Visualizing the Past. Exploring Meaningful Approaches in Interpreting the Archaeological Record Through Illustrations and Reconstructions

Posted on November 2, 2016


‘Creating really memorable images’. That is something that every artist, graphic designer and illustrator struggles with. Now toss in trying to create memorable images of the past with limited data and it is a job I do not envy. Or do I have it wrong? Do we have too much data to make memorable images? That was the discussion in this session from the EAA conference, that we video recorded so you can watch the presentations and see for yourself.

Session Abstract:

The initial results of the ICOMOS Survey on Professional Attitudes toward Physical and Virtual Reconstructions of Monuments and Sites, facilitated by the ICOMOS ISC on Interpretation and Presentation (ICIP), were presented at the 2014 ICOMOS General Assembly in Florence. From the results it became clear that the majority of respondents believed that physical reconstructions at archaeological sites were becoming more common (71%) but that the principles of the Venice Charter on this subject were increasingly disregarded (68%). Respondents also highlighted the interpretive and educational functions of physical reconstructions in addition to the goal of increasing tourism. They further noted that digital reconstructions were becoming more common and widely accessible online, in museums, for research, and at heritage sites.

This session proposes to discuss the issue of illustration, visualization, and physical and digital reconstruction of archaeological heritage. Some of the questions that we wish to address are:

• What is the significance and value of visual and physical reconstructions of archaeological heritage?
• How do we define interpretation in this situation?
• How does visualization impact interpretation?
• What are the ethics of archaeological reconstruction?
• Are there generally accepted guidelines and a common visual vocabulary that are shared by archaeologists around the world?
• What are the techniques and applications that inform and guide archaeological reconstruction?
• What are effective ways of presenting reconstructions?
• How does the public perceive reconstructions? What does and does not work?

To assist with the discussion on the evolving roles of reconstructions, we would like to hear from archaeologists, heritage interpreters, conservators, illustrators, artists, and others involved with the creation and presentation of archaeological reconstructions. Through this session and the presentations we would like to identify best practices and compile a set of guidelines that would assist archaeologists in visually representing the past in effective and meaningful ways.

Rocking the Cradle of Scotland

Author – Prof. Driscoll, Stephen, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, United Kingdom (Presenting author)
Keywords: 3D animation, Excavation, Museum

The Cradle of Scotland was a museum exhibition generated by the 10-year long research project into the archaeology in the heart of Scotland, the Strathearn Environs & Royal Forteviot project ( Although opened at the 2015 EAA Annual meeting in Glasgow, it was oriented to a popular audience which could not be expected to be familiar with technical archae ological evidence. The project was a multi period study including landscape survey and numerous excavation and has generated data spanning 5000 years. In order to engage with a range of audiences and communicate different kinds of information we drew upon a techniques including the reproduction of artefacts, the recreation of a Bronze Age burial, scale drawings of sculpture reproduced life size, 3D digital animations of sculpture scans and detailed paintings illustrating key moments in narratives of different sites.
The exhibition provided a great stimulus for interpreting the site and allowed us to work with a range of and interpretative artists, from traditional archaeological illustrators to re-enactors and digital designers. The exhibition generated a series of striking and successful representations of the discoveries. This paper provides the first public opportunity to reflect on questions about authenticity, accuracy and accessibility raised by these efforts following their exposure to audiences. This paper also constitutes a step in critical process leading to the final academic publication of the results of the study.

Reconstructing the Past

Author – BA Gerrit Jaco, Schilp, Reinwardt Academy, Utrecht, Netherlands (Presenting author)
Keywords: Archaeological reconstructions, Museological theory, Open air museum

