Second Site: Keith Challis’ work on archaeological visualization

I learned this morning of Keith Challis’ blog, ‘Second Site‘. Keith is a researcher with Birmingham University’s ‘Visual and Spatial Technology Center’.

Keith is exploring ways of using game engines to render & explore archaeological landscapes (a great use of LIDAR if ever I saw one).  In a recent post, ‘Ideas of Landscape‘ he writes,

One of the key ideas behind using computer games to visualise archaeological landscapes is that they take us away from the god-like view from above that typical computer-based visualisation provides.  In Ideas of Landscape, Matthew Johnson reflects on the dichotomy between the romantic, Wordsworthian view of landscape, rooted amongst other things in the view from above, and Hoskin’s assertion that “the real work [in the study of landscape] is accomplished by the men and women with muddy boots…”
Computer visualisation, particularly of remotely collected landscape data (for example the airborne lidar used here) has almost inevitably forced us to explore only one path; landscapes become data objects, interpreted as a whole and understood as abstract entities, devoid of sense and experience.

The first person view of game-based visualisation places us back in the realm of “muddy boots” landscape is explored and experienced, like Hoskins we “explore England on foot”.  Does that improve our understanding of landscape?  At one level probably not, arguably morphology of landscape is best appreciated from above, but landscape is more than form and function, and the relationship between elements of landscape is better appreciated from the ground.

This connected (in my head, at least), with some ideas I’ve long held, about the way landscape-as-social-network can give us something of that ‘muddy boots’ experience, in terms of landscape as culture.  That at least is the premise of one paper of mine, ‘The Space Between’ (full text)

The key thing to remember I suppose is that the cartographic understanding of landscape is a fairly recent innovation, and that we miss important aspects of human interaction with the land if the map is our only tool.