Adam Rabinowitz is an Associate Professor in the Department of Classics at The University of Texas at Austin. He considers himself a dirt archaeologist, and has dug at a number of sites in Italy, Tunisia, England, Israel, and Ukraine over the last 25 years. Until 2014, he was co-director of an archaeological and heritage management project at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Tauric Chersonesos in Crimea, but since fieldwork for this phase of the project ended in 2006 and geopolitical considerations intervened in 2014, he is currently dealing with the paper and digital records created by archaeological work, in preparation for various publications. He is interested in digital tools for the preservation of archival data and for the presentation of archaeological research and information to the public, which he sees as the more socially conscious part of the discipline... but he would really like to be digging again. Maybe Romania next.

Why does an archaeologist archaeologize?

Finally — after bemoaning archival work and archaeological bits and bytes in previous posts — I stepped into a trench on a Day of Archaeology, for the first time in five years. Ok, it wasn’t my trench, or my site, and no one was actually digging in it at the time, and it was only for a few minutes… but it was a trench, with dirt and walls and sherds and mysterious rocks and baulks and everything. And it means I’m a step closer to having my hands in the dirt again.

I am writing from the Dobrogea region of Romania, where I’ve come to explore the archaeological situation and identify possibilities for a collaborative field project in the future. Archaeologists from Institutul de Arheologie Vasile Pârvan in Bucharest and from the museums of Constanta and Tomis have been incredibly kind and generous with their time, explaining their sites and material to me, showing me around, and answering lots of what I suspect are annoyingly obvious questions about archaeological practice and heritage management in Romania. And feeding me. I’m hoping that some of these conversations may grow into a project focused on the countryside in the Greek period and on the relationships between Greek settlers and local populations.

I haven’t been back to Chersonesos in Crimea, where I had been carrying out a project, since 2011, and given the current political situation, I don’t know when I’ll be able to get back (unless the Russian claim to Crimea is recognized under a President Trump, in which case we will all have much bigger problems). As those who read my previous posts know, the longer I’m away from a dig, the more restless I become. I was conscious of this as I planned this trip, and although there are a number of solid reasons to begin a new project — to investigate unanswered questions, to bring students into the field, to build international collaborative relationships, to test novel recording methods — there are lots of reasons not to dig, both professional and personal. So I’ve been wondering lately why I feel such a pull back to to dusty gray soil and sun-baked hilltops. This is the question I wanted to explore for this Day of Archaeology.

I had some ideas about what I was going to write, and a few very strong visuals from my younger days: some rusty tools I dug up near our house when I was eight or nine, from a shed that had been bulldozed long ago; an image of the site director buzzing an excavation in Sicily in an ultralight aircraft that happened to fly by and offered to help us with aerial photographs (this was back in the old days of kites and balloons, none of these drones the kids all have now); the delicate bones of the first skeleton I excavated. I usually try to explain the draw of archaeology in terms of stories — our work, at its best, makes us the world’s remembrancers, restoring the forgotten stories of the vast crowd of the dead a few people at a time. It also allows us, as archaeologists, to add lost time to our own share of life. For me, at least, engagement in an archaeological project can seem like living two lives at once: your own, with your trowel or books or sunburn or scraped knuckles or hunger pangs, and the one you’re creating in your mind’s eye as you try to make sense of the physical fragments of past time.

This is the direction I’d planned to take until this afternoon, when a colleague with an excavation in the Roman town of Tropaeum Traiani in Adamclisi, in the Dobrogea region of Romania, gave me a tour around the site and then arranged for us to climb up to the top of the modern reconstruction that surrounds the Trajanic victory monument. It reminded me a bit of climbing to the top of Trajan’s Column in Rome a long time ago, when I was a student at the Centro (apparently I only climb to the top of tall ancient things built by Trajan).

Sitting on the roof of the Tropaeum Traiani, Trajan's victory monument at Adamclisi, Romania.

Sitting on the roof of the Tropaeum Traiani, Trajan’s victory monument at Adamclisi, Romania.

As with Trajan’s Column, climbing the Tropaeum is not an experience open to the general public — it’s one of those gifts that archaeologists give each other, in recognition of a shared love of the past. And it made me realize that there’s another reason altogether why archaeologists archaeologize (or at least why I archaeologize): you get access to secrets. Not political or military secrets, not celebrity secrets, but secrets in the ground, secrets in objects, secrets in trash, secrets inside reconstructions or restorations that seem seamless and natural from outside, secrets in people’s very bones.