One way in which archaeology can reach back and experience some parts of ancient life is through attempts to reproduce former conditions and circumstances. By using reconstructions, visitors of archaeological open-air museum can experience what the meaning and importance of these objects was for their original creators and owners. Spread throughout Europe, there are about 300 archaeological open-air museums 1 that have these kind of reconstructions forming their main collection. This research will look at what archaeological reconstructions are: what the definition of an archaeological open-air museum is and how the reconstruction process of an archaeological reconstruction works theoretically from a museological perspective. The research will give an insight into the different types of archaeological reconstructions. This can occur both in physical form and in intangible form2. Each different form has its own character and method for transferring the knowledge of the past to the public. Every form has its own function or significance, and some forms are more complete than others.
Often these reconstructions are necessary to make the information of the original such as drawings and plans are understandable for visitors. This is due to the visitors often not being able to interpret the information themselves 3, 4. The presentation in form of reconstruction can, moreover, convey a sense of realism, since not only sight but also other senses are triggered during a visit to a reconstruction. An archaeological open-air museum is a permanent non-profit institution. This is characterized by outdoor true to scale architectural reconstructions and representations of how people lived and acted in the past. It holds collections of intangible heritage resources and provides an interpretation of how people lived and acted in the past. This is accomplished according to sound scientific methods for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment of its visitors5 Visitors of the archaeological open-air museum get, because of that a specific view on the pas, a very specific story told about the daily life of everyday people.6 In this research creates a basic foundation for developing a new museological theory of archaeological reconstructions. The ultimate goal of this new theory is to improve the quality of the presentations of reconstructions in archaeological open-air museums, by creating a link between general museological theory and archaeological open-air museums.
1 R. Paardekooper, The Value of an Archaeological Open-Air Museum is in its use, Understanding Archaeological Open-Air Museum and their Visitors. (Leiden: Sidestone Press, 2012), 23.
2 EXARC, “Definitions” (versie 22 juli 2008),, geraadpleegd 5 juli 2015.
3 M.Schmidt, Are Dull Reconstruction more Scientific. (Namur: Les sites de reconstitutions archéologiques, actes du colloque d’Aubechies, 2-5September 1993), 2.
4 J. Coles, Experimental Archaeology. (London: Academic Press Inc, 1979), 46.
5 EXARC, “Definitions”
6 Paardekooper, The Value of an Archaeological Open-Air Museum is in its use, 23.

Turves and trusses: reconstructing an early medieval building tradition in the northern Netherlands

Author – M.A. Postma, Dani l, Groningen Institute of Archaeology, Lelystad, Netherlands (Presenting author)
Keywords: Methodology, Netherlands, Reconstructions

Archaeological reconstructions of excavated buildings are becoming a common feature in many countries throughout Europe and beyond. The value of such structures for communicating ideas about past life or even a more sustainable modern lifestyle is borne out by the fact that many have been built in open air museums or open (freely accessible) landscape settings. In professional archaeological reports too, reconstructions, or reconstruction draw ings to be precise, help to convey the archaeological message to a larger audience. But what exactly is this message? And how do we ascertain its academic quality?
This paper is not intended to simply repeat best practices in making reconstructions based on archaeologically excavated building remains; these points have been outlined and discussed on numerous occasions before. Instead, the question is raised why these practices seem so rarely to be adhered to in practice. Perhaps museums prioritise differently than academic building researchers? Perhaps academic researchers lack sufficient knowledge and experience regarding ancient building techniques? And from this: should we not distinguish more clearly between different kinds of reconstructions, each aimed at different kinds of public? These are and may remain rhetorical questions; the concern of this paper is with demonstrating that ‘playing by the rules’ will indeed increase our understanding of past architecture.
Recent settlement research in the northern Netherlands has given a central role to a structural approach in studying previously excavated house-plans. The primary aim of the project was to establish how the region’s early medieval turf-walled buildings were constructed and how their architectural development can inform us about greater societal changes. However, generally accepted ideas on the limitations of turf construction and quality requirements for structural timbers were at first found not to tally with the details of the often well-preserved turf house fragments. A more systematic approach of the data was deemed necessary for outlining and explaining the typology, use, technique, design and context of these buildings.
It will be demonstrated that early medieval turf and timber buildings in the north of the Netherlands were both of a fundamentally different design than previous, less encompassing investigations have suggested. A new series of reconstruction models was established on the basis of in-depth preparatory research, different assumptions (e.g. on stability requirements), new ethnographic analogies, reasonable chronological depth and a greater geographical range. The resultant model for an ‘average’ early medieval farm building is now characterised, in short, by fully stable arch-shaped trusses rather than the well-known but instable (non-braced) rectangular trusses. In the treeless salt-marsh area along the coast, thick clay turf walls served as loadbearing elements, whereas common belief would generally not allow for such a structurally demanding use of turf blocks. It is hoped that this case study will help raise awareness of the possibility that our views on past architecture may still be subject to radical new interpretations, which is something to bear in mind for future visualisations and reconstructions, regardless of their purpose being educational, generally informative or academic.

