Funding for the Methods Network ended March 31st 2008. The website will be preserved in its current state.

Theoretical Approaches to Virtual Representations of Past Environments

A seminar run by Kate Devlin, Goldsmiths College, University of London (7 March 2007)

(pdf) (html ) Programme
(pdf) (html) Participants
(pdf) (html) Seminar report

Computer graphics has become a popular way of interpreting past environments, for educational and entertainment value, and also as an aid to research. The use of three-dimensional computer modelling to create an image of a site or artefact has become an accepted means of communicating cultural heritage information.

Computer generated images are not subject to the same scrutiny that text invites, and given the selectivity of a dataset, the motivation behind the work and the inclusion of inference, the possibility of misinterpretation is likely to be high. However, a neutral virtual representation is unlikely, if not impossible. Without any indication of the underlying motivation, we are left with images that are merely one subjective picture of the past.

Something that proves particularly difficult when creating representations of past environments is how to provide context of an intangible nature, such as a social, temporal or even emotional interaction with the representation. For example, many representations are sterile, empty spaces, devoid of the people who would have built and used them. We need to look at ways that allow us to convey the information outside of the physical structure of a scene.

There are several topics that raise questions which would benefit greatly from a collaborative framework of specialists.

These include:

  • The Need for a Virtual Past - Why are virtual representations being created? Are they really being used, and if so, in what way? How do virtual images aid understanding of past environments? How do we choose which aspects of a multifaceted site to represent?
  • Establishing Interdisciplinarity - How do we reconcile the work of computer scientists with the work of archaeologists? What are the goals of the participants in terms of their own subject areas? How do we go about creating awareness of the issues for both computer scientists and archaeologists?
  • Conveying the Intangible - How do we introduce non-visual and intangible elements to our representations? Is it desirable, or even possible, to recreate a 'true' sense of the past? Can we establish an agenda for advancing research in this field?

AHDS Methods Taxonomy Terms

This item has been catalogued using a discipline and methods taxonomy. Learn more here.


  • Archaeology
  • Ancient History
  • History


  • Data Analysis - Predictive spatial modelling
  • Data Analysis - Sound analysis
  • Data Analysis - Visual analysis/visualisation
  • Data Analysis - Cost/friction analysis
  • Data Capture - 2d Scanning/photography
  • Data Capture - 3d modelling - vector - volumetric
  • Data Capture - Digital aerial photography
  • Data Capture - GPS/total station surveys
  • Data Capture - Usage of existing digital data
  • Practice-led Research - Digital moving image capture
  • Practice-led Research - Audio mixing
  • Data publishing and dissemination - Graphical resource sharing
  • Data Structuring and enhancement - 3d modelling - vector
  • Data Structuring and enhancement - Graphical rendering
  • Data Structuring and enhancement - Virtual world modelling