Some reflections on 3d modelling and virtual construction in archaeology


Archaeological practice has long embraced computer-based visualisation techniques (modelling processes) in order to transform the 2-dimensional quite static photographic and illustrated representations, plans, maps into 3-dimensional[1] data, perceiving its height and depth viz., the z-coordinate. Since the relationship between archaeology and computer graphics can be seen back to 70’s (Monteiro) trying to convey the complexities that archaeological evidence acquires when it comes to its representation, such visualizations-within virtual environments or isolated- facilitate how the assumptions of our interpretation are formed and performed and how subsequently disseminated. The advancements of such “synergistic relationship…[through]…reconstructive modelling” that Reilly referred to when introduced the term “virtual archaeology”(1991), however, have transformed the way we manipulate the 3d visualization of archaeological record in terms of analysis, interpretation, and representation; questioning whether this synergy would be flourished if not accompanied by a methodological underpinning in order to impact and/or augment archaeological research (Forte 2008, 23).


3d model of a  Roman timber rampart imported into archaeological plan, used for archaeological analysisGeoff Carter,, 2016.

The proliferation of 3d interpretative modelling has been proved to be an indispensable scientific tool for “reconstruction” or synthesis  of archaeological heritage since it can be seen to function as a model for shaping “the interplay between empirical observations, assumptions, logical interpretation and extrapolation, and creative imagination” (Clark 2010, 67). Such dynamic qualities re-build the way novel hypotheses of interpretation may be formed, considering dimensions such as space, time, and geometry to be entangled with the process of extraction of archaeological knowledge and thus with the “reasoning process” that Hermon observes to be underemployed (2008, 35). As has been argued by several scholars (Earl 2012; Forte 2008; Hermon 2008;), such potentials, given the extra dimension are equipped with, fuel the agency -choices in each step of construction -of gathering, manipulating, building, and interpreting the information that 3d models convey, enhancing our questions during the “reasoning process”, exploiting thus further digging the answers. Be it for structural analysis of archaeological buildings[2], lighting analysis of the interior of buildings (Papadopoulos et al. 2015), or archaeological visualization through creative narratives and storytelling (Watterson 2014) to name a few of so-called speculative 3-dimensional modelling approaches, they are considered to be conjectures which are modelled providing data that otherwise never be estimated, questioned, re-defined. The subjectivity, or better the multitude of subjectivities that conduce to re-creation of archaeological remains and hypotheses and thus the experimentation of blending them, not only examines patterns associated with the dimensions included, but patterns in the cognition to perceive and interpret them.


Lighting analysis of the interior of Neolithic Building; illuminance values are tested at Koutroulou Magoula (Greece), Papadopoulos C. et al.,  2015, (images © Constantinos Papadopoulos).



 Animatic scenes from excavated areas (top) and hypothetical use of the Neolithic building (bottom), Links of  Noltland archaeological site, Scotland. Phd Thesis Watterson, Alice, 2014, (screenshots by Watterson Alice).

There are, however, many objections in terms of accuracy and utility that such constructions and interpretations may produce, supporting that “the model elements are no more than informed speculation…[considering them as]…invariably partial.”(Ryan 2001, 252). Indeed, through such virtual modelling capacities have arisen disputes, related to whether such approaches contribute to the development of archaeological knowledge itself and when tend to be seen as end in itself (Dallas 2015; Hermon 2008). A key issue of the above criticisms appears to be the non-separation of Virtual Heritage and Virtual Archaeology and therefore their distinct motivation, explanation, scope (Pujol-Tost 2008; Ryan 2001). The lack of methodological objectives, the underestimation of such a tool to be regarded as research tool, let alone the popularity that archaeology receives through virtual applications within cultural heritage conceptions and goals; all the above weaken the “reconstruction” of archaeological material through multidimensional interpretive tools and the archaeological practice to be constructive from destructive that its nature tend to be.

