Over the past month we have hosted a series of blogs from former undergraduate students of St Andrews. Courtenay Elle Critchton-Turley (2012), Matthew Moran (2013), Melody Wentz (2014) and Sophia Mirashrafi (2016) are just a few of our students who have gone on to undertake postgraduate degrees in archaeology/museum studies/conservation. In this series of posts, they have discussed their work and how it relates to material culture, digitisation and accessibility. In our final blog in this series, Sophia Mirashrafi explores her experience of Digital Cultural Heritage and it’s relation to archaeology.

After graduating from my degree in Medieval History and Archaeology at St Andrews and working closely with the Bridges Collection itself, I chose to peruse an MSc in Digital Heritage at the University of York. During this course, I completed classes including Cultural Heritage Management, Virtual Reality Modelling, and Working on the Web, all of which have given me opportunities to study and implement different aspects of digital media within the archaeological and heritage field.

I underwent a brief placement at L-P Archaeology in London where I was tasked with downloading one of their websites into static HTML (a webpage that displays the same information to all users) in order to preserve their data. It was certainly a crash course in learning how to negotiate the command line (code which is used to interact with a computer programme), and become literate in HTML and CSS (Cascading Style Sheets, how HTML is displayed in a webpage). During this placement, it became evident that placing data online does not equate to saving it forever. In fact, there are digital archivists who work to save data and sites which become obsolete. If you’re interested in this, explore the ArchiveTeam, whose programmers work as literal digital archaeologists, digging through the web in order to save its history.

My master’s thesis focused on the design, construction, and evaluation of a digital group experience which took place at the site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey. It was done through end-user focused methods, resulting in my creation of group personas based on the study of visitor demographics collected on site, to aid in group experience design.

In the first wave of digital applications in museums, experiences seem to have been geared towards the individual rather than the group, evident in the wide use of headphones and small screens to learn from. To encourage social interaction, I worked to use digital platforms as a tool to learning, rather than allowing the technology to drive the interaction.

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Two participants testing the digital experience on-site for evaluation (Photo courtesy of EMOTIVE, 2017).

By the end of my project, myself and a team of programmers and heritage professionals created a digital experience which took place in the reconstructed replica houses at Çatalhöyük. The primary aim of this digital experience was to encourage the visitors to explore how the society of Çatalhöyük may have functioned.

The experience provides visitors with 3D printed Neolithic artefacts, which they personalise as their own, before being guiding as a group through the replica houses, where they are prompted by a mobile application to participate in physical trade and leave those artefacts behind. By going through the motions of trading and leaving behind objects, participants are asked to question modern assumptions around material ownership and community.

The project is run in conjunction with EMOTIVE, an EU-funded heritage project which works to utilize emotional storytelling to change how heritage sites are experienced by both visitors and the heritage professional alike. I was able to work closely with the team, and attend workshops in both Athens and Glasgow. During the workshops, we explored how user-centric methodologies and digital technologies can be implemented to create emotional responses in heritage contexts.

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Presenting at an EMOTIVE workshop in Glasgow, brainstorming ideas to use digital technologies to spark emotion in heritage contexts. (Photo courtesy of EMOTIVE, 2017)

Overall, perhaps ironically, studying digital heritage has taught me that digital platforms are not the saviour of heritage and archaeology. When too heavily relied upon, they can become more of a hindrance than a help. While technologies, in particular mobile technologies, open opportunities of archaeological dissemination and interpretation, they should not be placed on too high a pedestal. If applications are not used as a tool in which to further understanding, willing to take a back seat to the artefacts and site itself, there is a danger of the technology hindering the experience of the visitors rather than improving it. That being said, when wielded correctly, there are so many ways to utilise technology in the heritage sphere to aid in the dissemination and understanding of the past.

What’s next for me? Excellent question. At the moment, I am learning my next coding language (Python) and working on the next steps of the group experience with EMOTIVE. Without my time at St Andrews I would never have had found an interest in digital heritage, or had the amazing experiences and opportunities I have had since leaving. I look forward to my next visit and whatever lies ahead!

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