Engaging with ‘place’ in a digital space

Engaging with landscapes is often from an ‘in person’ experience where one can experience the sights, smells, and sounds of the land; however, there are many aspects of landscapes that are invisible to us on the surface. My research focuses on two invisible components of landscapes: the temporal past and microscopic plant residues. Studying past landscapes through a microscope allows for us to understand the past from a very small scale and presents a number of theoretical and practical challenges. As a graduate resident with the Lewis and Ruth Sherman Centre for Digital Scholarship, I pursue these challenges in the form of a digital collection of microbotanical specimens (macmicrobot.omeka.net). This digital collection collates photos of diagnostic specimens; for example, certain morphotypes (e.g., specific shapes like a ‘rondel’) are distinct for a plant family, genus, or species which allow paleoethnobotanists, archaeologists and paleoecologists to analyze what plants were present on archaeological sites.

Rondel phytoliths

Reconstructing past landscapes through their botanical communities cannot give us a complete picture of the past as all archaeological evidence is fragmentary; however, making these invisible past communities visible can create a touchstone for those who currently dwell within these landscapes. My aim is not to provide a complete or holistic construction, where spiritual beings, animals, climate and weather phenomena would all be included, but to make these past landscapes and the places created within them more visible to us in the present.

Digital representations of landscapes have become increasingly popular in the fields of archaeology and heritage. Many significant archaeological sites have been reconstructed so viewers from across the world can access the site in different temporal spaces. These digital reconstructions come in many forms: virtual reality representations, maps made using geographical information systems (GIS), 3D modelling, and as video games. Video games in particular (e.g., the Assassin’s Creed franchise) have made the past accessible to people in an engaging format that allows the player to interact with historical figures, landscapes, seascapes, and socio-economic machinations in the past.

These representations are not without some problems. It is harder to reconstruct the cultural connections of past people to their landscapes, and it is important to consider the integration of cultural knowledge with these reconstructions. In regions where the cultural contexts and knowledge-scapes are still living and protected by descendant communities it is essential that these communities are consulted to create meaningful and appropriate digital representations of landscapes. This is particularly poignant when we consider the calls for Land Back by Indigenous communities within Turtle Island and across the globe (Yellowhead Institute 2019).

Detailed digital reconstructions of landscapes have several advantages for connecting humans and landscapes. First, they allow for greater accessibility to archaeological sites and knowledge. For those who cannot physically travel the location of an archaeological site, they are able to access it in multiple forms through digital space. A broader audience can be reached over digital platforms in their various forms, and can be more effective at engaging people with archaeology and heritage from many ages and demographics. Second, the accessibility of landscapes and heritage sites within them also prevent some of the negative impacts of visitors on these sites, a common problem at prominent heritage places such as Machu Picchu (Carroll 2017; Landorf 2009). Reconstructions of landscapes in particular are also effective of situating these prominent sites within a more accurate landscape than what currently exists. For example, a forested space creates a much different landscape experience of a place than an open plain (re: topographical visibility). Overall, digital representations and reconstructions have much to offer in terms of accessibility and engagement with past and contemporary heritage places for both scholars and the general public.

My project provides microscopic data which can be used to examine plant use by past human populations which will contribute to the broader narrative of human-plant relationships. By collating photos of diagnostic specimens in the digital space, ancient landscapes can be accessed and analyzed by researchers around the world. Omeka.net was chosen for the pilot version of this project because of its accessibility and ease of use; however, there is still much work to be done as a number of functions which would be ideal for this project are not available through this service (e.g., query/comment boxes, and relating collections). For now, I have been able to successfully collate images that I have taken for my doctoral research project and I hope this collection will be useful to graduate students, early career researchers, archaeologists, paleoethnobotanists and paleoecologists. 

Bibliography

Carroll, L. 2017. Overtourism at UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Ethical Traveler. https://ethicaltraveler.org/2017/11/overtourism-at-unesco-world-heritage-sites/

Landorf, C. 2009. Managing for sustainable tourism: a review of six cultural World Heritage Sites. Journal of Sustainable Tourism 17(1):53–70.

Yellowhead Institute. 2019. Land Back. A Yellowhead Institute Red Paper, 1–68. https://redpaper.yellowheadinstitute.org/

Acknowledgements

This blog post was written within the lands protected by the “Dish With One Spoon” wampum agreement, on the Territories of the Mississauga and Haudenosaunee Nations. This researcher (Shalen Prado) supports Indigenous Sovereignty and Land Back efforts, and encourages others to make meaningful actions to support these efforts, the Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island, and to become educated on the colonial history of so-called Canada. Please take the time to read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s 94 Calls to Action and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Final Report Reclaiming Power and Place.

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