Digital Authenticities of Archaeological Objects in National Geographic

Model and Reality of the Sphinx of Delphi at the Delphi Archaeological Museum in Greece.

Model and Reality of the Sphinx of Delphi at the Delphi Archaeological Museum in Greece.

Excitingly, National Geographic seems to have taken it upon themselves to stalk mine and Vid’s research,  discussing it with my former adviser.

In their recent digital article: Tut’s Tomb: A Replica Fit for a King, CISA3s efforts were “described”with reference to the annotated digital tourism and new evolution of needed development of ethical cyberarchaeology policy to handle these new authenticities.

The full article is up on the National Geographic sites. Below is an excerpt of the work highlighting the work that Vid and I have been undertaking to create the currently still undeveloped pipelines to streamline data from the field to these virtual environments, and more importantly and awesomely–our theoretical and somewhat philosophical work on what this kind of digital tourism will mean for cultural heritage in the future. For more on these concepts of ethical digital policy construction, open access to virtual cultural heritage, and the phenomenological realities of the digital past, check out the presentations included in previous blogs like The Digital International Congress in Marseilles or The Virtual Archaeology, Museums, and Cultural Tourism Conference in Delphi, Greece    or the blog Winning the Judge’s Choice Award from the National Science Foundation .

“Beyond Tut

The backdrop to the arrival of technological marvels like this facsimile is the emergence of a new field, cyber archaeology. Cyber archaeology seeks to embrace digital technology while looking for ways it can serve, enhance, and share the “experience” of antiquity. It’s a marriage of state-of-the-art digital tools with computer science, archaeology, engineering, and natural sciences.

One approach is to make a physical copy, like Lowe’s; the other is to do scholarly research about a site without actually having to be at the site. Archaeologists now have the capability to digitally record an entire excavation and manipulate the data to create a 3-D framework that can then be projected through a slew of adjoined television screens in such a way that you feel as though you’re walking around inside a video.

“We’re able to walk away from an excavation with the whole archaeological site on a hard drive,” said Thomas Levy. He’s a professor of anthropology and archaeology at the University of California, San Diego and associate director of the Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology.

“Let’s say you wanted to test your ideas about when a site was built, which we did with a contentious site in Jordan related to King Solomon’s mines,” he said. “With this amazing data I’ve collected, I can then take you into a 3-D visualization theater and we can enter the excavation. I can be in San Diego and I can get a cup of coffee and I can throw in my 3-D data set with geo-reference pics of the actual excavation, and I can walk around in it again.”

What he was describing sounded suspiciously like a “holodeck,” or perhaps a precursor to a holodeck—the computer-driven theater on Star Trek: The Next Generation that can create fully functional, entirely “solid” three-dimensional environments from any place and time that the characters then interact with. The apparatus in San Diego that Levy’s talking about involves 30 television screens that “we kind of knit together, put in a kind of wave pattern or circle, and you can walk in front of them or around them and they have the ability to track your vision, so if you tilt your head you can look around corners.” The effect is a realistic experience that Levy says can have its own emotional impact: “What if I go to Machu Picchu but can’t stay up on the mountain past four in the afternoon, but somebody did a digital reconstruction and recorded it at sunset? Then I can go back home to UCSD and project it through our 3-D visualization environment and have that experience.”

As for the Tut facsimile: Although it is “actually” in Egypt, he said, the beauty of the technology is it allows anyone who has those data files to make a copy “anywhere on the planet.” In a pleasing irony, technology may pave the way to sustainable tourism and actually save antiquity—”sharing” it with a broader audience than ever imagined while sparing the originals from the ravages of tourism and making it difficult for any privileged few to hoard world cultural heritage and keep it unavailable.

This emergence of cyber archaeology raises questions it will take years to resolve as “archaeological policy” makers sort out the headaches and opportunities: Who owns the data? What do you do with the original sites as you run out of room on the planet? How do you distribute collected digital data ethically?

“It’s really exciting,” Levy said.””

Myself, Vid, and Mike on the roof of the Uffizi gallery in Florence. Just because.

Myself, Vid, and Mike on the roof of the Uffizi gallery in Florence. Just because.

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