Digital Desiderata: the Future of Archaeology’s ‘Second Life’ in Augmenting Media (1.1)

A conversation at the Metamedia Lab with Torin Golding (avatar), the creator of ROMA, the largest archaeological site in SecondLife.
Digital technologies are changing the nature of scholarship. Far from an exception, archaeology too is changing. It may be that archaeology is traditionally thought of as a ‘down and dirty’ profession, done ‘out there’ in the field, the popular/public image of an archaeologist-at-work – we even like this conception of the ‘rude scholar’, equally at home before a bookshelf or a mountain. At the same time it is a discipline with a particular history of technophilia. For a set of closely related reasons (epistemological and ontological), it is especially beholden to technological desires. Why? By some accounts bridging the gap of ‘record’ to generalization, technology, specifically the tried-and-true instruments of technoscience, were to assure the objectivity of ‘second order observations’. The complex – ‘polysemous’ and rich – quality of archaeological materials could be transformed through instruments’ reproducible procedures into ‘data’. They were neutral devices. We can count with/on them. Most often this technology visualizes the results of such algorithmic alchemy.
Indeed, archaeology has also been one of the leading fields in conveying the ‘stuff’ of the archaeological site and landscape in visual form. More than most disciplines, archaeologists have been at the forefront of developing and strategically deploying and thinking about visual media. For the discipline, visual media serve as ‘stand-fors’ the vestiges of the past. From GIS maps and query databases to stratigraphic profiles and artifact sketches to obsidian hydration composition graphs to photogrammetry, site and feature photographs and theodolite maps, little of archaeology can be conveyed or argued without visual media. This is particularly so with a discipline that records as it irrevocably transforms through archaeological excavation and survey. Often all that remains at hand are our visual media. These become the guarantors of what was once ‘out there’; the anchors to what we say. Unfortunately, archaeologists too often restrict their usage and familiarization with visualization to GIS or 3-D ‘fly-throughs’.
This legacy, perhaps more prominent in North America and the U.K., brings us to the current ‘new’ technologies of digital media. Some Archaeology and Media type readers are becoming available to archaeologists. Most of these books on media tend to have anachronistic arguments. Perhaps for reasons of ‘viability’ in the publishing world, or because of the still strong influence in Britain and the States of viewing media not in its technical capacities but as a powerful mechanism of the culture industry’s status quo. Asked about media and quite a few colleagues would talk about popular reception in mainstream media, the role of television and radio(?!). Some are still stubbornly instrumentalist, especially in their view of GIS, AutoCAD and VR applications.
This is not (yet) a media manifesto for the discipline.
We do believe that the digital turn in both society and the discipline holds promises for increased public interest and engagement. Not simply through the limited (old Web 1.0) idea of internet ‘access’, but through the emergent Web >2.0 platform enabled actions of: user-generated content, mixing, mashups, database proliferation, etc. Yet it also may threaten the ‘boundaries’ of the discipline through the dispersion of archaeological information across vast networks not beholden to peer-review or other established measures of quality and accuracy.
More conference proceedings – particularly at WACs and TAGs and CHATs – cull papers on new media and other internet based technologies. There is the estimate that a new blog is born every 1/2 second on the internet; a good number (see Witmore’s March 1, 2006 entry) dedicated to archaeology. No project has yet been entirely devoted to the issue of the increasing ubiquity and convergence of digital media in society and its demonstrable impact upon archaeology. So in the setting of an on-line journal dedicated to archaeology, it seems an appropriate time to look at some of these new media in detail – with the features and interactivity that only a blog such as Archaeolog can provide. So in this initial installment, we are going to hold a discussion about Second Life.
Interest and use of this on-line gaming-cum-social-network phenomenon in archaeology is emerging. Some of this interest has been shared already on Archaeolog (see Tringham’s November 19, 2007 entry). Metamedia and Stanford Humanities Lab also collaborated early on with new media artist Lynn Hershmann to explore how to animate archives – link. Not just a game for an isolated group of bug-eyed, monitor masochistic techies, Second Life brings up many salient issues for archaeology: what is the nature of representation; what is accuracy versus imaginative dissonance; how do we get people to commit to visualized information; is the partially immersive the way forward for World Wide Web 3.0; how do we engage differently with digital heritage; what is remixing and co-creation of the past? To illumine many of these concerns for the future of the past, we sat down with Torin Golding, the avatar of the creator and manager of one of the earliest and largest archaeological sites in Second Life (SL). In the first part of this discussion we will simply highlight some of the parameters for understanding the buzz around SL; present some demographics and other facts. To really get the detail, an ethnography of digital culture would be requisite (for a partial account see Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human by T. Boellstorf). For now we will give SL in broad-strokes and hope that most users of Archaeolog are somewhat familiar with the avatar world. For those unfamiliar or who have just wandered aimlessly a bit, Torin Golding’s experience of getting started will provide a field guide of sorts. The next part (1.2) of the discussion will get at the practicalities of running an archaeological island in SL, as well as frame the pressing issues relating to the digital futures of the past.

