SERF Digital: Gearing up for Going Online

Last week Tessa and I headed through to Edinburgh to give a talk about our work on the Serf Digital project at Historic Environment Scotland (who very kindly supported the initial pilot project and we’re excited to say have granted us a bit more funding to get the work hosted online, which is excellent!). The following post is a bit of a summary of the talk we gave and an update on the project….

I’ve mentioned the SERF Digital project a couple of times on the blog. It’s been a bit of a slow burner over the past couple of years as we’ve tagged along to the SERF excavations as they happen each season and gradually built up a body of material. As a bit of a recap – the project started after Dr Tessa Poller (site director of the hillforts program of excavations, University of Glasgow) started to think more reflexively about her interpretive process and her approaches to excavation. She’d already been documenting some of the more ephemeral aspects of her process, experimenting with GoPros strapped to tools and drawing boards during excavation and survey but she wanted to expand on this and look at ways of sharing the idiosyncrasies of the archaeological interpretive process with a wider audience.

When Tessa first approached me about this project I was instantly intrigued because she came to me asking not for “a reconstruction of so and so” but instead asked how I could better visualise her own interpretive processes. And of course, this sounded right up my street in terms of shared research interests.

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Scribbling down some sketches in the field at Dunnock in 2015.

I’ve written plenty in earlier posts about my previous research which led me to believe that audiences often seem to approach archaeological visualisations with a set of problematic expectations about what these representations can and should do. (See in particular my posts here and more recently here…)

I’ve found that despite the consistent use of phrases such as ‘the artist’s impression’ and insistent captions declaring that these images only depict what the site ‘might have looked like in the past’ audiences continue to make assumptions about the authority of an image based on media and context. I started to realise that we need to go further than simply presenting an image as a speculative interpretative statement: we should also explore ways of engaging audiences with layered narratives which begin to demonstrate why this is the case. With this in mind I became interested in ways of presenting interpretive visual material in a way which better reflects the broader processes of archaeological interpretation.

What naturally developed for the SERF project was the concept of an interactive interface which facilitated multi-vocal and multilayered narratives on the hillforts excavations.

Crucially, adopting an approach which forefronts interaction facilitates audience engagement through play and I’m starting to realise that this is a crucial factor in actively getting the brain thinking and questioning rather than one which encourages passive observation (an issue I’d come up against time and time again with my work in still images and film).

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Some snaps from our material collection over the past couple of years…

In terms of the fieldwork itself, I think it’s important to note that through this work we didn’t want to just simply repeat the cycle of archaeological process as a lot of the techniques we use (kite/drone, photogrammetry, filmed interviews, scribbled sketches) are already being utilised on a lot of digs to inform the process. Instead, we wanted to utilise and layer our techniques to make observations and capture elements of the process that maybe don’t always make it into the site record.

Our overall aim was to experiment with and explore the processes involved in interpretation and visualisation in order to develop a way of working, seeing and sharing which better reflects the multifaceted, complex and quite honestly messy processes involved in interpreting archaeological sites and materials.

Baxter was of course involved from the inception of the project and we later brought in the wonderful John Anderson to help us realise our vision for the interactive interface…a vision we’d designed through concept art and media but none of us have John’s programming wizardry skills which were needed to make all the buttons work!

We have a wee screen-grab video of the interface in action to give you a taster – it’s an early version from last year and one of the Castle Law reconstructions in the fader bar doesn’t line up properly with the aerial photo…if I hadn’t said anything you wouldn’t have noticed would you?! Well it’s fixed now so ignore it! I’ll post a link to the full shiny interactive interface once it’s online in the next month or so…

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The home screen for the interface – we went for the ‘archaeologist’s desk’ design to give the user the feeling that they’re getting a bit of a ‘behind the scenes’ look at the archaeologists mind…which as you can see is fuelled by eye-wateringly strong black coffee!

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When the user clicks on the icon over the maps they’re taken to an overview of the hillforts excavated on the project.

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Clicking on Castle Law for example the user is treated to one of Kieran’s stunning fly-ins created from photogrammetric aerial survey and some VFX magic. This fly in helps to contextualise the site in its wider landscape. Once the view rests on Castle Law the user is able to scroll a bar which overlays the Royal Commission survey drawings over the site so as to incorporate the kinds of background materials Tessa was using to build her excavation methodology.

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Clicking through to the next page the user can use the scroll bar to explore the site from the recent excavations, to historical excavations (Bell’s trenches show his antiquarian investigations on the site which were influential in Tessa’s own work) and of course…the first reconstruction – courtesy of yours truly!

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Delving deeper we’re shown a cut away diagram of the hillfort wall with different speculative construction options which demonstrate Tessa’s conflicting ideas about its appearance based on what the excavations revealed and what she knew from her research on other similar sites… Basically she couldn’t give me a straight answer on construction so I said screw it, let’s visualise the lot! Something we’ve also incorporated into the latest iteration of the interface is the  ‘site-director’s cut’ audio commentary which I discuss below.

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We also have documentary style videos about some of the finds…

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…and 3D interactive models of the finds themselves.

Moving forward we’re keen to flesh out the remaining icons and hillforts within the interface with additional material and eventually launch the resource online by the end of March/April-ish time.

Something we want to implement in the next iteration of the interface is what we’re calling the “director’s cut” (or “site-director’s cut” arf arf 🙂 ) mode which can be toggled on or off by the user and features audio discussion and insights from Tessa and her team. At the moment we have a few discussions between Tessa and myself chatting about the process of crafting the reconstructions and some insights into Tessa’s methodology and we plan to record more this month.

On reflection the interesting problem we’re facing is that by nature producing something for public consumption means that it needs to be coherent and of an elegant design. To all extents and purposes, a polished product – but in doing so we’re losing the essence of the trench-edge interpretive process. We hope that the proposed format of the “director’s cut” will serve to inform the audience of the speculative nature of interpretation by giving them an insight into the ways these interpretations develop. Injecting deeper reflective awareness and more layers of understanding into the materials and content presented.

When we presented the project at HES last week I had a really interesting question at the end from Dave Cowley who wondered if coming in earlier in Tessa’s process to begin work on reconstructions while the excavations are ongoing could be problematic because Tessa will now have my images lodged in her mind’s eye. We had a great chat on the topic and it has been on my mind ever since as I think it’s a fascinating prospect – am I inadvertently tampering with her interpretive process while it’s still forming? Have I now forever influenced Tessa’s interpretations by creating these images which could have staying power?

…A meaty topic for another post and certainly proof that challenging the way we produce visualisations in archaeology raises interesting and important research questions in need of further investigation!

Wrapping things up, I think today the concept of the “artist’s impression” – of communicating our interpretation of a site through an image – continues to evolve and with new techniques for data capture and visualisation I think the field of archaeology is really beginning to explore and re-invent what that age-old phrase means. The past wasn’t static, it was dynamic, complex and challenging. I truly believe our methods need to reflect this and I certainly think archaeology and heritage are at a point where this is really beginning to happen on a wider scale…and hopefully through projects like this we’re helping it along the way!

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