The use of digital technologies for visualizing past environments is currently experiencing something of a renaissance among archaeologists. This is largely due to dropping costs of hardware and an increase in the intuitive usability of various 3D modeling software. The ability to deliver interactive content via the internet (Web 2.0) provides new ways of sharing research with a wider audience. These developments also provide exciting potentials for engaging students in the historical archaeology classroom. This post discusses how my teaching of historical archaeology benefits from these emerging technologies. Specifically, the use of a virtual world environment to explore historical architecture as described in James Deetz’s In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life.
Update – check out the final (prototype) version of Raritan 3D here.
The use of virtual world environments to represent historic sites is often referred to as heritage visualization. This includes virtual reconstructions of archaeological sites and other past landscapes. These technologies are a central aspect of my research in Rosewood. Building on this experience, I am currently working with the Middlesex County Cultural and Heritage Commission and the New Jersey Crossroads of the American Revolution to virtually reconstruct the site of Raritan Landing as it existed during the Revolutionary War.
An Early Version of the Cornelius Low House Continue reading
My interest in data visualization centers on the use of geographic information systems (GIS) and 3D modeling. I am particularly interested in using these technologies and their related methodologies to explore the past. This includes a long-standing interest in issues of inequality and minority disenfranchisement. My interest in collaborative approaches to studying the past motivates my exploration of virtual technologies. My Deviant Art gallery includes past and ongoing projects.
This is a short story about an unexpected collaboration between myself and a group of fine arts students centering around Kingsley Plantation and taking place in Gainesville, Florida. Early in the fall semester of 2009, I was approached by a small group of graduate students who were putting on a play about the life and times of Anna Madgigne Jai Kingsley, the enslaved child bride of Zephaniah Kingsley.
Collaborating Between Virtual Archaeology and the Fine Arts
There are two aspects of this process I’d like to touch upon in this post: first, the use of the 3D model of Kingsley Plantation created in 2007 as part of the play’s background scenery; and second, my contribution to the play’s content. Both aspects challenged me to adapt developing skills to new environments, and my own role in interpreting this site to a new audience.
Modeling 3D Kingsley for the Stage
The 3D model of Kingsley (created by my partner Diana and presented at the 2008 SHA meetings) draws on HABS/HAER measured drawing as well the ongoing historical archaeological work at the site. The play used large-format projectors to create the background scenery, instead of traditional matte paintings or stage sets. This interested me in part because I’ve been exploring the same space as part of my ongoing research with the Virtual Rosewood Research Site, as one way to deliver the content I’ve been creating over the past several years.
The play took place in a space equipped with five large-format video projectors (think amusement park). Therefore, the images and videos I created for the background had to stretch across five large screens equaling 180 degrees of view. To do so, I took the model back into SketchUp, modified it slightly, and then rendered a series of images in Kerkythea, a free program which takes models created in SketchUp and makes renders higher quality images and videos. Like this:
The above image shows a nearly 180 degree view of Kingsley, rendered in Kerythea. The lighting of the model simulates the same position and intensity of the sun the same day the play took place. So, the play took place on Friday December 11th 2009 at 6pm, the lighting of the model in the background represents this.
Contributing Historical Sensitivity: The Other Archaeological Role
Since I was brought into this project months before the play would take place, I was able to contribute to the script’s content as well. The goal of the script writer was to highlight two aspects of Anna’s life: first, the personal strength she had to survive the conditions of her life as an enslaved women; and second, associate her with other strong women in the area and time period.
The overall goal of the play was to draw together historical information, new media, and live theater to present the story of one African woman’s life in early nineteenth century Florida. This was seen by the the scriptwriter as a new approach, and remained so even after I pointed out that another play about Anna was performed in Jacksonville, Florida.
At first glance, this seems like a great idea – a play aiming to represent a female perspective on the past by highlighting the lives of women in the past. However, I quickly questioned some of the assumptions and phrases utilized in the script because they lacked a nuance about the intersecting axes of race and gender (not too mention class) which would have informed much of Anna’s lived experience in the past.
For instance, the scriptwriter initially wanted to include a brief line about Anna’s family owning slaves in Africa. I challenged this decision and we had an important conversation about the fact that ‘slavery’ is a loaded term and how the scriptwriter’s assertion that “slavery has existed through time” ignored the unique forms of slavery which typified the African slave trade over the past 400+ years. I also explained how such a statement, when uncritically placed in the script, ignores the role European colonialism may have had in creating new social relations within traditional African communities. After this friendly exchange, the scriptwriter removed the line.
There were other problematic aspects of the play that went unchanged. This included the connection of Anna to Madeleine L’Engle’s grandmother, who lived near Kingsley Plantation, and Anna McNeill Whistler, Kingsley’s niece. I felt the decision to push these historical connections was troubling because the life of Anna seemed to take on meaning through her association with prominent Whites, instead of focusing on Anna’s personal strength and challenges.
In the end, the play was attended by 30-40 guests, including some personnel from Kingsley Plantation. The experience for me reaffirmed the need for increased engagement between anthropologists and the public in new venues,where historical tropes are taking root and entrenching themselves in new and unique ways.
You can view the play in its entirety here. Please, be kind, the people involved were all volunteering their time and it was a class project, not a full theater production 🙂 Plus, yours truly volunteered to run the lights and background scenery.