Rethinking how death and dying are visualized. Could 3D and VR technologies offer opportunities beyond displaying human remains?

The recent DigiDeath conference, generated an exciting discussion on the public archaeology of digital mortality (see also Liv Nilsson’s earlier blog post). Among the topics of the conference, the use of 3D technology to document and visualize archaeological human remains provides us with food for thought on how this intersects with the debate on ethics in research practice.

With the rapid development of affordable tools to capture 3D information, 3D models (digital replicas) have become an increasingly popular way to document archaeological human remains. Digital replicas of bones and burials are now commonly shared among researchers and with wider audiences, and 3D models of the dead tend to be very visually appealing.

The ease with which 3D models of human bones or archaeological burials can be shared, reproduced, even 3D printed, has generated discussion on the ethical implications of using such technologies (see also Campanacho and Alves Cardoso’s twitter paper here). Moreover, previously raised concerns about the sharing of photographs of archaeological human remains in presentations, publications or the media, apply equally to sharing in newly available 3D formats and to modern (social) media.

As discussed during the conference, the many online contexts in which mortuary archaeology is accessed by a wider audience, not only amplify the audience engaging with this information, but can lead to disconnection from its sociocultural context and archaeological narrative. Many online formats do not allow for the level of detail and context that researchers are accustomed to providing along with these images. Disconnection of visualizations of the dead from their context represents an ethical dilemma in its own right, as the mortal remains of a person can become reduced to simply an object of interest, a curiosity. With the possibility to present human remains in new and perhaps even more visually appealing ways, comes the benefit of capturing people’s attention and imagination, but also the danger of such images becoming shorthand or even a substitute for the sociocultural context and archaeological narrative.

But while 3D technologies are certainly not exempt from existing ethical dilemmas in mortuary archaeology, and while the ease of sharing and reproducing 3D models raises new set of concerns, 3D visualization may yet offer new ways of exhibiting the context and narrative. Immersive and interactive 3D technology has been widely demonstrated to increase memory retention and learning, and is perceived to be highly engaging and motivating by participants. Some Virtual Reality (VR) reconstructions of how archaeological sites would have looked in the past, allow the user to engage with the environment, including architecture, artefacts, people and their life histories, as well as a wider range of sensory experiences (i.e., not just visual, but also auditory and even haptic). Rather than presenting the skeletal remains of the dead, either as 3D bones, disconnected from their burial context, or as static 3D models of a grave during excavation, could we find ways to share past experiences of death and burial in a similarly immersive and sensory-rich way? Could we harness the potential of 3D visualization to share the wider context of what mortuary archaeology can reveal about the past: social interaction, social identities and inequality, health and disease, ritual practice, landscape and spatial organization, concepts of death and dying, to mention but a few. Can we imagine communicating mortuary archaeology beyond bones?

Hayley Mickleburgh

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