The reconstruction of archaeological or historical sites using computer software is something we now take for granted. Flying through a medieval Abbey in amongst the roof timbers or stone vaulting at height, or exploring the crisp lumps and bumps which make up a Bronze Age Barrow cemetery under construction is designed to reconnect us to a past which for one reason or another cannot be experienced through another medium.
The genre has a long history, and its roots can be traced to the matte painters who provided backdrops for feature films. Directors such as Cecil B DeMille made use of this technique to immerse the movie goer into a world which could not be built as a traditional set, but which the camera could traverse to enhance the experience. http://nzpetesmatteshot.blogspot.co.uk/ is a good place to start.
Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) reconstruction techniques are a combination of art and science, and as someone who has been fortunate enough to commission several of these I thought I’d take the time to explain some of the thought processes that go into their creation.
When you buy a guidebook for an archaeological or historical site, you invariably find within its pages a reconstruction drawing. This usually, but not always, depicts the site at the height of its occupational story arc, and will also depict at least some of the buildings as a cut-away, revealing the inside of particular building or buildings. With a CGI reconstruction the same principle applies, but the image is moving and not static.
What do I mean by ‘the height of its occupational story arc’? And who makes the decisions about what to illustrate and why?
The discussion about what to recreate with CGI is usually between the animator and the commissioner. I say ‘usually’ because anyone connected with the commission can offer an opinion / stick their oar in, if they feel their own particular specialism or historical viewpoint is not being envisaged. The CGI reconstruction usually depicts the site at the height of its use – when it presents the view which the site interpretor wants to get across as the most important (the height of the occupational story arc).
Occasionally a different approach is taken, for example depicting the destruction of the site (for example by fire) or a chronological view of the development of the site from beginning to end of its use. So when we are watching, what other things should we look at?
The weather is an important factor in the reconstruction. The reconstruction drawings of Alan Sorrell http://alansorrellproject.org/ are famous for their dramatic skies, and immediately provide a backdrop which focuses our attention on the action occurring beneath them. With CGI you can change the sky as you change the viewpoint, so if you want hardship in your narrative, make the sky darker.
Next time you look at CGI or a reconstruction drawing. Take time to read the narrative that goes with it, and think about how you could tell the story differently. After all, your opinion is as valid as anyone else’s in how you want to see the past interpreted.