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

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).

Reviewed by

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
Liberal Studies
California State University, Fullerton
Box 6868
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

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1154.Bonney


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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