Thoughts and reflections from the Digital Humanities II course

During the fall of 2016 Humlab offered the PhD course Digital Humanities II. The course participants were allocated resources (software, technical assistance and supervision) in order to carry out individual digital projects aligned with the doctoral research plan. The course included theoretical, ethical and critical perspectives on Digital Humanities in relation to the specific projects.

We asked one of the participants, Claudia Sciuto, to share some thoughts on her specific project:

“During a pedagogy course for new University teachers I found myself explaining briefly to fellow PhDs in other disciplines how archaeology actually works.

I quickly figured out an example I thought would be effective: “Imagine we would now leave this room and bring only some of the objects we have with us. Now think that somebody else would enter the room trying to understand who we are, what we were doing and the connections existing among us. That person would actually attempt to interpret the material traces we left… and that’s how archaeologists try to make sense of past objects!”. Everybody looked at me, puzzled, until someone exclaimed: “oh dear, that sounds hopeless!!”.

Even though archaeological methods and theories are refined by decades of theoretical debates my colleague was still somehow right. If the past is composed by a multitude of interaction expressed in material evidences, reconstructing the complexity of that interplay is a tricky challenge.

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Different digital technologies can serve as tools for modelling the data archaeologists collect in the field at different levels. Lately, the development of platforms and hardware for Virtual Reality experiences is catching the attention of researchers and developers worldwide. The users, interacting with the virtual world, experience embodiment and immersion facilitating an intuitive direct cognitive approach to the elements presented. My idea was to experiment these media for mapping the interaction between different data sources and support an interpretative process based on the “data-experience”.

The idea came to me inspired by the theorization of Cyber-Archaeology (Forte, Maurizio. 2010. Cyber-Archaeology. Archaeopress Oxford). Forte suggests that there is a potential for data interpretation through visualization – interaction – embodiment- and enaction. I therefore planned to explore some applications of game engines and virtual reality (VR) for archaeology. The project was aimed at testing interactions between different digital platforms and evaluating the whole process of creating a Virtual Reality platform from scratches, using some data from my thesis work and creating a cyber space from a 3D GIS database.

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The site chosen for this experiment is the RAA 260, a Mesolithic dwelling site in Ångermanland. The site was excavated in 2010/2012 by a team of researchers and students from Umeå University. The site consists of a pit house and the surrounding area dated to 5000 BC. The big structure was probably occupied only on seasonal base, serving as shelter for the nomadic hunters following the movement of the elks from southern to northern Sweden. Together with Mattis Lindmark and Anna Foka we worked for implementing terrain model and archaeological features in Unity. We created a shifting interface that allows the user to interact with different levels of original data and reconstructed (interpreted) landscape.

Despite my initial enthusiasm I ended up being able only to contribute practically painting few trees in Unity (and that, believe me, took way longer than expected!). My experience (kind of) as archaeologist and my complete inexperience in game design forced me to focus on the process together with the prototype produced.

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Unity served as tool for mapping a digital avatar for our raw data, it was used for bringing together fragmented information and make them available for immersive simulations. The virtual reality allows the researchers to be involved in a cybernetic ecosystem where the quantitative archaeological data are translated in digital features driving sensorial experiences. We found out that the long and demanding practice of constructing our virtual ecosystem was a meaningful process for a better understanding of the archaeological record itself and for getting in touch with the “dark side” of game design, by the way… they do have cookies!”

Claudia Sciuto, PhD candidate
MAL- Environmental Archaeology Laboratory
Department of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies

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