Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Why bother? Who cares?

The large model had been manoeuvred into the studio; it had survived its rattling trip from Chester to Covent Garden, in the back of a hired Ford Transit, much to my relief.

A chipboard base, braced with two by one, supporting a Martian plain and ridge, on which stood a tall tower, one of many supporting a great roof over equatorial Mars.  The last miniature I made before stepping into the digital world.  A BBC Horizon producer had commissioned it, for a show about terraforming the Red Planet.  Early that morning, 21 years ago, the lights came on and the motion control camera was lined up for the first shot.

I then made the cardinal error of questioning the cameraman's lighting setup, noting something which I regarded as incorrect.  " Have you been there?" he yelled at me, "Do you know what it looks like?"

The ensuing ego squabble was calmed by the producer, and we set to the important task of getting some good shots.  They looked alright too, and they not only made it into the show, but were used to advertise it.  Ironically, and rarely, after all that work, on the night of broadcast, the transmitter serving the north west went offline for the exact time and duration that sequence was broadcast.  Such things can make a person paranoid.

The model itself, although based on an engineering concept by Richard Taylor, was a work of fiction; the shots it was designed to achieve were done to present a concept.  It had to look clear and impressive, and frankly the cameraman was right: in that case the lighting was done to highlight the model, and not to represent the truth of the Martian surface.

But where do we draw the line with such thinking?  Particularly in the field of archaeological reconstruction.

I was drawn to this point when walking past the Newgate earlier in the year, with the remains of the south east angle tower on my right. I noticed a new interpretation panel, with a new illustration of that corner of the legionary fortress at Chester, sometime in the Third Century, presumably.  As we had not been involved in that work, despite our niche specialism in it, I took a closer look.

The base of the south east angle tower, from the Newgate.
A pleasant enough image, depicting the south east angle and the extent of the southern defences.  Although the Roman defences along the south and west of the fortress are long gone, their path and structures are reasonably well understood.  So I was surprised to see no sign of the gate, the porta praetoria.  What we presume would have been a monumental structure, a double arched gateway with flanking towers striding the via praetoria, leading the traveller to the main entrance of the principia and then on to the cross hall and the sacellum, where the standards of Legio XX Valeria Victrix would have resided in solemn gloom.

What the thinking was behind this version with no monumental gate, I have no idea; there would be a gate, and so logically in this illustration, it would have been built through the defensive curtain wall, probably to a height of not much more than 15ft (4.57m).  It seems unlikely, and despite notions that each of the four gates would have been different, the porta praetoria would have been more than simply a gate in the wall, given its prominence and alignment.

We don't know.  All the musing in the world is not going to reveal what it really looked like.  But on the May Bank Holiday, out walking with a friend, I showed him the panel with the illustration and explained my problem with it.  He looked uncertain and raised the difficult point of is anyone really going to care.  I can think of an immediate handful who would, but I suspect most will view the image and take it for what it shows, rightly or wrongly; most will not know the arguments, so not perceive an inaccuracy.

That said, for those who do study these subjects, for those who excavate the sites, and those who pore over data and documents in an effort to produce a plausible and realistic glimpse of the past, such things do matter.  If we ignore them, then we might as well sweep away archaeology and make it all up.

When all the clues are gathered and plotted, all the debate done and a version agreed, there is the great pleasure of knowing that what has been produced is a reasonable glimpse of how something might have looked at a certain time.  Whether the general viewer knows that or not, it matters that all the possible details have been weighed and included, and that what we show makes sense.

So, for the sake of balance and all the debate that has occupied the previous decades, regarding the fortress at Chester, here is a similar view, using our untextured low resolution 3D computer model.  The angle of view mimics the human eye, so this is more or less the view you would see from this point.

The south east angle and southern defences of the legionary fortress at Chester, Mid Third Century.

A fascinating area with a spectacular extramural settlement and landscape, but that is for another day.