The 3D datafication of cultural heritage: More than just a flash in the pan?


The epistemological foundation of archaeology and cultural heritage at large is based mainly on the connections between imperfectly preserved material culture and humans. The tangible part of cultural heritage is thus a lot about materiality, which is reflected in the amalgam of data recording and documentation practices. Whether distinguishing a painting’s anthropogenic stratification created by its layers of overpainting, or spotting buried geo-archaeological marks from an aeroplane, faster, more accurate, more precise, more reliable and more affordable digital techniques are enabling new and better digital approximations of our tangible cultural heritage. A typical example is the 21st-century hype of using image-based modelling or scanning techniques to acquire three-dimensional (3D) surface geometries. However, the general prioritisation of digital 3D data acquisition over added heritage knowledge results in an undeniable tension between cultural heritage, and the aims and strategies of the Geomatics industry from which it borrows tools and practices. Too often, this 3D datafication wave is fed by the belief that the mere creation of digital surface models will allow scholars all over the world to study heritage in ways previously unheard of. Although partly correct, statements like these distract from the fact that these digital 3D data only represent one of the many essential characters of a heritage asset (such as spectral reflectance, mass, building material), while the creation of a comprehensive narrative does not come overnight either. Archival records, archaeological databases, historical sources and other analytical techniques must supplement these digital geometry data to generate new historical-archaeological-cultural insights. Moreover, digital surface approximations of cultural heritage assets do not diminish the threats faced by natural disasters and human conflicts. Since most heritage places cannot be expected to last into the coming centuries or even decades due to their fragile nature, their meticulous 3D surface recording by planet-traversing teams will do nothing to protect and conserve them. Although organisations like CyArk would want everybody to believe otherwise, a digital approximation of merely one aspect (i.e. the surface) of a complete building, artefact or place will never bring the original back. Even if it might support digital or physical recreation (thereby unleashing the cultural identity/heritage authenticity debate), the 3D data still have to withstand the digital ravages of time. Accidentally deleted data, data destroyed by fire, data on failed hard drives, data in undocumented formats or simply technology obsolescence; all these issues of digital 3D data longevity are known all too well. Finally, this 3D datafication industry is still plagued with fundamental issues related to terminology, data protection and ownership, accuracy, reliability, standardisation and perception. Given these numerous critical problems and questions, should one really praise the current 3D datafication hype? Are the countless 3D models actually that transformative for cultural heritage as is often claimed? By highlighting some of these concerns, this talk wants to question whether the ongoing 3D datafication (r)evolution will stand the test of time or prove to be just a flash in the pan that failed to bring paradigm-shifting, heritage-beneficial developments along. This talk will be provocative and hopes to function as a starting point for a more in-depth debate about this topic.

Geert Julien Joanna Verhoeven
Geert Julien Joanna Verhoeven
Vice Director, Senior Researcher