Post 1: 3DM – Introduction to Illustration and Reconstruction in Cultural Heritage

The following post is part of a series of posts for the AFF621: 3D computer modeling assignment for the Remaking the Physical module in the MA for Digital Humanities (NUIM). As discussed in the introductory post, students were asked to compile a series of blogs to discuss their project and also the issues involved in the production of three-dimensional computer (3D) models for cultural heritage projects. The use of 3D computer models for cultural heritage projects is a relatively new concept. Thus, the challenges and issues for 3D modelling in the cultural heritage sector is in a continuous state of evolution, in part because theoretical aspects still lag behind the speed to which computer technology is being advanced. This post introduces the emergence of archaeological illustration, as we might know it today, and then discusses the concept of reconstruction in the fields of archaeology and cultural heritage.



Augustus Pitt Rivers. Image Source: Wikipedia

The emergence of archaeological illustration of artefacts as we might know it today can be traced General Pitt-Rivers and similar peers from the 1880s onwards (Nylund 18; Dobie and Evans 2). Pitt-Rivers (1827-1900) was an English army officer and archaeologist, and is acclaimed to have influenced the “the principles of modern scientific archaeological fieldwork and recording” (Hicks). Prior to this, while noteworthy catalogues existed with illustrations of finds, there was no defined discipline for skilled archaeological illustration (Dobie and Evans 2). Pitt-Rivers encouraged a more scientific and “structured approach” which resulted in greater attention being given to the detailing of an artefact and prompted “techniques such as shading to indicate an object’s three-dimensionality” (Nylund 18). This indicates the establishment of a methodology for producing illustrations which concentrated on a more realistic interpretation of artefacts and small finds.


From the 1960s, various schools of thought emerged placing archaeology on a continuum with science at one end and humanities on the other (Renfrew and Bahn “Introduction”). Processual or ‘New’ archaeology is one such school that began to rely on a more scientific approach. While some archaeologists had embraced computers from the early 1960s (Zubrow 16), computational methods used by archaeologists were mostly concerned with “numerical analysis toward on-site recording systems and. . . database management systems” (Webb qtd. in Frischer vi). Processual archaeologists were keen to embrace this on the basis of producing more scientific results, on the other hand, post-processual archaeology evolved as a counter-movement, and computational methods were frowned upon (Zubrow 17; 27). Developments in photography also provided another option for documenting and presenting archaeological sites and finds, and for cataloguing artefacts, but even with the advances in cost-effective reproduction of quality prints, illustrative drawings continued to be used in presentation (Adkins and Adkins 6). Adkins and Adkins suggest that this remains the case as it is possible to convey “more relevant and comparable information and can be edited more easily than a photograph” (6). A single photograph might provide “a good overall realistic impression”, but lighting conditions may obscure detail (Adkins and Adkins 6), a photograph will not necessarily provide a perception of depth (Nylund 19), and photographs may be taken at an oblique angle, thus distorting the shape of an object.

The purpose of a modern day archaeological illustration is “to convey information” on the technical aspects of an object such as dimensions and drawing to scale, material type, mode of construction, traces of use or damage, organic residue stains and so on (Nautical Archaeology Society 172-173 – Nylund 18). It must also contain enough lucidity and accuracy to enable other researchers to refer to an illustration for comparison against other similar finds (Nautical Archaeology Society 173). The comparison process assists archaeologists in assigning objects to “a particular place in typologies and chronological sequences” (Moser). Nonetheless, the illustration is still seen as “an interpretation”, and an illustrator is “actually drawing out the meaning” (Dobie and Evans 31; Zimmerman 50). This suggests that archaeological illustration is a more selective process (Moser); indeed, Dobie and Evans suggest that if an illustrator becomes accustomed to working with a particular set of objects they will know “how to select and accentuate” (31). Various symbols and conventions are utilised in specialised archaeological illustrations “so that the maximum amount of information can be conveyed as economically as possible” (Adkins and Adkins 9). However, this is problematic if the intended audience is not familiar with such encodings (Zimmerman 50). Therefore, an illustrator needs to be flexible in approach, and always consider the intended audience as the main directive (Adkins and Adkins 9; Zimmerman 49). From this it is clear that the intended audience is a deciding factor when planning an approach for the design of a hand-drawn archaeological illustration.

