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The Challenges and Opportunities of 3D Scanning and Modeling as Pedagogical and Research Tools in Archaeology

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Immersive Archeology - Aura Lily breathes life into the architecture and culture of Ancient Egypt, Second Life, July 28, 2006 © Courtesy of John Lester/Flickr.

In a recent special issue of Open Archaeology edited by Barry Molloy, an interdisciplinary researcher with a doctoral degree from the University College Dublin School of Archaeology and extensive post-doctoral archeological fieldwork experience, such as in Cycladic Islands of Greece, 3D object scanning and modeling has been explored in relation to archeological research challenges.

A Blog Article by Pablo Markin.

While the ability to create three-dimensional (3D) objects based on precision scanning technologies, such as through photogrammetry, is gaining increasing prevalence in the field of archaeology, as Stuart Eve argues, the extensive availability of virtual, 3D replicas of archaeological artifacts may overshadow the importance of drawn and ethnographic record. This is especially the case as concerns sensory information, such as sounds and smells, that goes beyond shape, which is not always adequately recorded, as geometric models, analyses and replicas go mainstream in this domain of science. Likewise, in their article Barry Molloy and Marina Milić cast doubt on the utility of 3D modelling for material culture research, as it becomes increasingly deployed in fieldwork research. While digital and reproduced models are likely to assist with the pedagogical communication of archaeological research results, 3D modeling can also involve theoretical and practical challenges, these researchers indicate.

In their contribution to this special issue, Molloy and Milić, thus, position this digital technique within the archaeological illustration tradition, e.g., via photography, in an effort to explore connections between digital models and their craft counterparts, the effect that 3D modeling has on longstanding research procedures and its likely positive and negative ramifications for archaeology as a discipline. In this respect, the paper by Christian Horn, Johan Ling, Ulf Bertilsson and Rich Potter indicates that 3D and 2.5D documentation of remote environments, such as Southern Scandinavian rock art surfaces, can bring significant epistemological advantages. More specifically, Horn et al. suggest that digital modelling can facilitate the documentation of cultural heritage, due to the high level of its objectivity, the elimination of errors and biases in documentary records and richer data sets that digital tools make available. These scholars also indicate that the increasingly wide use of 3D modeling technologies, such as Reflectance Transformation Imaging and Optical Laser Scanning, can help capture with high precision depth differences and engraved line structures, which can be an important addition to existing documentation methods.

Similarly, in their article Loes Opgenhaffen, Martina Revello Lami and Ivan Kisjes explore the potential of 3D analysis tools to lead to new interpretatiolns and insights concerning ancient pottery and its manufacturing, while promoting the dissemination of research outputs. Christine Morris, Alan Peatfield and Brendan O’Neill have also used 3D modeling to gain in-depth analytical perspectives on Bronze Age clay figurines from ritual mountain sites in Crete, such as in relation to the technologies of figurine construction and their distinctive style typology, on the intersection between material culture research and digital data collection tools.

Moreover, Andrea Dolfini and Rob Collins draw attention to the ability of digital modeling and replication to contribute to artefact research, the methodological challenges that they involve and experimental procedures, such as combat wear analysis using Bronze Age material objects from the Hadrian’s Wall area, that digital data capture can support. Likewise, Kristina Golubiewski-Davis has deployed 3D scanning to trace networks, clusters and exchanges that Bronze Age sword artifacts from Central Europe, in order to generate primary data for the statistical analyses of the corresponding networks, practices and communities.

Thus, this special issue demonstrates that 3D modeling and scanning can lead to path-breaking findings in archaeology.

By Pablo Markin

Featured Image Credits: Immersive Archeology – Aura Lily breathes life into the architecture and culture of Ancient Egypt, Second Life, July 28, 2006 | © Courtesy of John Lester/Flickr.

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