This desire for intimate secret knowledge of the past underlies treasure-hunting, too, at least as it’s always represented in the movies (remember Indy and the Staff of Ra?), and it drives aliens-built-the-pyramids and lost-city-of-Atlantis pseudoscience. It’s a lot less noble than serving the memory of the world, and a lot more self-indulgent. When it leads to the hoarding of archaeological information by scholars or to the purchase of looted antiquities by wealthy collectors, I’d classify it as a sin. But when it’s channeled toward curiosity rather than greed, and toward sharing rather than covetousness, it can be a powerful engine for good storytelling. When we’re nosy, we’re not satisfied with easy answers, and we want to get to the bottom of things. We don’t want to accept what people in the past tell us about themselves; we want to know what they were really up to.

This is one of the central paradoxes of archaeology, along with the notion that we destroy the object of our investigation by investigating it. In the real world, secrets are valuable when they’re kept, or divulged in very controlled ways (see the Wikileaks dump of the DNC emails). But in archaeology, those secrets that keep us coming back are only valuable when they are not kept. They acquire value by being shared, especially when they help us to tell richer, more complicated, more human stories. This is the point of our endeavor, if it is to be meaningful and not just a narcissistic exercise in collecting preciousssessss. Archaeologists, let’s find better ways to share the secrets we find with each other and with the wider world. And for those readers who are not archaeologists, ask one of us to tell you a story — and don’t settle for any old tired story about the past. Ask for one with secrets.

Making that connection

For a very long time, late July and early August were synonymous for me with the frantic days at the end of a dig season, followed by a series of exhausting travel connections — trains, cars, planes, more planes — as I worked my way home. I suspect that this is a familiar image to many Day of Archaeology bloggers, and some are probably trying to make their connections on the way to or from a dig as I write. For the fourth summer in a row, however, I’m not in the field, and as a result I’ve been thinking of connections from a different perspective. Instead of those airport connections I was always on the verge of missing, I’ve been thinking about the way we make connections to archaeological material in an increasingly digital space.

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that my Day of Archaeology could be summed up as a series of interconnected stories about — what else! — connections. The first of these stories emerged from the Intro to Ancient Greece class I’m teaching this summer. My students had an exam today — perhaps not the most fun way to celebrate the occasion, but apropos, because on that exam I asked them both to make connections between the present, the Odyssey, and Aegean Bronze Age archaeology, and to explore the connections that existed in the past between different places and cultures (one of the essay choices asked them to consider whether culture-contact was a positive or a dangerous force in the development of a society).

On a more engaging level, the same students will be working over the weekend on a group project. Each student group is tasked with creating a spatial narrative using the Knight Lab’s StoryMap platform. I usually have student groups do a slightly different project using the Open Knowledge Foundation’s Timemapper interface, but small summer classes allow me to experiment, so I thought I’d try something new.  Ordinarily, I ask them to create their own take on an aspect of ancient Greece by placing five related objects or events in space and time. StoryMap focuses less on time and more on connections across space, though, so for this assignment I asked them to tell a story through the construction of an itinerary with seven stops. Here’s an example I made for them, using the voyage of Odysseus to look at later traditions associating it with real places. I’m hoping that this project will help them to get even more comfortable with the idea of connections between places, objects, ideas and people in the ancient Greek world.

The second story still involves students, but this time in the background. I’m currently the editor for Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic Greek Archaeology for the 5th, online-only, edition of the Oxford Classical Dictionary (pitch me if you have a post-Bronze-Age Greek archaeology entry you think needs to be added!). Over the last year, the editors have been meeting with each other and OUP to work out how this edition will take advantage of the web, and we’ve been soliciting new content for a launch next spring. This afternoon, I finished the editorial review of the first completed contribution in my area. It was a great entry — short, clear, well referenced, authoritative. At the same time, there were lots of potential connections to online resources that hadn’t yet been included, and going through and identifying some of them gave me the most exciting vision I’ve had yet of what this new OCD might become. I’ve also been lobbying hard for the inclusion of Linked Data approaches and the use of Uniform Resource Identifiers (URIs) from various gazetteers in the metadata associated with entries, so that the entries can benefit from those resources (automated mini-maps generated by named-entity-recognition and alignment with Pleiades!) and — I hope — so that they can eventually enrich the LD ecosystem too. My goal in this work is to make more resources discoverable, not only for students but also for the public and, frankly, for us professionals. I’d love to look up an obscure archaeological site I don’t know in the OCD and find not only summary information, but also a link to database entries for objects that were found there a hundred years ago. Also, I’m a visual person — I like seeing pictures of things, and I like being able to find more pictures of similar things that I might have missed. I think the OCD project has tremendous potential in this area.