It can be stated thus, that 3d modelling process can reveal many aspects that an archaeological practice can exploit. Extending its questions, archaeological heritage could be identified quite interpretative, for the better understanding and its own development as archaeological practice and therefore thought. Without questioning where the hypotheses derived from, replicating the interactivity of archaeo-environments through the third dimension, the synergy that Reilly underlined appears to be static and even marginalised in terms of its methodological progression.



[1]Three-dimensionality is the geometric property to represent and describe space with three coordinates: the perception of volumes, the scope and depth of field indicate the properties of the environment that we want to describe.” Forte, M., 2008. “Virtual Archaeology: Communication in 3D and Ecological Thinking.” in B. Frischer and A. Dakouri-Hild (eds.), Beyond Illustration: 2D and 3D Digital Technologies as Tools for Discovery in Archaeology, B.A.R. International Series 1805, Archaeopress, Oxford.  p. 25.

[2]Carter, Geoff., 4/11/2016,, Blog.Web. Accessed 13/11/2016.

Referenced works:


Clark, Jeffrey. T., 2010, “The Fallacy of Reconstruction”, In  Maurizio Forte (eds.) Cyber-archaeology, Archaeopress, Oxford, p.67.

Dallas, C. (2015). Curating Archaeological Knowledge in the Digital Continuum: from Practice to InfrastructureOpen Archaeology, 1(1), 176-207, Web. Accessed 13/11/2016.

Earl, G., 2013. Modelling in Archaeology: Computer Graphic and other Digital Pasts, Perspectives on Science, 21 (2), pp. 226-244, Web. Accessed 13/11/2016.

Forte, M.,2008. “Virtual Archaeology: Communication in 3D and Ecological Thinking.” in B. Frischer and A. Dakouri-Hild (eds.), Beyond Illustration: 2D and 3D Digital Technologies as Tools for Discovery in Archaeology , B.A.R. International Series 1805, Archaeopress, Oxford, pp.20-34.

Hermon, S., 2012. Scientific Method, Chaîne Opératoire and Visualization – 3D Modelling as a Research Tool in Archaeology, in Beacham, R., Denard, H. (eds.), Paradata and Transparency in Virtual Heritage, Ashgate, London, pp. 13 – 22.

Hermon, S., 2008. “Reasoning in 3D: a Critical Appraisal of the Role of 3D Modelling and Virtual Reconstructions in Archaeology”, in B. Frischer and A. Dakouri-Hild (eds.), Beyond Illustration: 2D and 3D Technologies as Tools for Discovery in Archaeology, B.A.R. International Series 1805, Archaeopress, Oxford, pp. 35-44, Web. Accessed 13/11/2016.

Monteiro, Paula., Computer Graphics in Archaeology, Web. Accessed 13/11/2016.

Papadopoulos, C., Hamilakis, Y. and Kyparissi-Apostolika, N. (2015). Light in a Neolithic dwelling: Building 1 at Koutroulou Magoula (Greece)Antiquity, 89(347): 1034-50, Web. Accessed 13/11/2016.

Pujol-Tost, L. 2008. ‘Does virtual archaeology exist?’ In A. Posluschny, K. Lambers and I. Herzog (eds.), Layers of Perception: Proceedings of the 35 the International Conference on Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology 35, p. 101-107, Web. Accessed 13/11/2016.

Reilly, P. 1991. Towards a virtual archaeology, In Lockyear, K. and Rahtz, S. (eds) Proceedings of the 18th computer applications and quantitative methods in archaeology conference (CAA 1990), Southampton, UK. Oxford, Tempvs Reparatvm British Archaeological Reports International Series 565, p. 134, Web. Accessed 13/11/2016.

Ryan, N., 2001. “Documenting and Validating Virtual Archaeology”. Archeologia e Calcolatori , Vol. 12, pp. 245–273, Web. Accessed 13/11/2016.

Watterson, Alice, 2014. Engaging with the Visual: Re-Thinking Interpretive Archaeological Visualisation. PhD thesis, The Glasgow School of Art, Web. Accessed 13/11/2016.