For obvious reasons, illustration remained the best means of presenting a “reconstruction” or interpretative model for how an archaeological object/site may have looked, based on information deduced from excavations and the recovery of small finds, artefacts, organic and material residue etcetera. Clarke infers that the “notion of ‘reconstructing the past’ has long been part of archaeology as an academic discipline” (64). Indeed, Gardin suggests that “an archaeological explanation is meant to reconstruct past events or ways of life through the properties of material evidence and any other information available” (qtd. in Banning 2).  Virginia Allon’s commentary also offers a good example of how the term ‘social reconstruction’ is used within an archaeological/anthropological context of describing/interpreting the past. However, Clarke claims that the use of the term reconstruction by archaeologists is a misnomer, as he believes that “with few exceptions [one] cannot, ‘reconstruct’ the past; one can only construct models or simulations of the past” (63, italics in original).[1] Of importance here is not Clarke’s dismissal of the concept, rather, it is the usage of the term ‘reconstruction‘. Clarke prefers to describe this notion as the construction of a model, and modeling as a tool “to help us think about and better understand some complex phenomenon” (67). When modeling is used as a tool to convey understanding, then the choice of model will depend on its intended purpose and who needs to understand the information being conveyed (Clarke 68; also Zimmerman 50). Similarly, the choice of illustration used to convey a model also needs to be considered in terms of context and audience.

With the development of critical theories in cultural studies (Zubrow 17), discussions emerged that were “centred upon the nature of interpretative illustration in archaeology” (Bateman). One example of such debate concerns the authenticity of archaeological illustrations created by an artist rather than an archaeologist (Bateman), another relates to the authenticity of archaeological illustrations and photography in a picturesque manner, which exemplified notions of Empire (Weiler). Nevertheless, on a whole, archaeological illustration evolved to become a disciplined area with rules of draughtsmanship, and a concern for legitimacy, context and audience. However, from the 1990s, other debates erupted which concerns the use of computer graphics in archaeological visualisation and will be examined in the next post.


[1] Elsewhere the term social reconstruction has been fundamentally associated with an ideology/philosophy for the future. For example, Bertrand Russell’s work on The Principles of Social Reconstruction (1916) is based in political philosophy and concerned with the future roles of the State, Education, and Marriage against the backdrop of World War One. The term was then associated with educational developments for the future from the 1920s, and with the work of the Social Reconstructionists from 1930s-1950s. Indeed, some commentators infer that it was influential in the foundation of Critical Pedagogy in the 1980s (See for example Karen Lea Riley “Introduction”).


  • Adkins, Lesley, and Roy A. Adkins. Archaeological Illustration. Cambridge; New York; Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Google Books.
  • Allon, Virginia. “The Cultural Usage of Space towards Social Reconstruction in Archaeology.” Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford 11.13 (1980): 207-210. Web. 03 Feb. 2014. <>
  • Banning, E. B.. The Archaeologist’s Laboratory. The Analysis of Archeological Data. Hingham, MA, USA: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000. ProQuest ebrary.
  • Bateman, Johnathan. “Immediate Realities: an anthropology of computer visualisation in archaeology.” Internet Archaeology 8 (2000) Web. 24 March 2015 <>
  • Clark, J. T. 2010. “The Fallacy of Reconstruction.” Cyber-archaeology. Ed. M. Forte, Archaeopress, 2010.
  • Dobie, Judith and Chris Evans. Archaeology and Illustrators: A History of the Ancient Monuments Drawing Office. Research Department Report Series no. 33, English Heritage, 2010. Web. 12 Apr. 2015. <>
  • Frischer, Bernard. “Introduction: From Digital Illustration to Digital Heuristics” Beyond Illustration: 2D and 3D Digital Tools for Discovery in Archaeology. Eds. Eds. Bernard Frischer and Anastasia Dakouri-Hild. BAR International Series 1805.  Archaeopress, Oxford., 2008. Print.
  • Hicks, Dan. Excavating Pitt-Rivers. N.p., 29 Sept. 2014. Web. 14 Apr. 2015. <>
  • Moser, Stephanie. “Archaeological visualisation: early artefact illustration and the birth of the archaeological image.” Archaeological Theory Today, 2nd Edition. Cambridge;       Malden: John Wiley & Sons, 2014. Google Books.
  • Nautical Archaeology Society. Underwater Archaeology: The NAS Guide to Principles and Practice. Hoboken, NJ, USA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 17     April 2015.
  • Nylund, Sara. “Artist or Specialist?” Archaeology Ireland 23 2 (2009):18-21. JSTOR. Web. 12 April 2015.
  • Renfrew, Colin and Paul Bahn. Archaeology: The Key Concepts. London; New York: Routledge. Web. 04 April 2015 <>
  • Riley, Karen Lea. Social Reconstruction: People, Politics, Perspectives. IAP, 2006. Google Books.
  • Weiler, Katharina. “Picturesque Authenticity in Early Archaeological Photography in British India.” “Archaeologizing” Heritage?. Ed. Michael Falser and Monica Juneja. Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2013. 39–59. Springer. Web. 07 Apr. 2015.
  •  Zimmerman, Larry J. Presenting the Past. Oxford: Rowman Altamira, 2003. Google Books.
  •  Zubrow, E. B. W. “A Historical Context.” Digital Archaeology: Bridging Method and Theory. Ed. Thomas Laurence Evans and Patrick Daly. Oxon; New York: Psychology Press, 2006. Google Books.
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