That is, as long as it links out, as long as it allows links in, and as long as there are shared reference points that can help to organize all these connections. I’ve seen this work, on an impressive scale, with the Pelagios project, now in its fourth and even more ambitious incarnation. The Pelagios team used URIs from the Pleiades gazetteer and a community of practice to tie together archaeological, topographical, photographical, and literary information from across the ancient world, and now have their sights set on the medieval world and the East. Having seen how their approach made it possible to build connections across datasets while building connections across a community of practice, I joined forces with Ryan Shaw at the University of North Carolina and Eric Kansa of Open Context to propose a gazetteer that might do something similar with time periods (as we all know, a source of intractable disagreement, or at least inconsistency, among most archaeologists). Through the generous funding of the NEH Office of Digital Humanities, we have been able to build Periods, Organized (PeriodO, for short), a gazetteer of period definitions that attempts to get around the problem of agreement by providing a URI for any period definition that includes coordinates in space, coordinates in time, and a citable authority.

And this leads me to my third story. I spent the other part of my afternoon today writing emails to PeriodO collaborators, including UNC PHD student Patrick Golden, to whose web development chops we owe a major debt (thank him for the impressive and responsive PeriodO user interface), and meeting with Sarah Buchanan, a PhD student at the School of Information here at the University of Texas at Austin, through whose efforts our initial dataset (now more than 1700 definitions) has been populated. We’re approaching a point in the project where we’ll be able to accept contributions directly from users, and we’re trying to incorporate a few key datasets that will serve as a resource for other linked data projects. This is what really draws me to the linked-data community: even though I sometimes feel a bit lost in all the terms, the potential for this approach to connect and reveal information stands out, and — at least in the ancient world — its ability to connect us as scholars is constantly on display.

Over the next year, thanks to the Provost Teaching Fellows program at UT, I’ll be working on a project that seeks to make it easier for those of us who are not RDF aficionados to generate linked-data-ready metadata, while creating tools that help us to involve students in the process. This, then, is my Day of Archaeology: working to help students connect information about the past, working to build an infrastructure in which it’s easier for everyone to connect to information about the past (and to connect one set of information to another), and working to make connections within a community that will foster and advance our shared efforts. Ok, I’m not running from the domestic to the international terminal at Boryspil to catch a plane, or getting off an overnight train from Catania at Termini, but these kinds of connections are pretty good, too.

Archaeologists tossed on the tides of history

The Day of Archaeology this year found me once again working in an archive, far from a dig site — but this time for very different reasons, and with very different questions, than the same day last year. This time, I’m facing the consequences of a geopolitical shift that has left the site where I’ve been working, Chersonesos in Crimea, either in a new country (Russia, in the eyes of most Crimeans and the Russian Federation, and in practical terms) or in occupied territory (in the eyes of Ukraine and the UN). This change happened without violence or destruction in Crimea, and having seen through the eyes of archaeologist friends who work in Syria and Egypt how much worse it could be (see here and here and here, for starters), I’m grateful for that. Chersonesos is also still in good hands, and I’m still working with my collaborators at the National Preserve there on our publication projects. But I have had to come to terms with the reality that it will probably be a very long time before I can go back to the site where I spent most of my summers between 2002 and 2011.

This had naturally led me to think about historical context again: but this time, not archaeology in the historical context of its development as a discipline, but archaeologists in the historical context of recent political history. Most of us are primarily interested in unwrapping the stories of the more distant human past, and it’s tempting to push the modern political context into the background — if not in our daily practice, then at least in our publications. There’s a stark contrast, for example, between the matter-of-fact archaeological publications from Europe of excavations carried out in the 1930s and 1940s and the realities on the ground for archaeologists themselves during that period. In some cases, archaeologists took it on themselves to play an active role in conflicts, as Susan Heuck Allen has recently described in her book Classical Spies, on archaeologists and classicists working with the OSS during WWII in Greece. In other cases, archaeologists were simply at the mercy of the political agendas or military conflicts that took place around them. Some survived and flourished in later, calmer times; some saw their careers disappear; and some disappeared themselves.

