Three- and Four-Dimensional Archaeological Publication

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

Andrew Reinhard, Director of Publications, American School of Classical Studies at Athens

I have been the Director of Publications for the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA) for just over three years, and am responsible for publishing our quarterly journal, Hesperia, as well as excavation monographs for Ancient Corinth, the Athenian Agora, and affiliated sites, plus Hesperia Supplements on special archaeological topics, as well as guidebooks and limited series. The views that I express in this post are my own, but it is my hope that various, official ASCSA boards and committees will agree with me on at least some of these points, creating new policy and modifying the old, as the press works with archaeologists to create the next generation of archaeological publications.


Historically archaeology has been limited (and some could argue continues to be limited) to two-dimensional publication in print. Journals and monographs are traditionally printed and include commentary, catalogue, concordances, various front and back matter, tables, photographs of objects and of sites (mostly black-and-white, but occasionally color), drawings (plans, sections, profiles, etc.), and maps.

In recent years, some journals and books have been released as “digital editions” onto platforms such as JSTOR, Cambridge Journals Online, and through various publisher websites. By and large, these digital editions do not take advantage of any of the possibilities afforded by appearing on the Internet, being merely one-to-one digital reproductions of their original print counterparts. Readers can choose to read articles in print or on-screen. Those readers who opt to read on-screen do so either because they are traveling (or are away from their offices/libraries), or because their libraries only have digital versions of publications. These digital publications are either served online in an HTML page-view or as PDFs, occasionally in other formats, rarely sharable or even printable because of outdated digital rights management (DRM) and copy protection “safeguards”. In the case of PDFs (and devices and apps used to read them), readers are generally unaware of added functionality offered to these “flat” publications: document-searching, bookmarking, note-taking, emailing. I argue that for your average reader of archaeological scholarship, they are, and will remain oblivious, stuck in Flatland, unable to comprehend all the practicality that extra-dimensional publication can offer (and is already beginning to offer).

Taking the aforementioned elements of print publication of archaeological material, let us first apply a three-dimensional filter, followed by a fourth-dimensional one:


It would seem obvious that text is text, that it is by its nature two-dimensional. The writer writes what the reader reads. Writing an article or a monograph is a one-way form of communication. However, if one extracts this text from its two-dimensional setting and places it online, that text has the native ability to become something more. The content gains context. One can embed links reaching out to Open Access data repositories for people- and place-data. Making this publication available online also facilitates linking in the opposite direction, making the author’s content discoverable by anyone in the world, provided the text is given a stable URI. Widgets are now available that enable readers to roll over a placename and retrieve a pop-up window with a map and data along with a clickable link. In time, I hope to see a similar widget crawl through bibliographies and citations in notes, allowing readers to reference cited material as they proceed through the book or article. How often have you, as a reader, wished to check a reference or look up a place, but have instead put it off, not wanting to trek to the library or even run a Google search? Embedding these links and reading tools are a service to readers and are becoming increasingly easy to implement from an author’s/publisher’s perspective.

This “multi-dimensional” text takes what is good about the printed word, and adds practical improvements that help deliver more robust content more quickly to the reader:

Note-taking on the printed page is limited to the space in the margins or between the lines. Note-taking on a digital document allows for notes of massive length that can then be emailed/shared outside of that document. If you lose your book, you lose your notes. Digital editions allow you to save a “clean” copy as well as an annotated copy, and if you email/share your comments, losing your annotated copy is only an inconvenience, not a disaster.

What if we could go one step further, making the author’s primary text “four-dimensional?” In physics, three dimensions incorporate length, width, and depth. Add time to a three-dimensional thing, and it now has a fourth-dimension. All objects exist in space-time, and as the arrow of time moves us forward year by year, those three-dimensional objects change. While this observation will be more readily applied to imaging artifacts, we can apply the four-dimensional concept to an author’s text.

A published monograph is like a finished temple. It’s as good as the makers can produce at the time. As time moves along, things happen to the building. It can receive additions. It can be shored up. It might be demolished, lending its parts as spolia to other structures in future times. As archaeologists, we can also reduce the structure to its individual parts, seeing how the whole was completed, and also understanding how that building changed over time, from realized vision to revered monument, or derelict footprint. 

