Many disciplines in the humanities such as Archaeology, Anthropology, Art History, Heritage studies, Architectural History and Conservation, deal with visual or material culture from the past and present. Because of the central role of objects in these disciplines, there has always been a need for techniques for visual documentation, visual analysis and representation. Traditionally photography and 2D drawing methods were used, and have been fundamental to the development of disciplines and the dissemination of new ideas. 3D technologies were added to these techniques in the 1980s, and as technology keeps advancing and the user base grows, their importance and relevance has only increased.

What is 3D visualization?

3D visualization is a very general term which includes many different things. Most people probably associate it with computer games and special effects in movies, or with virtual reality. However, 3D visualization is also used throughout the sciences, from 3D plots representing mathematical formulas or representations sub-atomic physical principles to medical imaging techniques visualizing the location of illnesses in the body. In the humanities, 3D visualization usually involves real world objects or settings that play some role in human culture: a ceramic vessel, a piece of art, a building, or a landscape.

How is it used in academic research?

A 3D visualization can have different functions:

  1. As a representation of what is documented
  2. To illustrate an idea or hypothesis
  3. As a visual modelling tool to guide the research process
  4. As a way of vision enhancement

As a representation and illustration

In the case of the first two, 3D models are the outcome of a study. These models are meant to present discoveries, or to illustrate certain hypotheses to an audience. The way a model is presented, its specific format, aesthetic appeal, degree of interactivity depends on the specific audience and context. The first is simply a representation of what is recorded, and its analogue for archaeology would be the archaeological field drawing or artefact catalogue. In the second case the 3D model is used to illustrate an idea or hypothesis. Although in function similar to 2D illustrations, a 3D model may be interacted with. Sadly, many 3D models made in the past were never published as 3D models but as 2D renders of them. This situation is changing, but academic practices still have to catch up with other fields.

As a visual modelling tool

The most fundamental difference exists between the first two and the third function. The first two functions use 3D models as an end-product, while the third refers to the interactive process between researcher and 3D subject. 3D modelling is used in this case as a tool for interrogation and discovery, and it is used to guide interpretative reasoning. For instance, an archaeological site consists of the ruined remains of structures, architecture. By modelling on these structures, applying constructional logic and attempting ‘to join the dots’, we can learn to understand better how these were originally built and how they looked.

In 3D we can, moreover, experience spatial relations, which can give better insight in how these buildings functioned socially, or experientially.

3D visualization and modelling is thus a way to interact with the subject of study, and allows the researcher to experiment freely with it, eliciting new insights or discoveries. The process is thus akin to experimental archaeology, the archaeological sub discipline that attempts to reconstruct objects and practices by carrying them out in reality.

As a way of vision enhancement

3D visualization is often applied on objects and landscapes as a way to enhance vision. Changing the visualization of light or surfaces of 3D scanned objects, without changing or adding anything to the geometry, can clarify hard to discern details, or even discover new features. And moving to a larger scale, recent research into historic landscapes has recently been given a tremendous boost by the visual analysis of 3D lidar1 data, which has been used to document archaeological sites and landscapes around the world with a speed and precision that was unimaginable 20 years ago.


  1. Wikipedia