Why Lego? #buildyourownportus

I wrote a post for the Day of Archaeology blog. Much of it summarises, and refers back to, recent posts here about the Portus MOOC and #buildyourownportus. But this bit is new:

But then I […] had to make a visit to the Vyne a week or two ago, and they currently have on display a large Lego model, based on all the archaeological evidence of what that place looked like in its Tudor prime.


Looking at this model. It dawned on me that there’s something very important archaeologically about using Lego (or any other construction toy, I’m not a Lego shill!) to visualise the past. Every model a archaeologist produces is an experiment, a theory. It follows that every model an archaeologist produces is wrong.  Of course the idea is that the more evidence an archaeologist applies to their model, the less wrong it is. But there is always missing evidence, always an element of conjecture.

But models can be very seductive, especially when they are presented by institutions like museums, the National Trust, or media like the BBC and National Geographic. Then they become authoritative, they are imbued with an illusion of rightness, of “that’s exactly how it was”, that would embarrass the archaeologist who produced it. Archaeologists would prefer to show a model in constant flux, shifting through all the “might have beens”, all the theories and conjecture that hasn’t yet been discounted.

Computer modelling is a double-edged blade (modelling knife?) in this regard. On the one hand, computer models allow archaeologists to efficiently try different versions of the model, but on the other hand, with ever more sophisticated textures and lighting effects, computer models can appear even more real.

But Lego comes with an inbuilt sense of “unrealness.” Inherent in a Lego model is the idea that you can break it to bits and rebuild it as your ideas change. There’s also a sense that everyone can do this. You don’t need to have a high-powered computer with multiple GPUs and expensive CAD software. You don’t even need the Lego. All you need is your imagination.

So on this Day of Archaeology, bring your own imagination to the table. Play around with ideas. If you can’t get to a dig, or help out with finds recording you can still contribute to our ever growing understanding of the past. Share your “might have beens” with each other, because the more might-have-beens we share, the closer we get “that’s how it was.”

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