Using Archaeological Reconstructions for Outreach and Community Engagement

Author – Dr. Thomas, Ben, Archaeological Institute of America, Boston, United States of America (Presenting author)
Keywords: Archaeological Reconstruction, Community Engagement, Outreach

It has become increasingly more common, when presenting the results of archaeological projects, to include some form of digital or physical reconstruction of the artifacts and features uncovered at the sites. These reconstructions range from threedimensional replicas of objects and buildings to virtual museums and exhibits. In this presentation, using information drawn from site preservation projects supported by the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) in Belize, Cyprus, Guatemala, Jordan, Turkey, and the USA, the author will present six examples of how reconstructions, both digital and physical are being used to present archaeological information both to a local and global audience. The paper will also discuss how the projects are using archaeological reconstructions to inform and educate local communities about the significance of the sites and to engage them in the preservation and protection of the sites.

The Reconstruction of three Roman Houses at the Archaeological Park at Xanten (Germany)

Author – Dr. Kienzle, Peter, LVR Archaeologischer Park Xanten, Xanten, Germany (Presenting author)
Co-author(s) – Dr. Mueller, Martin, LVR Archaeologischer Park Xanten, Xanten, Germany
Keywords: Experimental Archaeology, Presentation, Reconstruction

In Roman times the Colonia Ulpia Traiana (CUT) located in the lower Rhine area of Germany was second only to the provincial capital Colonia Claudia Ara Aggrippinensium (Cologne) in germania inferior. In the late 1960s the extent of the Roman city was known and large areas of the Roman city were used by agricultural means. However, some parts of the archaeological site were scheduled to become an industrial estate. To prevent further destruction the Archaeological Park at Xanten (APX) was founded in 1973 at the site of the Roman Colonia Ulpia Traiana to protect and to present the remains of this major Roman city.
The APX employed physical reconstructions as one of several methods to explain the importance of the site and the Roman past to a wider audience. From 2007 to 2014 three Roman houses were reconstructed in the eastern quarter of the Colonia at the original site of the excavations. Strong emphasis was put on a careful protection of the historic remains with elaborate foundation methods. The reconstructions were executed in rammed earth technology and timber framing partition walls reflecting the building methods of Roman times in the lower Rhine area. The roof was covered with replicated tiles produced in a wood-fired kiln. Many materials and building techniques from Roman times were studied and re-invented for its practical use. The aim of the reconstruction work was to get as close as possible to the Roman original building methods in order to understand the ancient construction processes and the time and knowledge necessary to execute the work.
The scholarly results of the building process will be published while the physical reconstructions will serve the visitors to learn more about the Roman past, the ancient building technologies and modern conservation methods and will serve the scholars to learn more about the long-term performance of the building materials and construction techniques from the Roman

The “Arty” Way – Dutch Approach to the Presentation of Archaeological Heritage

Author – Dr. Kocken, Marc, MARC heritage consultants, Bemmel, Netherlands (Presenting author)
Keywords: interpretation, reconstruction, visualization

