Another year and another excellent TAG (Theoretical Archaeology Group) conference, this year at the University of Birmingham. Catriona Cooper and I’s session seemed to go down very well and sparked some brilliant discussion!
Opening the session was Aaron Watson who presented his paper “Invisible Monuments” which discussed the issues surrounding the collection of ‘objective’ archaeological data from fieldwork and survey. He noted that although we understand archaeological sites to be multi-sensory, the methods we employ to survey these sites is focussed in the visual and spatial. Aaron’s work adopts a far more subjective and creative approach to interpretation and the presentation of archaeological data. One interesting question raised from the discussion following his paper was how the more experiential and embodied aspects can be incorporated into the more traditional methods of field survey, and what this would mean for consequent interpretations of the archaeological record.
Our next paper “Transparent Evidence and Interpretation: the British Empire Exhibition of 1938” would have been presented by Daisy Abbott from the Glasgow School of Art’s Digital Design Studio, but unfortunately she couldn’t make it to Birmingham so I read her paper for her, you can read more about the Empire Exhibition here.
Frank Lynam of Trinity College Dublin was next to present on the topic of “ArcSeer: a New Approach to Archaeological Representation”. Frank showed us a great example of gaming engine software being used to provide an interactive environment where users could view multiple interpretations of the same site. Furthermore, he demonstrated how users could select objects within the scene and begin discussions though a dialogue box. This raised some interesting discussion around the use of collaborative 3D environments during the modelling and interpretation of a site.
Before we paused for a well earned coffee break we were treated to a beautiful and engaging presentation of Joana Alves Ferreira’s (University of Porto) work with polaroid photography. Her presentation entitled “Instants of Waiting: The Polaroid’s Experience as an Experience of Expectation” discussed the experimental production and manipulation of 20 original polaroid photographs taken during her participation in the 2009 excavation season at the prehistoric site of Castanheiro do Vento in Northern Portugal.
The intention behind Joana’s work was intriguing, she aimed to capture her own subjective experience of the dig and her decision to work with polaroid was key in achieving this. In contrast to the digital methods most of us are accustomed to working with in the field to capture the site and the process, Joana’s use of the polaroid strips everything about documentation back to the moment the photograph is taken. Digital documentation is often more about technique than it is about the subject of survey, we spend our time fiddling with settings and technicalities; with a polaroid camera there are no menus of multiple exposure settings and such – the focus is given solely to the subject within the frame.
I also loved the idea of the polaroid as a medium which itself weathers as the chemicals in the photograph decay, much like the artefacts we strive to document.
During the break we exhibited David J. Knight’s poster and sound sculptures dealing with “Navigating Pareidolian Coincidence; an Auditory Para-archaeological Adventure Story”. The poster creatively considered the narration of different pasts and the observation of meaningful patterns in archaeological data.
After the coffee break we heard from Ash Scheder Black from the University of York who presented his work on “Visualising Archaeological Data in the Context of Past Environments: On the Technical and Methodological Challenges of Temporal GIS”. Ash’s work dealt with visualising a large amount of spatial data at a huge scale and was returned to during the discussion when the question of whether it is possible to visualise both an individual experiential view of the past together with an understanding of the wider context on a regional scale.
The session was concluded with James Hepher’s paper “Archaeological Survey Now! Comparing the Methods and Technologies for 3D data Capture at Two Scottish Ten Project Sites: St Kilda (Scotland) and Rani Ki Vav (India)”. It was fascinating to hear from someone based within a government body like Historic Scotland and James provided an insight into his own experience working with different types of survey. He considered this experience in terms of the ways these survey methods engaged with the site, and summed up his thoughts by saying that “if you can’t draw something, if you can’t observe it then put pen to paper, then you don’t understand it”. Wise words indeed and I couldn’t help thinking that if we all bore this in mind during our fieldwork we might engage more closely with our data.
To round up the session we opened the floor to an audience discussion where we returned to the subject of a creative and subjective approach vs. a more objective methodology to ‘narrate the gap between observation and visualisation’. Ultimately we asked what methods can be employed to facilitate the combination of traditional survey techniques with more creative approaches to allow archaeologists to engage with sites and material culture in a more actively experiential way. Bottom line – we need more collaboration!
I felt that there was a definite agreement throughout the room that in order to narrate this gap between our fieldwork and the synthesis of our data towards our final visualisations we need to adopt a far more self reflective and personal account of our process.
Watch this space for a continuation of this topic at the upcoming CAA conference in Southampton in March 2012!