Virtually without foundation

Virtual Archaeology
June 13, 1997

Few people would not enjoy reading or just looking at this book. It contains some of the most beautiful illustrations that I have seen of the world's best known archaeological sites and discoveries. Spanning Asia to the Americas, and Africa to India, this alluring volume passes from the Palaeolithic camp site at Isernia (Italy) to Beijing under the Mongols. The epic journey takes in Stonehenge, Mohenjo-Daro, Babylon and Pompeii along the way. Many of the sites which have fired the world's imagination are here, plus quite a few more which are, perhaps, less well-known, but deserve the publicity offered by this book. tzi, the Ice Man, found frozen in an Alpine glacier, makes an appearance alongside Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, and they, like the archaeological sites throughout the book, are described and interpreted in an excellent supporting text.

Unfortunately, the public presentation of these marvellous sites was not the sole aim of the book. The editors have specifically chosen the title Virtual Archaeology and subtitled the book Great Discoveries Brought to Life Through Virtual Reality. These terms are rather at odds with much of the content and the latter claim, in particular, does not bear close investigation. To begin with there is a contradiction in any claim which suggests a book can present virtual reality. Moreover, while the volume has many dazzling computer graphics, a significant number of sections have no computer display element at all.

The presence of sites with no VR component in a book allegedly dedicated to virtual reality may appear strange, but some of the gaps are simply puzzling. Why was the section on Qin Shi Huangdi's terracotta army not illustrated with the marvellous reconstructions of the figures from Miralab-CUI in Geneva? In many other cases, computer graphics are represented by wire-frame models created with computer aided design programs, or digital terrain models displayed via a geographic information system. Computer derived certainly, but this does not constitute virtual reality.

To be fair, the editors set out a different definition of the work in their introduction. Maurizio Forte suggests that "virtual archaeology" is the process of acquisition, restoration and re-presentation of archaeological data assisted by computers. This is reasonable enough. A good book presenting how archaeologists use computers to interpret and present their data would be very welcome. After all, archaeologists use computers for a host of interesting purposes. But such a volume would not be dedicated to virtual reality alone. With respect to the title of this book the buyer should beware. Surely it would have been better if such misleading claims were not used by archaeological and computing professionals?

Having made this point I also question whether the book actually presents "virtual archaeology" even as defined by the editors. Does it explain how archaeologists acquire, restore and re-present archaeological data using computers? Here the answer must be no. The truth is that few of the excellent computer graphics are really integrated with the texts. They stand apart, pleasing on the eye, but frequently irrelevant to the storyline. This is despite the editors' emphasis that this method of display is the key to our understanding of the data.

More disturbing is the fact that information about computing or scientific techniques is generally lacking or poorly presented. There is some attempt to isolate aspects of technical information within a series of boxes. Unfortunately, these boxes rarely stand out from the main text and their content is sometimes very poor. The panel on lithic analysis at Isernia was particularly disappointing. The section on "Computers and Archaeology" does not appear until page 238, and is actually an extremely vague discussion about the problems of reconstruction - important whether or not you use a computer.

The real problem is that the book doesn't actually tell the reader about computers in archaeology. This is apparent in the extensive glossary at the end of the book which contains no entries for technological terms and is entirely devoted to archaeology. Consequently while the authors suggest that the functioning of hypertext systems is "well-known to the general public", the target reader of this volume is assumed not to know what an apse is. However, we need not worry unduly about this because only one section, that on Pompeii, actually discusses the computer system used for construction in any detail. Excellent text and superb images over 283 pages cleverly hide the computer's vulgar operations.

This must raise questions about what the book is aiming to achieve and to whom it is talking. It also raises more fundamental questions about what we don't tell the public. On several occasions the authors emphasise the non-intrusive and non-destructive nature of modelling. Well, perhaps. Unfortunately, the truth is that many of the sites recreated in this book were ravaged by archaeologists and antiquarians to get the information used in these computer models and, with the best will in the world, we still have to do this. Excavation is still destruction even if it is carried out with more finesse.

The authors would have done well to discuss more of the ethical problems associated with reconstruction. More to the point they should have considered, in detail, the increasing role of remote sensing (magnetometry, time-sliced radar and hyper-spectral imagery), and its potential for providing truly non-invasive data for modelling.

Could this publication have achieved more? Probably. The illustrations could have been better integrated with the text; it may have been better to arrange the information thematically, perhaps by technology, rather than geographically. I noticed, too, the lack of association between the forensic reconstructions of the heads of the Ice Man, Philip of Macedon and the Egyptian, Prince Wadji. The contrast between the laboured, but effective, manual recasting of Philip's face (complete with horrendous facial wound) and the 3D image of the skull of tzi, derived from computerised axial tomography, was striking. Discussed together, they would have made a marvellous study.

Unfortunately, what is most striking is the fact that the book is not interactive. Many of the computer-based reconstructions in this book, of course, could never be interactive - they are the product of Silicon Graphics workstations and big laboratories; they are not accessible, and, in many cases, can only be presented as pre-recorded animations or preset to follow specific paths. Equally important, while the nature of the technology is so exclusive, so are the sites chosen for treatment. If it costs hundreds of thousands to recreate the most basic scene, do not expect Intel to race to rebuild the hovel belonging to Mr Average of the British Iron Age.

Yet here is the surprise. It could be done. Virtual Reality Markup Language, bubbleworld technologies and a host of related proprietary softwares already permit adequate, low-cost VR , either as distributed models or across the World Wide Web. Much of this technology is not new, yet the references are missing from the central text. I believe there is not a single WWW URL (Universal Resource Locator) in the book. This is truly startling given the theme of the volume. Several of the archaeological sites mentioned such as Catalhoyuk ( and Stonehenge ( have dramatic Web sites, some with VR reconstructions available.

These can be viewed on fairly standard machines, if equipped with a suitable Web browser and add-ons. While the presentation may not have the sophistication of the models in Virtual Archaeology, they do the job. For the interested reader an essential reference to the use of VRML in archaeology can be found in the Web journal Internet Archaeology at gillings_toc.html.

The truth is, the title of this book promises far more than it delivers. Indeed, to provide a real insight into "virtual archaeology" I doubt that a book is the right format. I suspect the next publication attempting this will be a CD-Rom or some other digital format.

Despite this, I found Virtual Archaeology to be a very beautiful and informative book. Many archaeologists tend to be a bit sniffy about publications which only show the most spectacular finds, but I suspect that a goodly number would be perfectly happy to have this particular book lying on their coffee tables. Few other volumes have projected the discipline with such panache or in such a lavish style, and every archaeologist loves to be associated with success, particularly when it is so well illustrated.

Vince Gaffney is a research fellow in archaeology, University of Birmingham.

Virtual Archaeology: Great Discoveries Brought to Life through Virtual Reality

Editor - Maurizio Forte and Alberto Siliotti
ISBN - 0 500 05085 6
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £29.95

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