3D Scholarly Editions: An Aberration or a Logical Next Step?

Costas Papadopoulos and Susan Schreibman, Maastricht University

Keywords: 3D reconstruction; digital scholarship; research outputs; publication models; scholarly editions


The increasing number and types of digital scholarship being produced in the last decade, including audiovisual content, multimodal interfaces, different forms of visualisation (e.g. online databases, virtual worlds, blogs etc.) have started challenging established mechanisms of evaluation and publication, not only in archaeology, but in the Arts & Humanities, as a whole. These new forms of scholarship have either to be adapted to conform to established evaluation and metric models or rather not get recognised as scholarly outputs. As a result, much of this highly innovative scholarship, when considered for tenured posts or evaluation frameworks,has to bedowngraded into a supplementary file or an appendix to a monograph or journal article.

This paper discusses a particular form of interactive scholarship, 3D (re)construction, that despite its long tradition in archaeological research, is still faced with scepticism and hesitation, not only because of the constant technological shifts and exigencies and the fragile ecosystem within which such projects are being developed, but also due to their non-conventional nature that does not adhere to established academic practices and metrics (Sullivan et al. 2018). This presentation will propose a new framework, that of a 3D Scholarly Edition (references omitted for blind peer-review), that allows archaeological 3D(re)constructions to be seen as knowledge sites that communicate the results of that scholarship within a single, interactive,spatio-temporal environment that is immersive and multisensorial unlike conventional forms of dissemination (e.g. monograph, journal article).Drawing from ‘Scholarship in 3D’, a project funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundations and The National Historical Publications and Records Commission, which is developing a 3D publishing cooperative, this paper will problematise the future of publishing 3D archaeological (re)constructions within the framework of3D scholarly editions.


Since the mid-80s, 3D (re)constructions have become a substantial research practice in digital archaeology. These include schematic and photorealistic renderings and spatiotemporal simulations of buildings and artefacts. Standalone, offline 3D reconstructions have been used as analytical tools to investigate properties of past environments, providing metric data that can inform the interpretive process. For example, visibility and lighting analysis in 3D spaces has provided a new way of analysing space, as well as discussing and understanding social patterns and socio-symbolic meanings (Dawson et al. 2007; Paliou 2011; Papadopoulos & Earl 2014). Offline 3D modelling projects have a long and more consistent tradition contrary to online virtual worlds, which were mainly developed during the years that Second Life and Open Simulator were at their peak. More recently, online 3D worlds are being producedthanks to the increased popularity and technical capabilities of Unity 3D as well as the WebGL API that enables the rendering of 3D graphics in web browsers.

Due to the increasing number of 3D models produced by means of photogrammetry and laser scanning, there have been several attempts more recently to create 3D publishing capabilities within existing frameworks that would facilitate the integration of 3D models in conventional publications (e.g. Journals: Studies in Digital Heritage; Digital Applications in Archaeology and Cultural Heritage). In these cases, however, 3D models(mostly of digitised rotating artefacts) function as interactive figures and supplements to the text; in other words, they illustrate the argument being made in textual format and they do not make any argument themselves. More robust attempts, such as the‘Mid-Republican House from Gabii’(Opitz et al. 2016) from University of Michigan Press,have used 3D models in a more substantial way, e.g. by including annotations and linked open data, however, 3D reconstructions supplement the textual narrative, thus moving towards a hybrid publication model, that of a digital monograph (also see the Interactive Scholarly Works program by Stanford University Press). So far, no implementation, except forVSim (Snyder 2014),a real-time 3D environment for scholarly annotations, has satisfactorily used the affordances of the medium to publish the interpretive process within the same interactive,spatio-temporal, and multisensory environment.

Theoretical Framework / Methods

In this paper we present a framework for the development of a new type of publication in which 3D models serve as the primary text of a digital scholarly edition (DSE; Schreibman 2013; Pierazzo 2015; Driscolland Pierazzo2016).At first glance, conceiving of 3D (re)constructions as digital scholarly editions might seem anti-intuitive. After all, the technologies, methodologies, and theories that have informed the creation of DSEs, everything from TEI/XML, documentary vs critical editions, and relational vs XML-aware databases to more recent discussions of how the texts created in DSEs can be repurposed, remodelled, analysed, and visualised, have little in common with the technologies, methodologies, and theories that have informed scholarship expressed through 3D (re)constructions. FollowingMcKenzie’s argument, who described, when the first digital archives were being published, the range of objects that could be open to the kinds of intensive bibliographical study that textual scholars had traditionally reserved for print and manuscript traditions, ‘as verbal, visual, oral and numeric data’(McKenzie 1999, 13), we arguethat 3D (re)constructions canserve as the primary text of a DSE. In our framework, the 3D and supporting evidence (textual, social, and historical) are gathered in the form of annotation (Gius and Jacke) 2017 and apparatus (Gabler, 2010, 44)in a knowledge site that encompasses within the same computational paradigm both the primary text and the material that informed the decisions in creating the text, thus providing the community which it serves a tool for ‘prying problems apart and opening up a new space for the extension of learning’ (Apollon et al., 2014, 5-6).

Application/ Findings

Our digital edition framework has so far focused on standalone Unity projects that were not developed for an in-browser experience, to provide the means to 1) depict ambiguity and make the decision-making process transparent; 2) create annotations that would allow readers to make their own interpretations of the text; 3) depict both spatial and temporal aspects of the model; 4) provide a space for embedding information on the background of the project (e.g., context, team, funding etc.); 5) develop a technological infrastructure that would be intuitive so that it allows minimal effort to embed such a framework into existing 3D projects; and, 6) update the project without requiring much technical expertise.It was also deemed necessary to develop a user-friendly interface that will include generalizable features so other projects can easily use them without the need to develop costly and unsustainable bespoke solutions. According to the prototypes produced, which were refined based on several feedback sessions, users can either freely navigate in the 3D world or experience it by making use of the hotspot features that provide information about its different elements. Hotspots, which can be object specific (e.g., building, person, context etc.) and adapted for each project, activate related annotations on a panel, which in addition to text, also allows multimedia.

The 3D Edition framework is still in development. As part of future iterations, the framework will also include ways to present alternative reconstructions with associated annotations as well as ways to show different levels of uncertainty, both of which are critical for projects based on inconsistent and ambiguous primary sources.


Changes in software, hardware, operating systems, and the Internet, as well as discussions over the photorealistic and deceiving nature of 3D (re)constructions have led to debates regarding the value of such work as scholarship.We would argue that despite the fragile and constantly changing ecosystem in which digital scholarship evolves, any successes andfailures enable alternative forms of research, inform the interpretive process, and assist knowledge production. In our case, it is the failures in 3D archaeological (re)constructions and the successes in Digital Scholarly editions that enabled us to marry the two paradigms and argue for the need of a new framework that will provide the necessary recognition to such scholarship. This paper will explore archaeological research undertaken in 3D computer graphics discussing the affordances of the medium, as well as the opportunities and challenges that researchers face, paving the way for alternative forms of and new methodological and theoretical frameworks for 3D scholarly outputs.


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