For this Day of Archaeology, then, I thought I’d write about archaeology in Crimea at another moment of political tension. I spent the morning of July 11th in the archives of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, looking at correspondence related to the activities of a Russian emigré scholar named Eugene Golomshtok. I was looking at Golomshtok because I’ve been working (much, much too slowly) on a book project with another Russian emigré scholar, Aleksandr Leskov, at the core of which is the publication of material from a joint US-Soviet archaeological expedition to Eski-Kermen that Golomshtok co-directed in the summer of 1933. Dr. Leskov has written up the excavation, materials from which were divided between Penn and St. Petersburg (then Leningrad), and which for various reasons was never published. He has also produced chapters on the early history of the Crimean Scythians and the Taurians, and the project is waiting for me to cover the interactions between these populations and the early Greek colonists in southwest Crimea.

A scene from the joint excavations carried out by Eugene Golomshtok and N. Repnikov at Eski Kermen in the summer of 1933. Image courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives.

A scene from the joint excavations carried out by Eugene Golomshtok and N. Repnikov at Eski Kermen in the summer of 1933. Image courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives.

As I approached this project, though, I started to be curious about the modern context as well. How did this US-Soviet collaboration — which mirrored in some ways the US-Ukrainian collaboration between the Institute of Classical Archaeology and the National Preserve of Tauric Chersonesos — come about? How were those relationships managed at a time of great political tension? And was there any awareness on the part of the US side of the political and historical circumstances under which it took place? 1933, after all, saw not only the run-up to Stalin’s Great Terror, but the final peak of a catastrophic famine — the Holodomor, to Ukrainians — that killed between 2.4 and 7.5 million people in the territory of the Ukrainian SSR. Though it was hard to get reliable news from the Soviet propaganda machine, there had in fact been a very public argument about the presence of a famine in the spring of 1933 between New York Times writer Walter Duranty and Gareth Jones, an aid to David Lloyd George in the UK, who had taken an unauthorized walking tour of the USSR in early 1933 and made a series of statements about the dire nature of the situation to the press.

I had been hoping to find in Golomshtok’s letters in the archives some direct acknowledgement of the famine or of the broader political circumstances surrounding the Crimean expedition in 1933. I didn’t. The closest he ever came to mentioning the famine is the inclusion of a reference to “the food problem” in a letter about the organization of the project. But there’s still a very interesting story here, one that touches on both the history of archaeology in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and the history of the development of prehistoric archaeology — as well as on the rather sad history of Dr. Golomshtok, who emigrated to the US in 1918 at the age of 20, clearly in the wake of the Revolution, and despite a number of publications on both Native American archaeology and the Paleolithic in Southern Russia and Siberia, never managed to find a stable academic position. He was affiliated with the Penn Museum from 1930 to around 1937, but the refusal of the USSR to issue him a visa in 1934 and thereafter clearly made him less of an asset, and the correspondence with the Museum grows increasingly frosty in the late 1930s and early 1940s, especially after the retirement of director Horace Jayne, who had supported him. As far as I can tell, Golomshtok did not publish any more scientific work after the early 40s, and he seems to have died in 1950 at the age of 52.

A view of Cherkez-Kermen from Eski Kermen, looking toward Sevastopol. This could be the picture Repnikov mentioned in his discussion of Golomshtok in his excavation report. Image courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives.

A view of Cherkez-Kermen from Eski Kermen, looking toward Sevastopol. This could be the picture Repnikov mentioned in his discussion of Golomshtok in his excavation report. Image courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives.

Where the meat of this story lies, I think, is in the circumstances that led to the initiation of the project in the first place, in the way the excavation unfolded, and in the denial of Golomshtok’s visa in 1934. The first issue has to do with the reframing of prehistoric archaeology in the US and the USSR in the 1930s, and with a massive increase of interest in the Paleolithic and the migrations of human populations. Golomshtok’s own research seems to have been focused on the very early peoples of Siberia and the Americas, and in fact he originally intended to participate in a Paleolithic excavation in Siberia, not an Iron Age and medieval excavation in Crimea. The second and third issues have to do with the political situation in the Soviet Union in 1933 — and here’s where archaeology and politics intersect again. Golomshtok’s report on the excavation suggests that he and Repnikov did not get along: he didn’t think that Repnikov was a good archaeologist. The unexpected denial of Golomshtok’s visa to return to the USSR in the summer of 1934 for a rescue-excavation project at Manych in the Caucasus was the object of much speculation and negotiation on the part of Penn and Golomshtok himself over the next two years. But two hints can be found in Golomshtok’s letters: one, Repnikov seems to have filed a report on the excavation in which he accused Golomshtok of taking photos of the “fortifications of Sevastopol” from the top of Eski Kermen; and two, Golomshtok suggests in a telegram that he’d been denied entry so that he couldn’t comment on the disappearance of many of the people he’d worked with at the various institutes of archaeology. The purges had begun.