It is a misconception that a published monograph or article is the “final publication” of archaeological material. Upon publication, that text (and its related content of photos, maps, tables, etc.) becomes the starting point for rigorous discussion and dialogue. In the past, some journals have published rebuttals to earlier articles in later issues, a kind of time-delayed chess match. By integrating online publication with mature social networking/commentary technology, those discussions can be opened to a global audience. Should a counter-argument be made successfully, it is also possible for the author to make a change to the main text, or to add new bibliography, and to update notes over time, keeping current with future scholarship. The content of the published piece must change over time, and opening that content up to scrutiny can help to either preserve and promote excellent scholarship, or to mend, repair, or demolish research.

Seeing text as four-dimensional also allows the readers to uncover the foundations of an archaeological publication. In the instances of preliminary excavation reports or “final” reports of a class of objects from a site, I would strongly urge authors to provide their readers with complete data sets. This data can be checked, and can be used as a reference by readers. Should errors be discovered in the math and logic of tables, these can be corrected right away. And should there be a difference of opinion between author and reader, the data can be consulted, and a dialogue started. With traditional publication, the reader is presented with the author’s interpretation of the data, and that interpretation might or might not be reliable and might include biases, either conscious or unconscious. Opening up the data, and opening up the dialogue can help an author’s argument become more objective.


A mixture of text and graphical elements (i.e., lines, shading, etc.), tables convey quantifiable data to support the author’s arguments, and to also relay in a readable form what was found over the course of a season, or of a decades-long excavation. In two-dimensional publishing, the table is printed on the page, or over one or several spreads, with a caption, headings, and notes. In three-dimensional online publishing, that table becomes a live data element able to be manipulated by the reader. With an interactive table, one can choose to sort data within columns, can rearrange columns, and can conceivably perform mathematic operations with the data, treating the table like a live spreadsheet. It’s likely that readers will have questions that the author did not think to ask, and providing the data in this interactive way can help readers ask and answer queries independent of the author’s commentary on the static table.

Dealing with data than cat be played with in a tabular format is not enough. To be a truly useful, living archaeological publication, its tables need to become four-dimensional, introducing the time element. Archaeology is notoriously messy and inexact, and our publications do their best to make sense of the mess. It’s likely that some material gets left out of a publication for whatever reason, or in the case of some excavations, material (e.g., lamps, coins, etc.) that is assigned only covers a range of years from that excavation. Any material excavated after the time period assigned to one researcher is dumped into a future publication. With an online “monograph”, newly recovered material (or material from years after an original assignment) can be added to the data set from which our interactive tables produce information for the reader. By allowing a publication to remain open, new data can be entered upon discovery.

These kinds of edits and on-the-fly make it difficult to identify the “version of record,” that version which is cited by other scholars when completing their own research. I propose that we follow the model used in wikis where a date/time-stamp and author ID are assigned whenever a page changes, and that the researchers citing that page include the date on which that page was accessed. If that is too extreme, then perhaps the software model can be followed wherein iterations (updates) are assigned incremental numbers whenever something changes in the code.


Maps work perfectly well in two-dimensional, print publications, but being able to bring them online in 3-D is a necessity, especially when trying to understand the topography of a settlement, city, or region. By visualizing the geographic setting, both authors and readers can begin to draw conclusions about the placement of settlements (or structures within them), and how they relate to natural features in the landscape. Authors can also choose to indicate on maps where artifacts were recovered, where features like graves, pits, wells, etc., are located, all on a sliding scale for granularity depending on the kind of access granted to the reader. It’s possible that sensitive data such as findspots can be abused, so it may be that some level of security will need to be supplied to screen readers, or more simply, the excavation, its authors, and the publisher exercise common sense in determining how fine a grain is good enough for most readers while giving them the option to contact the excavation for permission to access to-the-centimeter map data.

While three-dimensional maps are crucial to archaeological publications, again, adding the element of time to online maps should be required. Some sites existed for periods of months or years, while others spanned decades, centuries, and millennia. For those sites that have experienced long periods of occupation, their maps should include a “timeline slider”. Readers can use the slider to watch the site change dynamically from decade to decade, period to period. Stopping time on the map, one can then observe features, and could conceivably tap or click on those to drill down to more information. As excavation proceeds and more data are collected and published, these maps will change automatically, including the new data input by the excavators over the course of a season. Three-dimensional maps are important and provide a snapshot of a site or region in time, but making the maps temporally dynamic can provide maximum use for readers and they consider new questions or conceive new hypotheses based on their observations of the maps and the data they provide.


