Subjectivity and 3D Modelling in Archaeology

I was in Tübingen last week for the Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology conference, partly to present my own work but largely (and more importantly, in my opinion) to see what others are doing in digital archaeology. There were a number of very good papers that made me think quite a bit about various things, so I will try to organise all that in a series of posts over the next couple of weeks.

One talk produced a thought/statement that more or less summarises much of my thoughts during this PhD process: by treating subjectivity in visualisation as a negative to be avoided, we are avoiding much of the very nature of archaeology itself, and also the very nature of archaeological visualisation.

There is a tendency in digital archaeology (and also much of archaeology) to strive for the most objective representation possible, the most objective measurements possible. I am not opposed to objective measurements, but there tends to be the assumption that an object modelled with lasers is objective, that a photogrammetric 3D model is objective. But there is no such thing as a purely objective model.

No matter how objective we may strive to be, there is always human choice in science. Choice to measure certain variables and not others, choice in how we measure those variables, and choice in how to analyse and then represent the data we collect. There is then a large amount of human choice in determining whether patterns exist and what they mean, if anything.

The same is true with a 3D model. We choose what object to model, at what resolution, with which tools. We choose which representation we prefer, for a variety of reasons. We delete points that we deem incorrect, we disable images we feel are inaccurate, and we apply the textures we feel best represent what the object looks like.

It is true that certain techniques produce more accurate models of an object, in that the surface they create is more similar or more likely to be similar to the actual surface of the object. But accuracy is itself a relative term, defined by what it is you are trying to achieve.

There is nothing wrong with 3D models being subjective. They can never really not be, at least not with current techniques. The danger is in assuming that what is produced through laser scanning or white light scanning is entirely objective, free of any human bias. This assumption seems to permeate discussions of 3D models, particularly those using models to calculate measurements. As if human error only applies to measurements made with a tape on the ground.

We must always remember that our models are subjective. We make choices in making visual representations in archaeology. We choose what to represent and how, which will invariably affect what we see. To deny our models’ subjectivity is to deny our role in the process of their creation.

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About Heather Christie

Heather is an archaeologist, photographer, and writer whose research focuses on beads and bead trade, particularly in a maritime sense. She's currently working working on a PhD in Digital Design (focusing on heritage visualisation) at the Glasgow School of Art.
This entry was posted in Heritage Visualisation, Lab Notes, Seminars and Conferences, Theory/Literature and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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