A telegram sent to the Penn Museum from Golomshtok in the summer of 1934, after he leaned his visa had been denied. Image courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives.

A telegram sent to the Penn Museum from Golomshtok in the summer of 1934, after he leaned his visa had been denied. Image courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives.

All of this is a reminder that archaeologists don’t work in a realm of ideas and abstraction: we work in the real world, and are subject to the larger movements of history. The acts of discovery and of telling stories about the past are of fundamental importance in archaeology, but we shouldn’t forget that we tell those stories in the context of our own. The juxtaposition of the banal and the dramatic in these archives is a striking demonstration of this. In between the dry excavation budgets, publication agreements, and disputes over the shipping of books exchanged between Penn and partners in the USSR in this archive is the story of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. Most of us hope to live in less interesting times, but as my colleagues and I were forcibly reminded by the change in Crimea’s status, it’s not usually up to us.

Representing archaeology

In police procedurals on TV, “driving a desk” is always the worst punishment imposed by the gruff police chief on the maverick detective. Being pulled out of the field and made to fill out paperwork takes the heart out of the job — the protagonist is always trying to find away to get back into active duty. I feel somewhat the same way about archaeology: I was in the field almost every year for nearly the first two decades of my involvement in the discipline, and the last five years or so I’ve spent working on publication projects has left me very restless. I can understand why some field projects never get published — it’s just too tempting to stay out there.

So while most of my days recently have been spent writing a book that uses data produced by other archaeologists, and preparing a book that presents the results of my own most recent dig, I thought I’d spend the Day of Archaeology doing a little of the hands-on detective work that I miss. I couldn’t get my hands dirty, alas, but I could at least go digging in some archives. My mission: to find the original of a photograph of a UT Classics classroom taken in the 19-teens or 20s. The archaeological connection lies in the set-up of the classroom, which included a series of 1:1 plaster casts of ancient sculpture purchased from the workshops of August Gerber in Cologne and Caproni in Boston. William Battle, a influential Classics professor who taught at UT between 1893 and 1948, had acquired an extensive collection of such casts for teaching purposes. The collection, mostly intact, is now held by the Blanton Museum at UT Austin, which has been working on an interpretation project for the casts on display. This photo would be included in the interpretive material to explain how the casts were originally used.

Photograph of the Classics classroom in the Old Main building on the UT Austin campus. A series of casts of Classical sculpture are displayed around the room. The photograph is held in the archives of the Briscoe Center for American History at UT Austin.

Photograph of the Classics lecture room in the Old Main building on the UT Austin campus. A series of casts of Classical sculpture are displayed around the room. The photograph is held in the archives of the Briscoe Center for American History at UT Austin.

 

It wasn’t hard to find the photograph, thanks to the organization of the archives of the Briscoe Center for American History at UT Austin. The casts are clearly visible, standing along one wall (the Hermes and Dionysus attributed to Praxiteles, the resting satyr, the portrait statue of Demosthenes, the Venus de Milo) or mounted above (parts of the Parthenon frieze and the Nike balustrade from the Athenian Acropolis). But the photograph, and the larger project to which it is attached, gave me a chance to think about how we communicate information about archaeology, if not about how we gather information.

It’s the gathering that’s the sexy part — I am inevitably drawn more toward updates from the field than I am to discussions of publication or data management. But while the collection of information on the ground may form the core of the practice of archaeology, what distinguishes the discipline of archaeology from looting or treasure-hunting is the attempt to represent what we find to audiences who don’t have access to the original material. This is where people who work with material culture spend the bulk of their time. The documentation we collect in the course of excavation or field survey is in service of this goal, as are the published reports and monographs we produce. The interpretation and organization of archaeological evidence is important in this process, but not, I would argue, as important as the representation of the evidence itself (would a pottery report with no illustrations or descriptions be useful to anyone?).

We take most of this for granted. What we represent is in large part dictated by disciplinary tradition, which developed in turn in response to the basic needs of the community of practitioners (one records the height and diameter of an intact vessel because other people need that information to compare their material or draw conclusions about the vessel’s function). Discussions of representation focus more on “how” than on “what” or “why”, and this is especially true of the shift toward digital technology. Which is the better representation of a stratigraphic context in an excavation: a page in a site notebook? A computerized database record? A digitized notebook page, plus a database record, plus a plan in GIS or AutoCAD? All of the above, plus 3D? All of the above, but with the record generated only in digital form on a tablet?

