Senseless Archaeology

For most archaeologists, excavation is integral to our professional training. As students we go to field schools or we volunteer in order to learn our tradecraft, the practicum balance to our academic year. We’re using tools; we’re moving earth. By stepping away from our books and by working with our hands, we gain that elusive-yet-necessary kinesthetic exeperience that merges the mental with the physical while putting theory into practice. For some, fieldwork is the entire reason we got into archaeology. For others, it’s a means to an end to work with excavated material on the pottery tables, in the lab, and on the computer. We get our hands dirty, and we learn additional context about what we find by paying attention to what we sense.

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University of North Carolina Archaeological Field School (Image: UNC)

On the five excavations I have been on, I have continued to learn how to gather information through all of my senses. Arguably vision is the most important when field-walking and when excavating. You need to train your eye to identify features, soil colors, textures, and patterns that are not of nature. When we excavate, we listen to the sounds our tools make as they contact the earth. No one who has put a pick through buried pottery will forget that gut-wrenching sound it makes.

Ceramic Destroyer app for Android

Ceramic Destroyer app for Android (Image: Runner Games)

As we excavate and as we work “down the hill” under our tarps or in the excavation house, we continue to gather information through touch. Different materials have different densities and textures. Some pottery is heavier that others. We can tell a bone from a stick or stone. We can separate the fine from the coarse. And sometimes we can even taste. At Isthmia, I learned to put my tongue to the side of a sherd to “taste the biscuit”, the pottery between the slip, to check for color and porosity, and to check if a break was fresh.

As for smell, the nose absorbs the ambient surroundings to create memory of flowers and vegetation, or in the case of the Atari Burial ground, the smell of the landfill. But the nose can also discern the odors carried by different liquids used on-site (e.g., is that water or gin?), of water sources and weather, too.

Our senses work together to create a multi-dimensional, contextual story around what we are doing in the field and of the artifacts and ecofacts we find. The longer we are in the field, the more (perhaps) we take our senses for granted as we simply operate at a more professional, masterful level that is earned only by the experience gained through season after season in the sun.

But what of conducting archaeology within the context of video games? Even in 3D worlds, we really operate in only two dimensions and with two senses: sight and sound. We see the action or a location on-screen. We hear our surroundings in an ambient environment, and can turn to face what we hear approaching from behind. As gamers, we echolocate.

We are largely missing touch, taste, and smell. While the latter two are arguably dispensable in many archaeological contexts, touch remains crucial to the physics of digging and to the identification of the things we find. With current technology, the rudiments of touch have been introduced. Xbox controllers contain tiny, vibrating motors that alert the player to various game events such as being shot/struck, being at the site of impact of an explosion, landing, or tectonic event. But this is crude and of little value to archaeologists require more at their fingertips.

Control VR has created prototype gloves that let the wearer manipulate in-world objects and controls while interfacing with Oculus Rift and similar platforms. While granting this kind of fine-motor control through a player’s hands is a giant leap forward for archaeogaming, in effect returning control to a natural way of working instead of in effect operating a remote-control submersible or drone, the tactile need is still there at the first and main point of contact: the fingertips. We can move at a fine-grain level, but we still cannot feel.

Control VR Glove (Image: Endgadget)

Control VR Glove (Image: Endgadget)

The question then is: do we really need to? When we conduct archaeological study within a virtual world, is touch really all that important? Is taste? Is smell? For the information we hope to record, aren’t sight and sound enough? Game developers haven’t invested any hours into how things feel within the game. The players must imagine the touch of cold steel, of snow, of rock. We fill in the blanks as we play. But then again, isn’t part of understanding the video game-as-artifact also noting that objects are weightless in our hands even though the games physics argue otherwise?

I wonder if future games will begin to include a touch component as VR gloves appear on the market. I would think they will. Gamers and developers were unsatisfied with static screens and pixelated sound and action. For the most part, games have largely trended towards photorealism and movie-quality audio. So why not do the same for at least touch. Players (or at least me) want to feel the heft of a weapon and its recoil. Why not translate to wielding a shovel or wheelbarrow?

This also begs the question of why we’re still thinking in terms of “dirt” archaeology within a purely digital space. Maybe “senseless” archaeology is OK in the gaming world for whatever it is we’re trying to do. Archaeogaming is complex in its multiple branches. For exploring material culture in-world maybe sight and sound is all we need in order to do the work of the archaeologist. Maybe that’s true . . . for now.

-Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming

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