Human versus computer vision in archaeological recording

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Philip Sapirstein


As 3D scanning and photogrammetry are supplanting traditional illustration techniques with increasing speed, archaeologists and architectural historians have sounded alarms about what stands to be lost if hand drawing is altogether eliminated from fieldwork. This paper argues that the most direct threat is to a particular form of archaeological illustration which does not necessarily share the advantages attributed to other kinds of drawing. Recording by means of “technical drawing” communicates a collectively agreed interpretation of the ancient record, and its primary benefit is not stimulating creative thought but rather enhancing human observation. A review of two cases comparing the illustration of ancient Greek architecture through analogue and digital methods indicates that, in practice, both approaches draw attention away from the ancient subject and focus it on distracting protocols for the great majority of the time spent in the field. Even so, technical drawing requires protracted, in-person scrutiny of the subject, whereas 3D technologies pose a genuine risk of altogether eliminating meaningful human interpretation from the recording process. The greater efficiencies of digital techniques suggest a path forward, as time once allocated to tedious stages of technical drawing might be applied toward more thoughtful interpretive tasks. However, such measures must be deliberately integrated into a digital research program through planning around the very different cadences of the digital process.


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Sapirstein, P. (2021). Human versus computer vision in archaeological recording. Studies in Digital Heritage, 4(2), 134–159.
Special Issue "3D Methodologies in Mediterranean Archaeology"


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