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A talk given at the 4S (Society for Social Studies of Science) conference 2005 Pasadena California - [link]

This is a story about archaeologists and science written for 4S people and is something of a caricature, but, as with caricatures, I hope it reveals something interesting about the true character of archaeology.

It could do with a lot of bibliographic back up too.


Listening to things: augmented reality and the science question in archaeology

Digging up the past?

Archaeology is no longer at all what it was, or may still seem to be.

After a short sketch of the genealogy of the science question in archaeology I am going to say that archaeology is more than ever a unique disciplinary field bridging the sciences and humanities. I point to three agendas or trends emerging in archaeology that lend force to this uniqueness:

I suggest that these developments are of significant interest to science studies not least because they invoke:

As a means of access to these broad matters I make some comment on the quest for virtual reality in archaeological modeling and simulation, criticizing the values inherent in this project, pointing instead to the potential by augmented realities as a fruitful way of establishing dynamic relationships between researcher and subject of interest, relationships of learning with and through the remains of the past.

The science question in archaeology

Like most of the social sciences in the 1960s, archaeology took a positivist turn. Americanist archaeologists with an anthropological training like Lewis Binford looked to analytic philosophy of science for an epistemological model of explanation. They translated this into a methodology that emphasized hypothesis testing and deductive nomological reasoning tied to quantitative empirics. The archaeological aim was no longer to be historical narrative and understanding, to tell the story of the bronze age, but explanation of human behavior and social process in a paradigm of cultural evolution, to explain the emergence of social complexity.

The emphasis on methodology, formal reasoning and a comparative anthropological frame in this "new archaeology" was an explicit reaction against an orthodoxy in archaeology that went back to the origins of the discipline in the late eighteenth century – antiquarian interest in the field monuments of the nation states of northern Europe along with art historical interest in collections of artifacts. Culture historical archaeology had crystallized in the 1920s in the work of Gustav Kossina and Gordon Childe as a focus upon assemblages of artifacts that carried the traits of distinctive ethic communities or cultures that were the subject of history in their origins, interactions and movements. They were also seen as the genealogical antecedents of contemporary nations and related ethnic groups.

In spite of this critical reaction to traditional archaeology, and though it went unvoiced and mostly unrealized, the new archaeology of the 1960s was, ironically, very much of a similar intellectual mold as nineteenth century altertumswissenschaft – the philological science of antiquity that has dominated Germanic Classical Studies. Both gave primacy to systems of objective knowledge (against amateur and particular interest), professional specialization, and neutral research detached from social and political context.

Quite independent of new archaeology's promotion of paradigms of scientific reasoning, archaeology since the 1940s has come to include more and more scientific techniques: from radiometric dating techniques such as C14, to geological prospection and faunal and floral analysis. The separation of reasoning and formal method from technique is evidenced in the difficulty most archaeological projects have in reconciling specialist techniques with historiographic purpose, reconciling technical data with analytic modeling of, for example, social process.

Understanding things

New archaeology did not see itself as a science of things but of behavior. Nevertheless the anthropological slant of new archaeology led directly to growth of research interest in material culture. So "middle range theory" and the "behavioral archaeology" of Michael Schiffer looked to identify transformation processes between archaeological remains and behavior. Ethnoarchaeologists began looking at contemporary societies in order to understand better the relationship between artifacts and cultural meanings and values, so that archaeologists might better reconstruct past societies on the basis of their archaeological remains. And, for the first time in the discipline, some archaeologists in the 70s, following the pioneering work of Bill Rathje, recognized their object of interest as garbage – social and cultural detritus.

Some cultural anthropologists also took a turn to look at material culture, though often as a bearer of meaning, an expression of social structure and values. An explicit focus on materiality has taken longer to emerge and still today the connections between archaeological and anthropological perspectives remain weak. Nevertheless there is a flourishing French school of technology studies in the archaeological tradition of Leroi-Gourhan, while the archaeological component of the University College London school of material culture studies is quite apparent.

Accompanying and contributing to the increasing sophistication of material culture studies, archaeologists, particularly after the Cambridge school of Hodder, Shanks and Tilley, have presented serious challenges in the 1980s and after to the methodological and epistemological premises of explicitly scientific archaeology. Criticizing the formal and algorithmic models of supposedly scientific practice, such archaeologists developed interpretive approaches to understanding practice rooted in more flexible hermeneutic procedures. The neutrality of formal reasoning and professional academic research has been undermined by three complementary foci:

Fundamental challenges have been made to the two old orthodox models of archaeological practice:

New agenda items in archaeological science

While many have seen these challenges as anti-science, they are increasingly treated as refinements of robust archaeological practices aimed at secure knowledge of the past. However, archaeology worldwide retains significant splits between:

Let me list in more detail these developing components of a synthetic archaeological science.

It is clear that these developments are shared with a number of cultural practices – archaeology is only one field interested in the archaeological aspect of our social and cultural fabric. There is growing awareness of the scope and power of the metaphors at the core of archaeological practice – attention to layered relationships, material decay, authenticity and depth, ruin and entropy as essential components of social fabric. The contemporary fine arts in particular are very active in mining archaeological metaphors.