Aim of this paper is to present a new approach in the Netherlands and discuss its pros and cons with the international community in order to contribute to the ICOMOS Debate on Permissibility and Standards for Reconstructions of Monuments and Sites and to answer some questions asked in the session proposal.
Early 2013 an online survey was presented by the ICOMOS ISC ICIP to gather information within the ICOMOS community to start a debate on permissibility and standards for reconstructions of monuments and sites. This debate was called upon during the 17th ICOMOS General Assembly in Paris noting the increasing disregard of existing theoretical principles for the justification of reconstruction, and a new tendency towards significant commercialization of reconstruction activities.
To contribute to the debate, I will present the Dutch approach on the subject of reconstruction with a specific focus on the archaeological heritage. In contrast to most European countries, there is in the Netherlands no tradition in physically reconstructing archeological sites due to the lack of usable visible substance. In 1999 a National policy document examining the relationship between cultural history and spatial planning, was presented. Under the influence of this policy, progress was made to present the archeological heritage to the public. Due to the lack of visible substance a more artistic approach developed – with (landscape) architects, designers and planners in the lead – that can be
described as the “arty” way of reconstructing/ presenting the archaeological heritage on site. In the context of this paper I will elaborate some examples of third dimensional outdoor presentations in combination with in situ conservation of archaeological remains, such as House Moerenburg in Tiliburg. These examples show an inspired design that makes the archaeological heritage both physically and mentally livable and adds to the identity, social significance and contemporary use of the place.
Two important lessons learned for success:
There has to be a multi-disciplinary and participatory approach during the whole process in which heritage experts play a significant role, and Dilemmas – such as What past to present? Where to put the emphasis, in the preservation of archaeological values or in the development of a place? Whose interest is being done right and to what extent? How much authenticity may be lost? – have to be discussed at the beginning of a project.

Illustrating 8,000 years of environmental change and human impact in the Areuse River Delta

Author – Lic. phil. I Kraese, Jeannette, Office du Patrimoine et de l’archéologie du canton de Neuchâtel, Hauterive, Switzerland (Presenting author)
Co-author(s) – Thew, Nigel, Office de la culture (OCC), section d’archéologie et de paléontologie, canton of Porrentruy, Switzerland
Co-author(s) – Von Burg, Alexander, Federal Roads Office of Switzerland (FEDRO), Bern, Switzerland
Co-author(s) – Elmer, Chloé, Office du Patrimoine et de l’archéologie du canton de Neuch tel, Hauterive, Switzerland
Co-author(s) – Ram rez, Katherine, Office du Patrimoine et de l’archéologie de Neuch tel (OPAN), Hauterive, Switzerland
Keywords: environmental change, human impact, reconstruction drawings

The delta of the Areuse River lies between the foot of the Jura Mountains and the north-western shore of Lake Neuch tel in Switzerland. Archaeological investigations were carried out there between 1995 and 1998 prior to the construction of the A5 motorway. Before this, knowledge about human history and palaeohydrology in the delta was very limited. After preliminary soundings proved positive, a major research programme was set up that involved a team of some twenty archaeologists and specialists from the earth and life sciences.
Test-pitting and trenching across two-thirds of the width (1,3 km) of the upstream part of the delta, followed by excavations and the detailed documentation and sampling of the complex stratigraphies, have revealed a remarkable history of alluvial change and human occupation that covers the last 11,000 years. Over forty palaeochannels have been identified, dating from the Preboreal (c. 9,000 BC) to the post-Medieval period, and since the Middle Neolithic most channels were found to contain archaeological remains.
Five reconstruction drawings representing the alluvial plain of the Areuse River during the Older Atlantic period, the Middle Neolithic, the Late Bronze Age, the Roman period and the Early Medieval period were created in order to illustrate the synthesis chapter of the interdisciplinary study. The aim of these drawings is to visualize the evolution of environmental change and human impact in the study area over a period of 8,000 years. The presentation will focus on the criteria applied during the preparative phase of the drawings to select the archaeological periods to be portrayed and the choices made relating to the depiction of such features as angle of view, geographical scope, season, types of vegetation and human activities. In addition, the underlying environmental and archaeological data taken into account will be discussed as well as the issues of uncertainty and imprecision pertaining to these data, or absence of information. Finally, the composite drawing techniques used for the creation of the illustrations will be explained.

