Death Management and Virtual Pursuits: A Virtual Reconstruction of the Minoan Cemetery at Phourni, Archanes
By Constantinos Papadopoulos (BAR-IS 2082). Pp. xx + 156, figs. 178, tables 23, CD-ROM 1. Archaeopress, Oxford 2010. $115. ISBN 978-1-4073-0558-5 (paper).
The book under review is an important addition to the literature on Aegean archaeology—particularly on methodology. While the author does not fully realize his goal of shedding light on Minoan mortuary customs through his virtual reconstructions of Tholos Gamma (referred to here as Tholos C) and Burial Building 19 at the Prepalatial/Protopalatial cemetery at Phourni, Archanes, he nevertheless makes a compelling case for creating such models.
The brief—34 pages, not including the appendices—text is divided into an introduction, eight substantive chapters, and a conclusion. After asserting that his book will provide new insights into Minoan burial cult practices (1), Papadopoulos summarily reviews the excavation history of the site, current views on Cretan funerary ritual, and architectural parallels for Tholos C—in particular, the mitata, or shepherds' houses—(ch. 2) and lays out the bases for his reconstruction, particularly the nature of the evidence and the software used (ch. 3). He then reviews the choices made and the technical solutions employed for the reconstructions of Tholos B (ch. 4) and Burial Building 19 (ch. 5), the inclusion of featureless human models (ch. 6), and the complexities of recreating natural and flame lighting in the models (ch. 7). He presents his models in chapter 8. The reader has access to color photographs on the CD-ROM included at the back of the volume and can refer to the author's blog, the URL for which he includes, for a more thorough understanding of the steps he followed. I address chapter 1 and the conclusion below.
The introduction and chapters 2 through 8, unfortunately, are flawed substantively and technically. In terms of content, Papadopoulos does not, in the end, provide the promised new insights because the very cautiousness that is essential for his computer models precludes his reaching any conclusions. For example, having invested significant time and effort in assessing the level of illumination from a variety of sources at different times of day and of the year, he concludes that the significance of these variations is open to discussion. One cannot reach any conclusions as to either the perceptions or the experiences of those who used the tombs (64–5). 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).
The book is also hard to read. Technical problems abound. The text has many grammatical and syntactical errors that interfere with Papadopoulos' effort to communicate interesting ideas. Good editing could have resolved these issues and prevented the misnumbering of figures: figures 30–2 are numbered as 7–9; 34–7 as 10–13; 129–56 as 14–40; and 158–78 as 41–61. The author also should explain more fully what the many illustrations and tables are supposed to demonstrate. Further, while this reviewer has some experience with computer modeling, those unfamiliar with the process will find the author's failure to explain the technical problems he identifies, such as a surplus of polygons in a model, frustrating. Finally, for his innovative reconstruction of a corbeled vault on Tholos C, Papadopoulos relies heavily on an analysis of mitata architecture by Syrmakezis (K. Syrmakezis, ed., Ta Mhtata ths Krhths: Dierevnisi ths Statikhs Leitourgias tous me Sygxrones Methodous [Voroi 1988]). Because that analysis was central to his explication, Papadopoulos would have clarified his own decisions considerably had he included a more detailed discussion of Syrmakezis' argument and the relevant drawings.
Nevertheless, in spite of the enumerated problems with the text, Papadopoulos' book merits recognition as a first step in a discussion about the use of computer modeling, specifically three-dimensional reconstruction, in the analysis of archaeological data. Chapter 1 contains a cogent argument, well supported by the most current sources, for these sorts of reconstructions as another way to present the information customarily embodied in drawings, plans, and language. Papadopoulos emphasizes that such reconstructions should be viewed as another way to manipulate data, not as ends in themselves (3). The benefits are apparent in the images he creates in which the viewer can see the untidy piles of dirt and rocks that provide the necessary counterweight to the outward thrust of the corbeling. The three-dimensionality of the models makes them more compelling than ordinary drawings.
I suggest that to the extent the work fails substantively, it is because the author asked the wrong question. In trying to answer the query of what reconstruction can tell us about cult practices, the author necessarily was forced to take on issues—the significance of light, the attitude toward the dead—about which he could not reach conclusions. A more fruitful line of inquiry would have been: what can we learn from creating this sort of reconstruction? This refocusing of the text would have enabled the author to provide a more informative discussion of the software issues involved and opened more profound questions for discussion. For example, by modeling the interior of Burial Building B with all the skulls nicely, if eerily, illuminated, Papadopoulos brought into sharp focus the Cretan tolerance for moving skeletal material around. Similarly, these images underscore the deeply communitarian character of Prepalatial burials, a feature that rarely receives the attention it deserves. In any case, his efforts at creating models demonstrate that we may want to ask different questions about the remains we have. Had he spent more time discussing these essentially epistemological and ultimately ontological issues, the book would have been far more valuable. But at least he has initiated the conversation. Finally, at a time when the liberal arts are under fire for their relevance, Papadopopulos deserves credit for suggesting ways to make archaeological material more accessible.
Emily Miller Bonney
California State University, Fullerton
Fullerton, California 92834-6868
Book Review of Death Management and Virtual Pursuits: A Virtual Reconstruction of the Minoan Cemetery at Phourni, Archanes, by Constantinos Papadopoulos
Reviewed by Emily Miller Bonney
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 115, No. 4 (October 2011)
Published online at www.ajaonline.org/online-review-book/991