Under these broad shifts and premises of the archaeological process, here is a checklist of some more specific topics and questions:

Augmented reality and relations with the past

To illustrate these new developments, let me consider a new media project in archaeology – the construction of virtual reality models of the archaeological past.

Archaeologists have been investing heavily in VR technologies and applications. VR is one of a number of new digital media techniques being applied to the social sciences and humanities. It is based upon the generation and manipulation of vast amounts of data made possible by digital technologies. Data points on a site or artifact are connected in a vector and or raster/bitmap based model in order to provide a highly detailed visual representation. The broad context is an old one - modeling and simulation.

For example, high resolution laser scanning can produce remarkably detailed 3D models of archaeological artifacts and sites - textured wireframe/polygonal models that may be rendered with appropriate textures. They can encapsulate gigabytes of information. And you can spin the modeled forms, look at them from any direction, zoom in, zoom out. It is already possible to have such models available in immersive virtual environments which the user accesses through touch and sound as well as sight.

The argument is that this is as accurate depiction of the way things are as can be had. Some hold that such VR modeling lets archaeologists explore a site remotely; excavators can share a site with colleagues who may never have been there. Digital technology is here complementing the old notion that archaeologists uncover the past in order to conserve it as it was and now is. Some claim this technology is a way of preserving the past. They have scanned the forum at Pompeii into a graphical database, for example. People can access Pompeii remotely. The digital model will not decay in the same way as the site itself (but consider Quine’s Democritean universes - this will never work). The attractions of such simulations to broad tourist interest are obvious – a ruin can be made to appear again as a complete building, just as Rome can be made to come alive through the computer graphics of a Hollywood studio.

But what is being represented in this kind of photographically accurate reality that actually surpasses photography? VR modeling and imaging is based on the notion that archaeologists dig up the past and the end result of fieldwork is a material object - the site, the find - and this is the past, what archaeologists seek, desire, want to hold on to.

But this is not the way it is. The multi-gigabyte model of the forum at Pompeii is of a structure made by a team of archaeologists, architects and conservationists who decided that some stones belonged together as a building of a certain date and cleared away the stones thought secondary to the structure. Much is heavily reconstructed. The result, the artifact, the forum as we have it now, and the model of it, both come at the end of long and often contentious processes of analysis and interpretation.

And why does anyone want all this information about the minute undulations across the surface of an ashlar block, or across the stratigraphic surface left irregular by the archaeologist? What scientific purpose does such information serve? It might be hoped that perhaps one day this will be evidence used to argue perhaps for particular masonry techniques. But anticipating such future interest requires the collection of potentially infinite data points; this is unfeasible. I suggest that another kind of argument is being made in VR. Photography can be highly naturalistic and look real, but often tells us mostly about superficial details that don’t matter much in our attempts to make sense and understand. This is the old illusion - that faithfulness to the external appearance of things gives us a hold on reality. VR modeling is thus primarily a rhetoric meant to convince the viewer of the authenticity of the model.

The dream behind archaeological VR is that eventually, with so much data at hand, it will be possible for archaeological science to fill in the gaps. This is an impossible archaeological desire to bring back the dead. The past is, of course, over and done, decayed, ruined, lost. We only have a few bits to work on. This is the fascinating beginning of archaeological science, not the end. What about the things that are going on underneath the rendered surface, that produced the remains of the past that we work on?

The project of VR aspires to that of the movie "The Matrix"- to create a world that actually doesn’t or didn’t exist, though it appears real. It is an illusion. An alternative to VR is AR - augmented reality – information brought to bear upon a particular aspect of an archaeological site, for example, that augments the relationship with that instance. Like in "Terminator "or "Robocop" - where our cyborg hero/antiheroes can access and pull up all kinds of information in their field of vision that helps them make sense of what is going on and decide on a course of action. And such augmentation may simply be a text entry in a database - not necessarily a gigabyte of graphics.

AR directs us to the dynamics of the archaeological process where information is embedded in material relationships specific to particular located engagements with the remains of the past. AR already exists, of course, in the prostheses and instruments of archaeological fieldwork - pottery manuals, color charts, reference collections, and all the rest, though there is enormous potential in digital enhancements. AR is about facilitating research. Information is made available to the process of posing questions and listening to answers. This is a never-ending process of learning. Contrast VR that fixes the past in a dead illusion that ultimately looks like every other model produced by 3D rendering software, however sophisticated, because its realism always comes down to how convincing the blocks of stone look, or the terracotta tiles, or the bronze bowl on the table, or the clouds in the fake Mediterranean sky.

Here then is how the issue of AR provides a key to the new synthetic science of archaeology. AR is (potentially) about designing enriched learning encounters. Archaeologists are in relationship with what is left of the past. These are relationships that have no necessary end because any artifact made of the past is only ever the provisional outcome of a particular encounter. The progress of archaeological science is being seen to lie in ways of fostering open and creative encounters, connections and linkages, ways of mediating the relationship, in helping archaeologists pose smart questions of the material past, and helping them listen to the answers given.

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