YouTube of ROMA

First Things:
Instructions for teleporting from this entry to Second Life locations (‘SLURLs’) discussed in this interview:
* You will need to create a user account and download the free client software
* Go to Second Life and click ‘Join’ and follow the instructions
* Download and install the Second Life client software for your computer
* Open this and enter your password after which your avatar will appear in Orientation Island.
* To get to ROMA click the ‘Map’ and enter the search term “ROMA” or just click on the “teleports” in the text of this entry directing you to specific locations discussed
Find a useful Wiki-Glossary of SL terms which will crop up in the discussion
MS/TW:Why did you go to Second Life (SL)? For archaeologists wanting the sensuous and ‘out there’ experience of the doing of archaeology, why might they consider ‘flying about’ in a world-in-a-server?
“I came from primarily a gaming background. I became frustrated though with two major aspects. The first was the lack of ‘user created’ content. I was always excited to ‘get my own house’ in a game like Dark Age of Camelot or Asheron’s Call, but there was always only a limited amount of customization available. After investigating it, I thought it looked like a more mature virtual world. I thought the lack of a ‘game’ aspect (as well as the real world economic ties) might attract more mature ‘players’. So I downloaded the client, got a free account, and spent the next week trying to figure out what Second Life was all about.”
“I soon hit upon what for me was the main draw- the ability to create and build. Within a few days I had my first little 512 sq m plot and was building. My interest began to shift from the more traditional fantasy focus to what for me was even more interesting- ancient Roman culture. I built myself a house (what I assumed was what everyone did when they got a plot in SL) based on the ancient Roman atrium style house. It did not take long for me to get hooked on the unlimited creative potential. I began to teach myself how to build and work with scripts within this new world.”
“SL soon became a creative outlet as well as an educational one. As an educator, I saw such great potential to teach people about Roman culture and architecture (my specialty) as well as a way to satisfy what I was missing from my traditional recreational gaming experience. All I needed to find was an audience.”
MS/TW:What are you after? Why would SL draw the attention of an archaeologist?
“Initially I was not after a social component, although I knew that was a major draw (perhaps the main draw) for other people to SL. I was there to build. Also, building in SL, like writing, is a solitary pursuit, so socializing means lost building time. After almost two years in SL, I’ve made some really good friendships and acquaintanceships, allowing me to socialize when I want to socialize, and build when I want to build.”
“After a month or so, knowing I was hooked on the creative aspect of SL, I bought a much larger plot elsewhere on the Mainland, which eventually grew into 1/4 of a sim (aLinden Lab’s server host machine). I began to create some items to sell and turned my old house into a store. They were mostly reproductions of ancient Roman art, furniture, armor, and vehicles. At that point there was no one else in SL focusing on ancient Roman themed items, so I basically had a niche market. It was not a huge money maker, but it helped offset some of the cash I spent buying up a larger Mainland plot, which eventually turned out to be a couple hundred real dollars.” I had spent that month leading up to the purchase justifying it to myself and my budget, and planning what I wanted to build on the larger plot. I wanted to make a Roman themed land. I wanted to recreate some Roman themed buildings, have attractions like a Roman bath building and a Roman tavern, and open it to interested people. Hopefully they would both learn about Roman culture and be entertained. Since SL attracted more mature ‘gamers’, and since there was already a history of ‘themed’ lands on the grid, I thought I could build something that would draw a community and provide feedback.
”’I soon realized that the limits of the SL building engine and prim allowances would not allow me to authentically re-create ancient Roman structures or at least do so with any great detail. So I began to develop an approach that was ‘suggestive’ of ancient Roman architecture, but using the parameters of the SL building engine and prims (3-D object in SL).”
MS/TW: Now that you had a ”re-creational” Rome in SL, what were the new problems of managing this organically growing land?
“I was on the Mainland for about 6 months. I got reasonable traffic, although it was clear some people didn’t know what to make of the place. There wasn’t much to do at that point but wander around and look at the build and the art. ”’Feeling limited by the prim limits and the crowding of the mainland, I began to think seriously about taking another huge leap and buying an island. I had to convince myself that I would be able to afford a thousand dollar setup and a 200 dollar monthly fee. I was doing this completely on my own. I hoped that by setting up a small Market with stalls for rent I could cover the monthly fee and my own minimal market sales could eventually in a year make back the thousand dollars. So I took the plunge around August 2006.”
