major goal – the purpose of data collection, after all, is to answer a question. Modelling provides a means by which data can be structured so as to allow a reflexive approach to hypothesis assessment and re-evaluation. 3D imagery fits within phases of model development, assessment, and eventual dissemination/communication.

Who’s going to do this?

We are situated at a time of transformation – when society as a whole moves from analog to digital, and information has increased in quantity, availability of access, and speed of delivery. From my high school graduation, I received a word processor. I bought my first computer as a wedding present upon graduation from college. I made my first website near the end of my Ph.D. Most of my research and organizational skills were ‘born analog.’ Not so the next generation of scholars. In the last 20 years, the information age has transformed how we obtain, manipulate, and disseminate our ideas. How has our training of the next generation changed? One would look long and hard for required courses in GIS or database development (although they are encouraged in many places). As I’ve argued elsewhere (2012, 2013), we need to think hard about how to bring out formal introduction of the modern tools of our trade into the training of the next generation. Otherwise, we run the risk of having others make the tools for us. Recent comments by Davis and others (2013a,b) have noted that the fields of archaeology and classics are changing in terms of the approaches used, but that our institutional guidelines/curricula are sometimes ill-matched to this new reality. New tools and approaches call for new training, which we have always done. The extent to which we have been beset with innovation, however, calls for serious discussions at the undergraduate and graduate levels in regards to what range of tools the next generation of archaeologist is expected to know, and at the professional level in terms of understanding what the outputs of research are and how they are best evaluated.

Archaeology, by its very nature, is a data-laden spatial enterprise. Context is everything, and that context has an X, Y, and Z coordinate. 3D is inherent to our work of understanding the past. We are drawn to these tools as a way to communicate our interpretations in the most accurate way possible. There are more possibilities beyond description and communication. Just as our earliest work in GIS was to communicate and describe, so too have been our initial forays into the third dimension. The next step, like GIS , is to move in the direction of using these applications to hypothesize, model, test, re-evaluate, and disseminate.

Mediterranean archaeology, as both an early and late adopter with its wide array of evidence, stands to contribute greatly to this next phase of discovery.
Provided, that is, that we allow ourselves to go there.

Works cited

Davis, J.L. 2013a. ‘Barbarians at the Gate,’ September 1, 2013. From the Archivist’s Notebook: Blog. Available from http://nataliavogeikoff.com. September 5, 2013.

Davis, J.L. 2013b. ‘Barbarians at the Gate: Comments on Comments,’ September 15, 2013. From the Archivist’s Notebook: Blog. Available from http://nataliavogeikoff.com. September 15, 2013. /

Karasik, A., 2012. ‘Computerized Documentation and Analysis of Archaeological Artifacts,’ paper presented at the Redford Conference in Archaeology. University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, Washington. Oct. 26-27, 2012.

Newhard, J.M.L. 2012. ‘Convergence,’ February 14, 2002. AIA Geospatial Interest Group: Blog. February 14, 2012. http://aiageo.wordpress.com

Newhard, J.M.L. 2013. ‘Archaeology, Humanities, and Data Science’ August 1, 2013. The Archaeoinformant: Blog. August 1, 2013. http://blogs.cofc.edu/thearchaeoinformant

One Comment

  1. Reblogged this on AIA Geospatial Interest Group and commented:
    3D Thursdays!


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