All these documents are attempting to represent the same thing: a physical feature that has been destroyed, or at least is not present for the reader of the documentation. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the “how” lately, as I prepare the final publication of the excavations I co-directed with Larissa Sedikova in the South Region of the site of Chersonesos in Crimea. Our documentation ranges from scanned notebooks to records in L – P : Archaeology’s ARK database to 3D layers created with photogrammetry and visualized in ESRI’s ArcGIS.

Three representations of the same feature (an ambiguous pit): left, a verbal description in a site notebook; center, an ARK database record; right, a 3D pdf showing a model derived from photogrammetry and georeferenced in the site GIS.

Three representations of the same feature (an ambiguous pit): left, a verbal description in a site notebook; center, an ARK database record; right, a 3D pdf showing a model derived from photogrammetry and georeferenced in the site GIS.

But working with the history of the cast collection led me today to think about what we choose to represent, and why. These choices are not natural, but very much constructed by culture, and they are not fixed. Early Classical archaeology sprang very much from the rediscovery of Classical art during the Renaissance and Enlightenment, and as a result, the study of Classical archaeology for much of the 19th century was not easy to distinguish from what we now call “art history”. The cast collection at UT was assembled to assist in the teaching of Classical archaeology, which was itself seen as a way to round out students’ understanding of the Classical world from the literary sources. Study of the Classical world was itself seen as a fundamental element of cultural capital in the West at this time, which explains why UT was willing to invest a substantial amount of money in the acquisition of replicas of Classical art.

The replication of ancient figural art — intaglio gems as well as sculpture — through physical casting was widespread in the 18th and 19th centuries, as a tool for both teaching and research. A cast collection allowed students to view together objects distributed through dozens of museums and private collections, and it allowed those without the resources to travel to Italy or Greece to see ancient art first-hand (almost). Casts were the internet of their day.

But in the mid-20th century, they fell out of favor — they weren’t real art, only copies, and furthermore they had sometimes undergone minor modifications in surface treatment or the patching of missing pieces to make them more aesthetically appealing, so they weren’t even faithful. Many collections were destroyed or dispersed at this point, including the collection of casts at UT: soon after Battle’s death in the mid-1950s, they were sent into long-term storage or handed out around campus as decor for offices and departments. They were “rediscovered” and restored in the 1970s and have been on display as teaching resources since then — but there is no guarantee that the aesthetic tide won’t turn again, since these aren’t technically “works of art”.

In this case, a particular way to represent a particular type of archaeological material — Art, with a capital A — fell out of fashion, and then returned to fashion as we became more interested in the reception of Classical antiquity in the early modern period. As it becomes easier and easier to create and disseminate 3D models of objects in museum collections, I wonder where these objects will fit into the story. Like the casts, they’re a way to convey “first-hand” experience of objects to an audience that can’t get to the objects themselves; like the casts, they involve a certain amount of manipulation, invisible to the user, that reduces to some extent the accuracy of the representation. Even better than the casts, they can be created very easily with inexpensive technology, to the point where Sue Alcock’s recent “Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets” MOOC had students create their own as part of the course.

belevdere (Click to view in 3D)

3D techniques and computational photography provide an exciting new “how” for the representation of archaeological objects. The “what”, however, is dictated to a certain extent by the technology (freestanding objects in the round seem most popular). And the “why”, for now, is partly “because we can!”. It’ll be interesting to see whether digital 3D representations become a standard part of the archaeological toolkit, like photography, or whether there will be a intellectual backlash, as there was with the casts. After all, on a Platonic level, we’re moving ever further from the ideal expression of an object. Will 3D models bring greater access to ancient art and archaeology to the online multitude, as this Google-glass derived printable 3D model of a head of Marcus Aurelius in the Walters Museum suggests? Or is an admittedly cursory 3D effort to model the cast of a Roman copy of a Greek sculpture nothing but an even more indistinct shadow on the wall of the cave?

I think some of the most exciting digital work in Classical archaeology that will be done in the next few years will actually involve tracing and visualizing the representation of archaeological monuments and works of art across time. Max Schich is already doing this with representations of Classical monuments in later art, and the Arachne database of the German Archaeological Institute has a contextual browser that allows one to visualize the relations between, say, an intaglio gemstone, a cast of the impression of that gem, an engraving of the cast of the impression of the gem, a textual description of the engraving of the cast of the impression of the gem… Understanding not only how we represent our material, but what we choose to represent and why, may help us understand better our own archaeological practice.