Traditional, two-dimensional drawings are extraordinarily useful when communicating the profile of pottery, of the preserved letter forms in an inscription in stone, and designs and decorations, among other things. Print publications make frequent use of these, complementing the black-and-white drawings with black-and-white photos (aka “halftones”) that provide additional visual data of excavations and their artifacts either as they are, or as they were. Printing in color is expensive, and archaeologists are often charged by their publishers should they wish to have some “art” appear in color for their article or book. It would seem that economics has had an adverse effect on imaging archaeology in print, preventing color from being used when it might have provided additional (or different) data not communicated from an image in grayscale. Online publication completely removes economics from the decision-making process of choosing whether something should be illustrated in color or not.

I defer to other authors whom Bill Caraher has invited to write about 3-D archaeology and imaging to write about how they use it and the technologies employed to create 3-D maps, scans, reproductions, etc. It should be obvious to the reader that a 3-D scan of an artifact provides information that a 2-D drawing or photograph cannot. There are Open Source utilities now available that can rotate two-dimensional pottery profiles, creating a three-dimensional image to allow the reader to fully visualize what pottery, lamps, etc., would have looked like in the round. The problem remains that even with three-dimensional views and reconstructions, they are still viewed through two-dimensional media: screens. This is not unlike printing a three-dimensional image in a book, although at least with online 3-D imagery, one can pan/zoom/rotate.

I propose that for 3-D images to be truly useful to the reader, that they be printed via 3-D printers, based on printer specs provided to the reader by the author/publisher. Imagine printing your own set of plates, or printing bones/fragments, or even a scale model of a house or temple. Traditional photography and drawing work well when providing their data via traditional, two-dimensional media. 3-D imaging, to be most useful, should require either 3-D printing, or the use of glasses or headgear such as Oculus Rift to provide an immersive 3-D experience. 

As for four-dimensional aspects of imaging, it’s possible to include the time element when looking at a site over a period of years as it has undergone excavation, or in some cases, how a city has grown around an ancient monument. For 3-D reconstructions, a time slider could be used to view reconstructions of buildings or settlements throughout different periods. There are likely other applications that I’m missing, but I suspect others have already posed this question and come up with answers.

With digital imaging in electronic publications, there is one major issue that must be considered: scale. In a print monograph, the publisher sizes an image on the page and then prints the scale of the object in the image caption. Some publishers opt to include scale bars in their images, while others crop the scale bar out, relying on the caption to tell the reader what the size of the object pictured is. Because the printed page is static, the image size never changes. On e-readers, however (including smartphones, tablets, laptops, desktop computers, and e-book readers), the “page” and the image are resized constantly. Printing the scale in a caption doesn’t help, and leaving the scalebar in the image approaches the ridiculous as either tiny or large depending on how the reader resizes a drawing or photo. It may be possible to create a widget that dynamically changes the scale of the image based on its relative size on a screen. As a reader increases an image’s size for a better look at a detail, the scale would change from 1:3 to 3:1. Until that happens (unless it already has), readers might have to go on the measurements of an imaged artifact that are printed in the body or catalogue text and then eyeball the image to guestimate its actual size.

One potentially unexpected barrier to publishing archaeological material fully (and freely) online is that of image permissions. Countries such as Greece and Turkey have yet to update their guidelines for image permissions to include the current state of digital and online publication, especially for scholarly purposes. Greece’s Archaeological Receipts Fund (TAP) currently defines an electronic publication as a webpage and makes no provision for e-books or other kinds of digital media. It’s either a website, or it isn’t, and if it is, you can have permission to post that image for a maximum of three years before Greece, as the rights-holder of any image taken of any monument/artifact in-country, requires you to take it down. On the form to request permission from Greece to publish an image of a monument or artifact via digital media is language stating to the effect that it might take months for the bureaucracy to consider the application at which point it could either be rejected or a permissions fee assessed. There is little hope in Greece’s current state that this issue will be addressed; it’s the least of that country’s worries.


Archaeology is messy, and it deals with three-dimensional artifacts in four-dimensional space-time. Its publications should reflect that. At our current level of technology, it is possible to create archaeological publications in an open, online environment that incorporates text, 2- and 3-D imagery, interactive 2- and 3-D maps, and interactive data sets, and omni-directional links to content and context managed by others. Our new publications must incorporate all of these elements to create a record and interpretation of what we have discovered, leaving that data and interpretation open to criticism, dialogue, and growth over time. Universities, archaeological field schools, and publishers need to make a concerted effort to educate archaeologists to the potential provided by new media and existing technology as it can serve to document work done. The editor’s role should be to apply standards and style, to fact-check, to clean up inconsistencies, to verify and standardize notes and bibliography, at which point it can be published, handed over to the crowd for the necessary, but until now missing step of post-publication peer review.


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


  2. It was great to read this – lots to think about, lots of possibilities!


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