The Art of Perception in Archaeological Visualisations

Author – Wilson, Kelvin, Kelvin Wilson, Ridderkerk, Netherlands (Presenting author)
Keywords: illustration, interpretation, phenomenology

When in the year 79 violent tremors pointed to something big about to happen near his house on the Gulf of Naples, Pliny the Younger nevertheless continued reading his book – and in the heat of the day, dozed off. It is a rather mundane reminder that our view of history finds direction by what we think important, yet that even past lives were lived by individual – and to past people, very present – concerns.
Most of the smaller human experiences of the past seems lost to us, yet other sensations are thought tied to places, and are recreated in landscapes and architecture. Indeed, a building may succesfully copy plenty of details of its past design. Yet an erstwhile visitor could have only ever had one perspective: a building’s interior scale determined by its walls, the appreciation of its exterior too often by the weather (and one person never under the spell of both at the same time). A tired Roman visiting his local bathhouse at the end of the day would need to know where to store his clothes, hope to find a seat in the crowded steam room, and be able to find a sponge – and not at all ponder the mechanics of the floors and drains as a presentday archaeologist might do first.
Phenomenology, or sensory interpretation, was suggested over twenty years ago by professor Christopher Tilley as a useful technique in helping understand ancient sites. Though understandably considered subjective, the same is now well understood to be undermining its very opposite: reconstructions made to the dictate of data. To bring the two opposites together – whether in full-scale architectural visualisations, as reconstruction art in the media, or in future multidimensional developments – the central issue is to ask a plain question: ‘what did one need to know?’.
There are instances where the answer has altered the interpretation of the archaeology – bringing back the focus to what might have truly occupied the mind of a person in the past, or merely pointing out the best place he might have left that sponge. The discrepancies between visualisations, with on one side multi-period sites being ‘read like a plan’ and reconstructed accordingly, and opposite the ’one moment at a time’ view visual artists may help re-experience, were discussed in a series of English Heritage-funded workshops and conferences at the University of Southampton. This paper expands on statements and case studies made by the author there and in follow-up meetings.

As Planned, as Built, as Found: Reconciling Written and Field Records at Ksar es-Seghir (Morocco)

Author – Elbl, Martin Malcolm, Portuguese Studies Review / Baywolf Press, Peterborough, Canada (Presenting author)
Keywords: Islamic, Portuguese, Morocco, Ksar es-Seghir, methodology, reverse mapping, GIS, validation of data

The present study reflects the results of a multi-level forensic analysis of architectural written records, archaeological field data (pre-2000 and post-2000), and competing interpretive models (pre-digital and digital) relating to the colonial urban outpost of Ksar es-Seghir (Morocco). The primary written record baseline was extracted from a fresh critical palaeographic reading (edition forthcoming) of the protocol of survey recorded in 1514 CE by a Crown-appointed team of Portuguese architects, administrative agents, and military engineers (Arquivo Nacional da Torre do Tombo (Lisbon), N cleo Antigo 769). This baseline material was then set in the context of all other relevant written records, structural proposals, funding appropriations, Crown instructions, and other documents (1458 – 1549) germane to spatial and structural modeling of the locality. For broader context, the results were correlated with an area-wide (Strait of Gibraltar) analysis of related sites (partly forthcoming as “Keys to the Strait: Fortifications in the Strait of Gibraltar from Abū Ya‘qūb Yūsuf to Abū al-asan ‘Alī”, in Stéphane Pradines, ed., Architecture militaire du littoral, de la conqu te Arabe l’Empire Ottoman (Cairo: IFAO, 2016) and partly published as “Contours of Battle: Chronicles, GIS, and Topography–A Spatial Decoding of the Portuguese Siege of Tangier, September to October 1437”, Portuguese Studies Review 21 (2) (2013, rel. 2016): 1-135 (Portugal and its Empire, 1128-1809: A Volume of Papers in Honour of Francis Dutra ). The resulting dataset was correlated, iteratively, in detail, and from a variety of critical perspectives, with data generated by past archaeological projects (1970s and 1980s) that had commenced with the 1974 field season, as well as with data resulting from the post-2010 resumption of work at the site under the auspices of CHAM / Escola de Arquitectura da Universidade do Minho and of the Direction du Patrimoine Culturel (Morocco). In the final stage, the project then proceeded to engage critically with various interpretive traps, possible omissions, likely flaws, or failures of coherence detectable in existing models of the locality (Ksar es-Seghir) as products of the long- run inter-disciplinary research covering Ksar es-Seghir. The goal was to shed light on the variety of processes through which diachronically cumulative errors of interpretation or modeling traps may arise. The conference presentation seeks to highlight issues of methodology and procedure, particularly with regard to interpretation, reconstruction, and resulting overall visualization.

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