Online Review: Book

Death Management and Virtual Pursuits: A Virtual Reconstruction of the Minoan Cemetery at Phourni, Archanes

Constantinos Papadopoulos


Reviewed by Emily Miller Bonney

BAR-IS 2082. Pp. xx + 156, figs. 178, tables 23, CD-ROM 1. Archaeopress, Oxford 2010. $115. ISBN 978-1-4073-0558-5 (paper).



Looking beyond the Images
A Response to Emily Miller Bonney’s review of the book ''Death Management and Virtual Pursuits'' (BAR Series 2082, Oxford: Archaeopress)

Although the author of this review argues that she has some experience in computer modelling, it seems that she lacks the background to contextualise these 3D models, and the approach presented in the book, within the tradition of computer graphic simulations in archaeology. So-called virtual reconstructions have been used in archaeology in two very distinctive ways; the first follows a well-known approach used in films and television graphics. It uses geometry, textures and simple, multiple light sources to replicate the visual appearance of a real environment, and the modelling process is structured around an expected visual product, which evokes in the viewers a sense of living or experiencing these spaces. This means that these constructions primarily serve illustrative purposes. This is acknowledged by Bonney in the last sentence of her review: ‘at a time when the liberal arts are under fire for their relevance, Papadopoulos deserves credit for suggesting ways to make archaeological material more accessible.’ (conclusion). I could not agree more with this statement, but I should mention that this approach in computer modelling is nowadays considered quite obsolete, and has been praised and critiqued by various scholars in the last twenty years. This approach has become dated, not because virtual reconstructions are not used in such ways anymore, but because the capabilities that the new hardware and software provide allow much more innovative approaches, offering an enhanced perception of archaeological data, and at the same time adding to the interpretive process. That is the reason why, in my approach, I followed the route of physical realism, for which Bonney seems to have some ignorance, since she fails to acknowledge this aspect of the project, limiting her arguments mainly to the illustrative nature of it.

Before delving into this, I would like to take the illustrative nature of virtual reconstructions further. Three-dimensional visualisations have often been critiqued for the fact that they do not produce new knowledge, but only illustrate arguments. To me, the three-dimensional visualisation of the interpretive process is a significant contribution, especially taking into account that although the real world is three-dimensional, we have become accustomed to perceiving reality in archaeology as two-dimensional. Archaeological reality is turned into a two-dimensional construction by the conventional mechanisms employed, in an attempt to create a sustainable record which will act as a reference back to the destructive process of excavation. Attention, however, should be focussed not on the products of three-dimensional visualisation, but on the process of producing these visualisations, especially if they take place in a reflexive and multivocal context. In such a way, three-dimensional modelling as a process provides a fertile field for experimentation, and can be used as a heuristic source in the production of archaeological knowledge and the enhancement of the interpretive process.

I mentioned above physical realism, which is the approach I followed in this project. In computer graphics, physical realism is the process in which three-dimensional environments do not only mimic the appearance of the real world, but have the properties of the real world, following a series of natural laws. For example, a particular type of wood has specific elasticity, weight, texture and friction, and reflects light in a particular way. Both the 3D models of Tholos Tomb C and Burial Building 19 followed exactly this paradigm, rendering this project one of the first that employed formal three-dimensional computational analysis to enhance archaeological interpretation. For example, the stones of both Burial Buildings were positioned respecting their physical qualities. Also, natural light was simulated based on the actual position of the sun at different times of the day in the period under examination, while flame light was based on psychophysical experiments.

I realised that there is some confusion about the reconstructed burial buildings. In two instances, Bonney mentions a reconstruction of Tholos B and Burial Building B, which, however, where not part of my research project, and are not presented at all in this volume (and as far as I know, they have not been reconstructed by anybody yet). The reconstructions were about Tholos Tomb C (THC) and Burial Building 19 (BB19).

