Archaeology in 3D at the University of York

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About

On the tours that we give to new students, we like to joke that the DAH Lab, a gorgeous barrel vault in the stately King’s Manor, was once King Henry the Eighth’s wine cellar. Sadly this is probably not true, but it is still one of the last places you might suspect would house the Digital Archaeology and Heritage Lab. The DAH Lab is the latest innovation in a long history of digital archaeology for the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. The King’s Manor is also home to the Archaeology Data Service, founded in 1996 for the long-term digital preservation of archaeological data and Internet Archaeology, an Open Access journal that has been publishing online since 1996. Amidst this storied digital history, my colleagues and I lead courses on 3D modelling, photogrammetry, GIS, laser scanning, and VR for archaeology and heritage students, at the undergraduate and postgraduate level.

My own background in 3D dates to 2007, when I helped model the archaeological site of Çatalhöyük in Second Life, under the research direction of Professor Ruth Tringham. We created reconstructions of the Neolithic village, including artefacts, animals, people, clothing, and other details that we gleaned from archaeological investigation. We also created the dig house, multimedia displays, and hosted many Open Days, tours and events. I was excited by the prospect of virtually reconstructing the houses that I had previously systematically destroyed through excavation. I would then move on to working with Sketchup, Blender, and now 3ds Max to construct pearling villages in Qatar as part of the Origins of Doha and Qatar Project. These days I mostly teach others how to create 3D models, or obtain funding for 3D research projects.

The archaeological site of Fuwairit in Qatar, roughly reconstructed in Sketchup.

I’m currently directing the Other Eyes project, which aims to better understand and transmit the experiences of past people using virtual embodiment and immersive technologies. The project is in its beginning stages, but is a partnership between the University of York, Beta Jester, and the Yorkshire Museum to create avatars based on data taken from the remains of Romans buried nearby in York.

University of York Archaeology on Sketchfab

This is a model of the Thomas Gent printing press, created by Digital Heritage MSc alumna Rebecca Rochat. The printing press is in many fragmentary pieces, held by Thin Ice Press at the University of York. This was a project that combined Rochat’s conservation expertise with a digital reconstruction to approximate how the pieces might fit back together.

This is a model created by Neil Gevaux, our computing technician, of one of the famous frontlets from the Mesolithic site of Star Carr. The model shows a modified skull of a roe deer, which has been interpreted as a ritual object.

Sketchfab

We use Sketchfab to highlight projects within the Department of Archaeology and to disseminate models that have been housed with the Archaeology Data Service. It is valuable as a place for students to showcase their impressive work, but also a place where we can share models of artefacts for others to enjoy and repurpose.

Regarding the future of digital technology in archaeology and heritage, it has been shown how important it is to have access to 3D models for teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic. We have to ask ourselves, which materials are deemed important enough to digitize, to make available, and to maintain in perpetuity? Which parts of our past are thus made obscure, inessential, invisible? Unfortunately, quite a few of these models are of buildings and artefacts created by state societies—do we really need 100 more 3D castles? It would be nice to see the Sketchfab equivalent of Twitter’s “crap finds” account where the humble artefacts of daily life are celebrated.

A Favourite Model

One of my favourite models on Sketchfab is probably Opus Poly’s model of their rusty trowel. It’s central to the identity of an archaeologist, but I have a certain amount of sympathy for the rusty condition—my trowel hasn’t been used for a while either!

 

About the author

Dr Colleen Morgan

Colleen Morgan is the Lecturer in Digital Archaeology and Heritage in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. She is the co-director of the MSc in Digital Archaeology and the MSc in Digital Heritage, and the Director of DAH Lab. She conducts research on digital media and archaeology, with a special focus on embodiment, avatars, cyborgs, and bioarchaeology.



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