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

Ethics take center stage at conference on the Archaeology of Death in the Digital Age

This year’s edition of the University of Chester Archaeology Student Conference on the Archaeology of Death, DigiDeath 2021, on January 27-28 (for a complete program as well as links to several of the presentations, please see entry on professor Howard Williams blog Archaeodeath), was dedicated to the public archaeology of digital mortality. The event was clearly framed by the global pandemic. The ever looming themes of death and mortality are not new to the yearly conference devoted specifically to these topics, but the changes in how we die and how we mourn in the time of Covid-19 probably brought the themes of mortality, mourning and commemoration even closer to home this year. In addition, the closure of museums and universities, and the cancellation of conferences, workshops, and other meeting spaces for academic exchange and learning, brought digital tools and social media into focus, and of course, the event took place online.

The papers were presented by students as well as researchers in a range of formats, from live papers presented digitally, to twitter papers and video recordings, all engaging new forms for communication and archiving of academic production.

When summing up the many presentations, several themes around public archaeology and digital tools come into focus, all relating in explicit and implicit ways to broader considerations of ethics – professional and personal.

“Sharing is not always caring”

Several papers on different aspects of public archaeology raised interesting questions about accessibility, education and multi-vocality. While images of archaeological remains and virtual tours of exhibitions serve the important goal of opening up museums, collections, and even the archaeological research process to all, they also pose new questions. Where do we draw the line regarding what to share and how? “Sharing is not always caring” – as stated by Erin Munro in her paper on virtual exhibition tours and mortuary heritage. But how can we tell when we cross the line? Does the showing of human remains become less respectful when it leaves the museum context and moves out on the web – in a virtual exhibit or an instagram post – and if so, why? By asking ourselves these questions we get the opportunity to examine our culturally shaped understanding of museum spaces, and in that process we must also realise that what may be a respectful place in our eyes may be perceived very differently by others

New technologies bring new possibilities – and ethical challenges. The reproduction of 3D models of human remains (paper by Campanacho and Alves Cardoso) invites us to reflect over post mortem privacy and integrity in new ways. This is a growing and unregulated field that has not yet found its ethical footing.

Other ethical issues that were raised related to the ways in which engagement with the public also entails sharing the power over the narrative. Powerful narratives of the past that are presented in the press, in movies, TV series and video games, often take great liberty with the creative license, focusing on the spectacular or gory, highlighting male elites at the expense of others, and reproducing stereotypes about the past. The digital era and its many and various tools intensifies this engagement through online communities, comment sections, an approach to lived experiences through gaming, and so on. What is more important, we may ask: that the past is represented in a “correct” way, or that people engage with it at all? The consequences of misrepresentation might be even higher in the ways in which the press and social media often present archaeology and anthropology, reproducing colonial and ethically questionable images of treasure hunters and grave openers. While these images appear to still attract a part of the public, they are offensive and disrespectful to others and threaten to undermine the work of making archaeology a more respectful and inclusive practice.

In our contemporary digital era, images play a central role in how we communicate with each other and how we draw attention to our work. Online presences on blogs and social media pose new questions about both personal and professional ethics. It is important at this moment to not be satisfied with easy formulaic answers to our ethical dilemmas, but to view our task ahead as one of constant questioning and examining of the ethics of the discipline – and most importantly, of ourselves in our roles as archaeologists and fellow human beings.