Learning to Engage with Digital Visualisations

The SERF project has been investigating hillforts in Strathearn, Perthshire since 2007.  We have now explored eleven sites and have dug trenches across their surviving ramparts and ditches.  Over the seasons of fieldwork I have become more aware that what we can say about a site is not only dependent on the nature of materials we encounter, but also on the approach we take.  To put it another way, our understanding of a site directly reflects a specific sequence of decision-making influenced by many factors, some of which are more obvious than others.  It is not random; it is historically constituted and based on learned principles.

The Strathearn region and its hillforts.
The Strathearn region and its hillforts.

Two questions have emerged from this realisation: how do I become more aware of what shapes our interpretations of these hillforts, shedding light on our reasoning and, secondly, how do I communicate a more fluid appreciation of archaeological interpretation to diverse audiences?

The standard tools used for recording archaeological interventions: photography, measured drawing, note-taking, pro forma record sheets are not reflexive enough and do not reveal the whole life and death stories of different interpretations.  Moreover, traditional publications often are stripped of the ambiguities of interpretations in favour of a presenting a single narrative. This is where Alice and Kieran come in.

Digital recording on site offers a way to capture the unfiltered and unspoken influences on archaeological interpretation.  That is why we started experimenting with film and audio recordings during fieldwork. This has been valuable to reveal archaeologist’s engagement with the archaeology.   At Castle Law, Forgandenny GoPros™ were strapped on mattocks, trowels and people and time lapse photography of survey and excavation was taken. These recordings documented the movement of the archaeologists, how they worked and how the site changed and was exposed over time. Pole and kite photography added a wider context and depth to these interactions; situating the archaeology and archaeologist in a broader landscape.

A kite photograph of Castle Law Forgandenny taken by Kieran.

However, this ‘fly on the wall’ observer perspective, which these techniques provide, is still not enough to untangle the complex process of interpretation. Many of the interpretations rely on the imagination of the ‘past’ based on the very real and present evidence we encounter; we try to create a flowing narrative from fragments.  Archaeologists create scenarios which can range in likelihood and inevitably change as new materials emerge or other perspectives are considered.

A vital element of the experiment have been the questions Alice and Kieran have been asking, both in and out of the field.  They have been grilling me about how the site would have looked like, getting me to articulate my imaginings. I have had to explain these amorphous and transient thoughts, give them reality and even physically drawn them.

Tessa and Alice interrogating the plan drawings of Dun Knock as the interpretation evolves.
Tessa and Alice interrogating the plan drawings of Dun Knock as the interpretation evolves.

Recently this process culminated in the production of a short animation by Kieran and Alice based on a 3D photogrammetric model of Castle Law, Forgandenny incorporating visual recreations.  During the collaboration tough decisions had to be made such as wall height and the co-existence of banks and walls.  I was forced to reconsider how I actually understood the whole site and if it made sense with the evidence I could draw on.  It brought the uncertainty of the process of interpretation home.

Screengrab Castle Law
Screen-grab of Alice’s draft (emphasis on draft!) 3D model in progress…more updates on the horizon!

Over the course of the project we will use this blog to discuss how we get on; what issues we stumble upon and what has creatively inspired us.  In many ways this is still just the beginning of an exciting experiment of developing and using digital visualisations as a tool within the process of archaeological interpretation.

Watch this space…