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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Structure from motion: Twenty-first century field recording with 3D technology

  • Author(s): Howland, MD
  • Kuester, F
  • Levy, TE
  • et al.

Archaeology as a discipline has always faced an ironic challenge. In order to improve our understanding of the past, it is nearly always necessary to destroy the source of knowledge as material remains left by past people are removed from their context. Archaeologists have long understood the responsibility this paradox confers on them-the imperative to record in great detail that which they demolish through excavation so that others may reinterpret their results (Wheeler 1954). The duty of documentation for the purpose of preserving dovetails with efforts toward recording for the excavators' own interpretation of the evidence uncovered. Traditionally, this process has occurred in notebooks through detailed descriptions of archaeological contexts, along with photographic and hand-drawn depictions of excavation. These methods, while tried-and-true, suffer from collection biases, omissions, and an inability to record in three dimensions. In a perfect world, archaeologists would be able to record the conditions of excavation in such a way that future researchers would be able to experience the site exactly as it appeared as it was excavated. Exclusively two-dimensional descriptions of the three-dimensional world falls short of this ideal, especially in a field of study that relies so fundamentally on interpretation of spatial relationships, both horizontal and vertical. Omissions in recording caused by collection biases are equally unacceptable. As archaeologists today bemoan the poor recording standards of 100 years ago, we can assume that the archaeologists of the future will find fault with our work today in a similar way. Traditional methods no longer appropriately fulfill the archaeologist's responsibility for extensive documentation with all practical and available means. How then can we remedy this issue and strive for a more comprehensive documentation program in which datasets more closely reflect conditions in the field during excavation? 3D recording may provide an answer to this critical question, while also providing a mechanism to upgrade traditional techniques.

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