Blog Post

Digital Technology, Visual Representation, and Classical Art History

I was fortunate enough to be involved in a wonderful, experimental seminar at Duke called Wired! New Representational Technologies, co-led by Sheila Dillon, Caroline Bruzelius, Mark Olson, Rachael Brady, and Raquel Salvatella de Prada.  The purpose of the seminar was to explore how art historians can make use of new digital media in their research and in the classroom.  One aim, however, was to go "beyond the cool;" that is, to discover if these technologies were practical for academic research.  We discovered that indeed thay are.  Using Google Earth to map archaeological find spots, employing Google SketchUp and a groundplan to build a 14th century AD church that no longer exists (never has so much time been spent contemplating roof lines!), using Photoshop to recreate sculptural landscapes - all useful research and pedagogical tools.  (See my profile for the website of my group's final project on the Hadrianic Baths at Aphrodisias.)

I plan to go forward with the use of digital technologies in my work.  This semester, I will be employing SketchUp and perhaps Maya to recreate the Athenian Agora c. 450 BCE to explore the relationship between the architectural sculpture of the Hephaisteion and the Tyrannicides of Kritios and Nesiotes.  It became clear to us last semester, however, that it is difficult to address the three-dimensionality of sculpture within these media, especially working mainly from photos.  One idea was to use Photo 3D to create a digital mesh, using a person posing as the statue would have been.  If anyone has experience with this, or has any ideas, I would greatly appreciate the input.  This project is still in the planning stages, but I will update as it progresses.

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1 comment

To preface my post, I will note that I also took part in the seminar that Elizabeth brought up. To make things simpler, here is a direct link to our project website: http://www.jhfc.duke.edu/olson/courses/wired/projects/hadrianicbaths/ 

In her post, she mentions "going beyond the cool" and attempting to discover how new digital technologies can be practical for academic research. Many digital reconstructions seen today, such as those on History Channel documentaries in my opinion seem to stress visual flair over historical documentation. While this is not necessarily a criticism, I do believe that for digital reconstructions of have full effect they must be immersed in as much fact as possible. Their use to academic research is purely contingent on the academic in other words factual, well documented, nature of the enterprise. To expand upon this, much of the problem or question lies in the fact that many classical and medieval structures do not exist today in the form or shape they would have in the past. Thus we are in essence attempting to construct an image from documentation, excavation notes/images, contemporary accounts etc. Immediately there is an element of inference involved. The important thing here is to make such inference soundly based in the data and not just what looks right. 

In my experience reconstructing the Hadrianic Baths at Aphrodisias (use above link for full project website), this is perhaps easier said than done. One is frequently left with gaps in documentation. However, this does not mean that we jumped immediately to fantasy. In creating such reconstructions it is important to consider not just the information from your excavation site alone, but that of all typical or similar architecture (in this case Roman Baths). Despite not having left over tile patterns or roofs, we were able to look at comparable bath complexes all over the Roman world. This allows us to make plausible, academic deductions on how our complex would have looked based on the historical context, typical architecture and artistic practices of the era.

Despite having learnt much from this project, there are still a multitude of questions that remain. One large one being, how to simulate "population", in other words how to make these reconstructions feel lived in by humans. This links back to Elizabeth's query on the difficulty of modeling 3-D sculpture.  Modeling one static sculpture (essentially a static human figure) is difficult enough, let alone a group of moving, living people. It seems on one level the human aspect of such reconstructions poses the most difficult problems in creating a visual reality of history. 

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