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VCU Archaeology

Presenting Heritage: the Future of the Past

By Bernard K. Means, director of the Virtual Curation Laboratory

Aloha from the 78th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) in Honolulu, Hawaii!

Early morning in Honolulu

Early morning in Honolulu

As I write this, on Sunday, April 7, 2013, the SAA meeting has come to a close.  I’ll admit that my good intentions of seeing papers this morning lost out to a second trip to the beach and the long trek to the base of Diamond Head.  Nonetheless, the three preceding days were very fruitful, in terms of meeting new colleagues, renewing acquaintances, and discussing new collaborative efforts between the Virtual Curation Laboratory and people and projects across the world.

My presentation this year was not directly about virtual archaeology, although I did manage to incorporate a brief discussion about 3D digital models of artifacts.  In a session organized by Neha Gupta of McGill University and myself, I joined my fellow session participants in examining various histories of archaeologies from around the world using a spatial perspective.  I focused on my attempts to create a national map of all New Deal-funded archaeological survey and excavation projects, referencing digital artifact models as an important tool for researching collections generated by work relief projects.

One of the presenters in our session was Charlotte Young, a doctoral student in Ancient History from the University of Exeter. She discussed her research into how major theoretical developments—especially the rise of processualism and post-processualism—affected how photographs were used to document archaeological investigations.  The processualists, for one, began to eschew the “peasant boy for scale” in favor of an actual scale.  Charlotte and I had a number of conversations during the SAA meeting, and these have really helped clarify some aspects of my thinking about archaeological visualization and how it relates to virtual curation.  I was struck by her comment that those archaeologists who are using sophisticated ways of visualizing the past still turn to “standard” archaeological illustrations or photographs as a way to talk about their cutting edge-research—using the old visualization paradigms to validate the new.

A replica Susquehannock pipe bowl gazes at a Hawaiian rainbow.

A replica Susquehannock pipe bowl gazes at a Hawaiian rainbow.

I brought along with me several digital models that I kept on my smartphone and a large number of plastic replicas. The digital models weighed literally nothing, and two dozen plastic replicas were fairly light as well—an important consideration when flying from Virginia to Hawaii. I used these digital models and replicas as a way of sparking dialogue with other scholars, both those using the latest technologies to display their results, and those relying on more time-worn—and more acceptable—forms of communication.  The plastic replicas were particularly effective in this latter task.  In fact, the plastic replicas opened up some collaborative opportunities—including the possibility of generating a very large phytolith from a digital scan  that could be used as a teaching tool.

Although this is a particularly subjective assessment, I felt there was an almost exponentially greater number of scholars drawing on various digital tools and technologies to analyze and visualize their archaeological projects than I saw at the 2012 annual SAA meeting in Memphis, Tennessee.  As tools and technologies become more inexpensive and easier to use, visualization of the past via digital means, including virtual curation efforts, will become as commonplace as photographs are today.  This will enhance our ability to both preserve and share our many pasts.

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