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Ethics and Theory of Digital Reconstruction in Archaeology

February 18th, 2014

Ethics and Theory of Digital Reconstruction in Archaeology

Sophie Carman

Recent advances in 3D imaging technology has allowed archaeologists to digitally reconstruct objects and monuments. These reconstructions are available to a wide audience in the form of scholarly publications, websites, or museum displays, and allow for cultural heritage to be transmitted through many generations (Bruno 2010). This newly developed software allows objects and monuments to be rotated 360 degrees, creating a virtual and interactive experience for the viewer without restriction. However, reconstruction theory and ethics become more complex when the original construction is not known. Is it deceiving to the general public to digitally reconstruct an object or monument when the reconstruction created is based off of inferences from the archaeological record? Since we usually do not know the original construction, is it ethical to digitally reconstruct anything? To further understand this ethical issue, it is important to understand the theoretical basis of archaeological reconstruction.

Image 1

A digital reconstruction of an ornate Roman plate based on two original fragments unearthed near Haddington in East Lothian, Scotland, in 1919. From: https://www.brown.edu/Departments/Joukowsky_Institute/Petra/excavations/technology.html



Brandi (1996:Part I) describes the duality between the historical significance and the aesthetic value of an object or monument when a reconstruction is being considered. On one hand, a reconstruction can be based on historicism by utilizing information from the archaeological record, in absence of any modern cultural or aesthetic biases that may alter its historical value. On the other hand, a complete reconstruction is aesthetically pleasing to the viewer and can provide further information on how an object, building, or site may have been constructed in the past. These two factors also speak to a wider distinction between structure and appearance. Is it the historic structure that is maintained in the reconstruction, or should the focus be on an aesthetically pleasing and complete appearance? It is important to consider the benefits and limitations of these two factors and how they should be integrated into the final product.

Image 2


Digital reconstruction of the Great Temple at Petra, Jordan, From: https://www.brown.edu/Departments/Joukowsky_Institute/Petra/excavations/technology.html


When conducting a reconstruction according to historicism, the focus is on the historical significance of the building instead of its aesthetic value (Brandi 1996:Part I). Such a reconstruction may be implemented, “as long as this is possible without producing an artistic or historical forgery…” (Brandi 1996:Part I p.231). In other words, archaeologists may undertake the reconstruction of an object or monument unless the end product is untrue to its historic value or original appearance. This poses to be a difficult task for archaeologist, since many reconstructions of monuments are base off of interpretations of the archaeological record. Nonetheless, the product of such interpretations, when based on historicism, is an image of a monument that strives towards historic authenticity.

Image 3

Reconstruction of the Bronze Age fortified settlement ‘Friaga Wald’ based on digital topographic mapping and records from archaeological excavations. From: http://www.antiquity.ac.uk/projgall/oeggl317

Reconstructions in accordance to aesthetics weighs less heavily on an object or monument’s historicism and more on its overall appearance and the potential unity of its components. This theoretical standpoint argues that “the essence of the work of art is in the fact that it is a work of art, and the historical event that the work represents is only a secondary aspect” (Brandi 2010: Part III p.378). In addition, Brandi (2010) further states that “a work of art is effectively made up of several components,” and when “taken individually, the components do not have any particular aesthetic significance” (Part II p.339). Therefore, when all of the components associated with the object or monument, whether authentic or reconstructed, are brought together, the finished product represents aesthetic unity, but not necessarily historic authenticity.

A reconstruction is an important aspect to the process by which the information, structure, and appearance of an object or monument is transmitted to future generations. Recent advances in digital technologies assist in this process by creating virtual reconstructions that are easily obtainable and transmittable, but also allow for falsehood. It can be agreed upon that the general public looks to archaeologists for authenticity, and thus deception by such reconstructions is unethical. To assist in the prevention of this issue, archaeologists carefully consider the complex duality between and object or monument’s historical significance and its aesthetic value, and how that duality pertains to the true nature of the object or monument that is being reconstructed.



Brandi, C. 1996. Theory of Restoration, Part I. In: Historical and Philosophical Issues in the Conservation of Cultural Heritage. 230-235.

Brandi, C. 1996. Theory of Restoration, Part II. In: Historical and Philosophical Issues in the Conservation of Cultural Heritage. 339-342.

Brandi, C. 1996. Theory of Restoration, Part III. In: Historical and Philosophical Issues in the Conservation of Cultural Heritage. 377-379.

Bruno, F. et al. 2010. From 3D reconstruction to virtual reality: A complete methodology for digital archaeological exhibition. In: Journal of Cultural Heritage. 11:42-49.

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