To Visualise or not to Visualise?

Posted by: Gareth Dean 4 years, 3 months ago

Or perhaps more accurately how to visualise is a question that has been much debated by the City Witness team recently. Visualisation, the reconstruction of how things might have looked, to aid the interpretation of historical and archaeological interpretations is nothing new. What is new is the range of techniques available to produce reconstructions.  Examples of this can be found on a number of websites taking many forms from the schematic to photorealistic(e.g. However we approach representing the past it has to be done with care and consideration. Academically the questions relating to how the past has been, and can be, visualised has been a source of debate.This has led to the drafting of documents to provide guidelines for the creation of visualisations such as the London Charter ( or the guidelines by the Archaeological Data Service ( A recent publication in Internet Archaeology (Giles et al 2012 highlights many of the concerns over the reconstruction and visualisation of evidence.

Any reconstruction of the past has to be built on the available data, with a mixture of evidence and conjecture; after all we will never really know what Swansea looked like in say 1300 at the time of the Cragh text. The GIS work already discussed in the blog is informed conjecture, drawn from documents, archaeology and cartography, allowing us to gain an insight into the development of Swansea from its founding, or development, following the establishment of Anglo-Norman control to 1300. Equally, we know the city had walls, gates, churches and a range of buildings, but we know little about their height, form and appearance. How do we try and visualise the things which we have information for but know very little of their actual appearance? The GIS mapping forms the basis for beginning to map out the witness statements that form the William Cragh tale. Similarly through the use of Lidar, a survey technique using to map the underlying topography, we are able to gain an understanding of the underlying topography of the town which further aids the understanding of the development of the streets and plots and the movement of people through the city. The ide.jpgication of the plots and streets is based on evidence drawn from maps, documents and archaeology. The flat maps can be combined with the Lidar data to produce 3D models of the underlying form and shape of the topography of the city but what is harder is the move to the 3D reconstruction of the buildings that lined the streets. Due to the industrial development of Swansea and its subsequent bombing in the Second World War there is little of the historic fabric left with only the castle and fragments of the hospital of St David's to give an insight into the medieval buildings of the city. Archaeology has also not contributed significantly to our understanding of the form and appearance of the buildings. The few documentary sources do provide a description of some buildings, but none of these sources are arguably sufficient to recreate the streetscape of medieval Swansea. How we visualise and represent the city to illustrate the Cragh text has been the source for discussion amongst the City Witness project members.

Some form of visualisation will undoubtedly aid the interpretation and understanding of the text of the hanged man. The question is to what level we can recreate Swansea. The options are that we create a 'typical' medieval streetscape, but what is one of those? Do we do something with high levels of detail, but as outlined above we have very little to base this on? Or do we have something that is more schematic and representative to give an appearance of the built environment? To me, the discussions amongst the City Witness team seem to be moving away from the photorealistic approach as we do not have the evidence for this. Equally the creation of a typical medieval city is not viable, as we do not want to be seen to be promoting an idealised view of the medieval world. What we don’t want is a visualisation that can be mistaken for the definitive interpretation of medieval Swansea, or one that pushes the limited evidence too far and undermines the academic arguments being put across. Perhaps a visualisation of the built environment which is more ‘schematic’ but without a high degree of detail is a possibility and has been discussed amongst the project members. Catherine has raised the possibility of allowing people to contribute to the project by creating visualisations of the text or the city and adding them to the project. This would work well, and would make the distinction between the academic and creative outputs of the project. This is an on-going area of discussion, and however we try and visualise Swansea it will incorporate a significant amount of conjecture informed by the documentary, archaeological, cartographic and topographical sources. What has to be maintained is full transparency of the levels of evidence available that inform the conjectural and creative interpretations, providing views of the city with analytical and not just aesthetic value. This will determine how we understand the street layout, model the buildings, the position of defences and how the individual witnesses moved or were positioned within the city. This will itself open (hopefully!) new avenues of enquiry into the story.