“I had been approached by the Confederation of Democratic Simulators CDS right before this about partnering up, since they were getting ready to open a Roman themed island of their own. They are a group that operates as a social experiment their own specific representative government on the SL grid with their own group of Citizens. Some of their organizers had seen my Roman build on the Mainland (which I was calling ROMA by that time) and approached me to help build their planned new residential sim based on a Roman theme. But I had no desire to lock myself into an external system of control (which I felt was already contentious and overly bureaucratic).
I knew immediately that I did not want to take part in their Roman themed residential sim run as a political experiment, but it did spur me on to take the plunge and get my own Roman island up and running before they did.”
“Once the island was delivered to me, I did a construction blitz. I had planned every building and structure out to the last detail during the month or so I was waiting for delivery, and I spent another month building everything. During this time, ROMA was closed to everyone except me. Things were mostly finished on the Ides (15th) of October 2006 when I finally opened the doors.”
Direct Teleport
MS/TW: So what’s there? Is it what people inappropriately labeled ‘virtuality’? Is it a digital format Rome cerca 1st-Century A.D.? Would archaeologist think of it as a ‘fly-through’ model, or is it something else? What do SLifers do there?
“Now that I had the space and the resources, I could provide things for visitors to do beyond just wandering around a ‘virtual museum’ of Roman inspired buildings and art. I created games, treasure hunts, automated dramatic productions, and other activities designed around ancient Roman themes. When the first people began teleporting in, they found a series of attractions scattered around the sim.”
“For example, every monument contained a visible ‘info button’ that when touched would give the visitor a notecard. This was designed as a page of a narrative of a long lost book by Pausanias, the second century CE geographer. It detailed his travels to my island of ROMA with a paragraph ‘in translation’ and his description of the monument. Below this, designed as ‘commentary’ on the ‘ancient’ passage, more text located the building or structure within Roman history and culture, often also commenting on the decisions I made translating the monument into SL.
MS/TW: So there was an interpellation going on? You drew attention to the artifice of your ‘Rome’ while at the same time accentuating a sense of real past by placing ‘ancient translations’. A playfulness and aura. What are some other instances of creatively engaging with ROMA?
Here is a short list of some of the attractions in all three sims of the ROMA Estate:
* A Colossal statue in the Harbor (with assessable observation deck looking out over the sim)
* Neptune’s Free Boat Rides (ride a sailboat around the sim’s river)
* The Felicitas Pompeii Tavern (main social area with free refreshments)
* The Venus Throw Game Room (with some non-gambling games)
* Bread and Circuses Bakery (selling Roman food, and working ancient grinding stone)
* The Cracked Shard Potter’s Workshop (visitors can make their own Roman pots)
* Trajan’s Market and the Macellum (two marketplaces with commercial rental stalls)
* The Flavian Gladiator Arena (for playing with swords and live music venue)
* The Baths of Caracalla (with changing room, cold warm and hot rooms, massage tables, conference room, and art gallery)
* The Odeon of Marcellus (visitors can play musical instruments, also a meeting and live music venue)
* Fort Legio VII Augusta (large open space for festivals and special events, in the shape of a Roman fort)
* The Circus Maximus Hippodrome (chariot and horse racing game)
* The Mithraeum of Felicissimus (a reconstruction of the famous Mithraeum from Ostia)
* Caligula’s Pleasure Palace (a segregated area where those wishing to indulge in any adult activity must be confined so it is not visible in the sim at large. I knew there would be several people who would come to the sim to explore this stereotype of Roman licentiousness, so I constructed an underground complex to accommodate it and keep it away from the experiences of regular visitors to the sim.)
* The Gardens of Maecenas and Throne Room (where the Emperor holds court, open to the public)
* The Cave of the Sibyl (the ghostly sibyl can be conjured and asked questions which she will automatically respond to)
* The Theater of Dionysus (event venue and houses an automated production of Euripides’ Bacchae with cut-out actors.
* The Curia (headquarters of the ROMA Senate)
* The Library of Alexandria (housing free modern and ancient texts)
* The Capitoline Museum (static and changing galleries displaying ancient art and culture- currently showcasing an exhibit on ancient Roman sexuality)
* The Lacus Curtius (a wishing well that gives a small prize)
* Neighborhood Fountains (like Pompeii city), each of ROMA’s neighborhoods has a public fountain. Each fountain is watched over by a Roman god and gives prizes to those who visit each one)
* The Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus (based on the Pantheon in Rome
* The Street of Tombs (based on Pompeii’s cemeteries, it holds two short murder mystery games as well as activities to learn about death and inscriptions in the Roman world)
* Lake Trasimenus (fishing game)
* Chariot Taxis (automated chariots will carry visitors to different parts of the estate on demand)
* Tour of ROMA (an automated flying tour of the main sim that points out the highlights for first time visitors, narrated by the god Mercury)