At the beginning of the second page, Bonney states: ‘Oddly, although he says the tholos could not plausibly accommodate more than eight people (63), he nevertheless includes a model with 15 people (fig. 92).’ However, the text in page 63 says: ‘we can assume that Tomb C could accommodate a maximum of 8 people (fig. 91)’ … ‘it should not be assumed that people were crowded when performing any ritual for religious or practical purposes (fig. 92)’. Therefore, text refers to fig. 91, which presents the interior of the tomb with a maximum capacity of eight people. On the other hand, fig. 92, which in fact presents the interior with 15 people, gives the explanation at the caption: ‘A greater number of people in Tholos Tomb C is not plausible due to the noisome environment and poor ventilation.’ Therefore, fig. 92 is included for illustrative purposes in order to show how the interior of THC could have been with more than the 8 people that the analysis suggested. I suppose this confusion derives from the text being hard to read, as Bonney suggests.

Bonney also mentions that the explication of the reconstruction of THC relies on Syrmakezis’ book about Cretan Mitata. Although this is to a great extent true, since he provides one of the most comprehensive accounts regarding their structural stability, I should point out that: 1) the decision making process incorporated all the discussions on vaulted structures published by other scholars, such as Warren, Branigan, Xanthoudides and Sakellarakis; and 2) the alternative structural models proposed for the Tomb C, in case it was not vaulted, drew from arguments by other scholars, such as Hood, who has proposed a light, timber-reinforced mud-brick vault, and Branigan, who has suggested that tombs were covered by a light, flat roof built of wood. In addition, the physically reconstructed village at Lemba Lakkous at Cyprus was used as another source of experimentation, while additional ethnographic parallels were also consulted.

It is quite odd that in her review of the volume, Bonney does not mention at all either the decision making process or the results of the analysis for BB19. However, if she had read the related chapters she would have realised that new insights are provided, since the interpretation of the results lead to the conclusion that BB19 was not a tomb, but an ossuary. In addition, the physics applied to the models showed that the proposed reconstruction by Maggidis seems implausible. Both conclusions, however, were not purely derived from the 3D models and the formal three-dimensional analyses, but were the result of a combination of archaeology, ethnography and computer graphics, since either archaeology or computer applications are rarely adequate to answer all our research questions.

This volume has been criticised for not providing new insights. The question however is, what is a new insight? Is it to give exact numbers of people and exact dates that the sun entered the burial buildings? Obviously not, since this is by no means plausible. However, in Chapter 8, where the results are presented and interpreted in the context of the Minoan burial cult, there is a vivid discussion regarding the translation of the results in that context. Without a doubt some cautious is required, since some notions, such as that people could enter the tombs when sunlight was directly illuminating the interior, might derive from our own perception of the functional role of light in our everyday lives. Did the same apply in the past? Bonney’s persistence on new insights seems to derive from a very processual approach to archaeology, according to which archaeologists reveal facts, and through these the past can be reconstructed. I am personally quite opposed to the ideas of facts and objectivity, since our work is only a cultural production, which can however potentially provide new insights, spark discussions and enhance interpretations. Throughout this volume, the reader can see new suggestions for the archaeology of the two burial buildings, derived from the structural analysis, the illumination study, the examination of the ergonomics, as well as from the thorough study of the datasets and the ethnographic comparators. However, (s)he will not find any sentence suggesting that the interpretations of the 3D models are definite, and solve the theoretical and practical problems that Bronze Age specialists face. Indeed, I continuously argue that all suggestions are open to discussion, and that it is not safe to draw unconstrained conclusions without taking into account that the outcome is also the result of a different spatiotemporal and social context. We should also have in mind that the software employed for these approaches are not designed either by archaeologists or for archaeology. This means that certain variables which are needed for the simulation of the past are deficient, or missing, constraining both our research questions and our interpretations. However, is the solution, as Bonney suggests, to reframe our research questions? Should we also change the way we practice archaeology, because the tools we use are not yet sufficient for our needs? Probably not. This project asked specific questions about the burial cult, and tried to use the available tools to provide a different approach, and new methodological and theoretical perspectives, which are not possible by the conventional means used in archaeology. Considering all the constraints that computer applications pose, this research project managed to provide several new insights into the Minoan burial cult, and most of all to suggest a new way for approaching incomplete or problematic data. However, everything remains open to discussion. Isn’t that the role of academia?

Constantinos Papadopoulos
Archaeological Computing Research Group
Faculty of Humanities, Dpt. of Archaeology,
University of Southampton, UK

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