Between grading papers yesterday, I read through Elaine Sullivan’s and Lisa Snyder’s article in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians on their work producing a digital model of the site of Karnak in Egypt. It’s a pretty nice article that offers a detailed discussion of the various design decisions and general strategy involved in making Digital Karnak a reality. As a Mac user, I wasn’t able to explore the actual 3D model which is available through their proprietary Vsim software, but it appears to combine the 3D model with chronological, historical, and archaeological information linked to various places in the immersive 3D environment. It sounds really cool!
What interested me more than the model and its presentation was the authors’ discussion of how they approached publishing the Digital Karnak model. This has an immediate impact of a collaborative project that my Digital Press at the University of North Dakota is working on that looks to publish a group of 3D models of limestone and terracotta figurings from the site of Athienou on Cyprus. The challenges associated with disseminating 3D images and models are relatively familiar to anyone who has explored the recent Gabii project or (like me) was unable to explore Digital Karnak. The formats for 3D viewing are not standardized and even common 3D viewers like Unity3D require generous bandwidth and significant server speeds to function optimally. The medium through which a project presents a dynamic 3D model is part of the message and the limits of the various interfaces and technology directly impacts the way in which the model functions. While this is undoubtedly true of all forms of disseminating archaeological information – from texts to line drawing and artist’s reconstructions, the technical challenges associated with producing 3D models are distinct at present because they require third-party viewers. The limits of these viewers, their proprietary status, their compatibility with existing publication platforms, and their functionality all impact the ability of the authors, reviewers, and users to engage the 3D image.
For Digital Karnak, this led to the production of their own 3D viewer and content which delivered both the 3D site, related “paradata” which presents argument for various design decisions, and interpretative and analytic texts. The article offers a useful summary of what a review of the entire 3D digital Karnak package would require. They identify four things that require review: (1) the model, (2) the software, (3) the arguments and interpretations, and (4) related material hosted online separate from what is presented in the Vsim viewer. The authors further note that the deeply integrated character the interface, the model, and the arguments mean that revising the 3D model is not an easy task and in many cases is simply impossible.
The deeply integrated character of the viewer, the data, and the argument creates a environment for the peer reviewer that is similar to reviewing field projects in which the arguments possible remain dependent on the nature of fieldwork and the archaeological information collected from the field. As with a digital model, the fundamental integration of methods, procedures, and arguments offer only limited opportunities for revision. Of course, field projects and elaborate 3D projects also tend to have multiple stages review as the projects develop from grant proposals to focus groups and the feedback of team members throughout the gestation of the project. Moreover, the iterative character of digital projects where the interface and data change with technology further complicate the review process. The long-term, iterative character of digital work creates a scenario similar to open review where projects change in response to academic and public critique over time.
The Digital Karnak package was technically part of the article in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, but for a reader like me without access to the digital content, the article stood well enough on its own to be a useful and substantive contribution. At the same, the absence of links – live or otherwise – through the article sketched out the limits of integration between the digital and textual.