* ROMA Winery (visitors can stomp grapes and make their own bottles of wine)
* ROMA Farm (small farm plot teaches Roman agricultural techniques and history)
MS/TW: What sort of individuals began visiting this archaeological re-creational site? You mentioned your interest in building and creating, but as an augmented world, SL offers this practical engagement as well as performances for gaming folk interested in role-playing. You might say niche interest groups? Like World Heritage Sites, you must develop a veritable political economy centered upon ROMA, where management of visitors and their interests in engagement ‘with the past’ begins to take precedence, and even self-policing of activities must occur. Describe some of these groups and the organizational structure of the island?
“ROMA began to attract regulars. One day I was approached by a group of individuals who had started a Roman legion recreation group in SL. They wanted to set up a permanent home in the sim. I worked with their founder, Vectus Margulis, to give them a recruitment table in ROMA’s main plaza. “That was the start of Citizen-run groups associated with the sim. Today we have around 20 different sanctioned Citizen-run groups, including a few other military ones such as cavalry soldiers, a navy, Praetorian Guards, a contingent of Amazons, a gladiator school, and Germanic barbarian tribes, and groups founded for mainly social purposes such as patrician family groups and one for gay and lesbian Citizens.”
MS/TW: Do these groups mix-reality? Do they hold events in ‘1stLife’ as well?
“The post their activities on a the ROMA Citizen Blog.”
“Additionally we also have a range of ‘official’ groups run directly by me and my associates that Citizens can join to enhance their participation in the sim and its events including a College of Priests and Priestesses, the ROMA Senate, a group of Entertainers, and a group for scholars of the ancient world. The College organizes ROMA’s festival events every month and often call upon artists, musicians, dancers, and actors of the ROMA Entertainers’ group to perform during them. The Senate also holds regular meetings to discuss sim issues and sponsors a weekly social on Fridays called the “Ave Weekend” party. The ROMA Scholastica Antiqua group organizes ancient language instruction and monthly research colloquia.”
“These groups have presented specific challenges to the running of the sim. I have endeavored to maintain tight control on the public face of the sim. In SL it is often difficult to identify who is actually doing what, and who makes the decisions in any particular area. From the start I made it clear to our Citizens that without a clear hierarchy or with too many people trying to play boss, the sim would not survive. The schizophrenia of a place like the CDS Roman sim would make ROMA incredibly difficult to manage. So I drew up regulations that Citizen-run groups had to follow to be allowed to operate in the world I had created. My intent was to find a way to mutually support each other. In running their groups they had to agree to a code of conduct and make it very clear in their group description and organization that they were not officially part of the management of the sim. Even the so-called ‘official groups’ are not part of the decision-making process of the sim directly. As ROMA has grown, this strategy has paid off. Everyone knows who calls the shots and even with over a thousand Citizens, there are clear lines of organization and management.”
MS/TW:As ‘World Digital Heritage’, the similarities to the management policies and practices of ‘real’ or ‘1stLife’ cultural heritage is striking. Very real social strategies, relationships and politics develop which cross over into your 1stLife. We’ll emphasize this a bit later, but mixed-reality or an augmented reality is an apt description of what these digital prostheses (not just in the physical, restorative notion) do and how they work. . . .
Continued as Digital Desiderata: the Future of Archaeology’s ‘SecondLife’ in Augmenting Media (1.2)

2 thoughts on “Digital Desiderata: the Future of Archaeology’s ‘Second Life’ in Augmenting Media (1.1)

  1. Thank you for this timely conversation about archaeology in Second Life. I am part of a team just beginning to plan an historical archaeology-related site in a university setting. We’re grappling with a host of new issues here, from control and privacy, to intellectual property rights, to server speed limits, the responsibilities of character creation, and frames for interactivity/subjectivity/objectivity.
    We are still feeling our way through the virtual- and mixed-reality potentials. How will the project serve/create pedagogical and public outreach goals? What does it mean when you “touch” an “object,” and the object “whispers” back?
    Roma (thanks for the trowel!) and the Çatalhöyük Project’s Okapi Island are two inspirations.

  2. Absolutely Christina, issues of public outreach and new forms of archaeological engagement converge with digital heritage. I feel the other host of issues you mentioned – bandwidth architectures and IPRs – will be sorted out by the tech. industry and their aligned cyber-lawyers rather than mediærchaeologists. The creation of sites of digital heritage, such as ‘Ancient Rome’, in Google Earth will no doubt become aligned with what is happening in SL. Do keep us posted about your project – and send along a slurl when you get a chance so we can visit.

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