Material/Digital Authenticity: thoughts on digital 3D models and their material counterparts

Post by Stuart Jeffrey and Siân Jones

Colintraive and Glendaruel Community Woodland Trust recording cup-marked stones using photogrammetry and RTI
Colintraive and Glendaruel Community Woodland Trust recording cup-marked stones using photogrammetry and RTI

Media forms are constantly calling into question each other’s ability to represent the authentic, and these remediations raise the possibility of the decay of aura, the loss of authenticity of experience. (Bolter et al. 2006: 34)

Over the last decade, we’ve both been thinking about the fundamental problem of how the authenticity of historic objects and monuments is produced, experienced and negotiated. In particular, this has coalesced in our recent work on digital 3D models, where we have engaged directly with the questions raised by Bolter and his colleagues. To what extent does the use of new 3D digital media in the heritage sector result in the loss of authenticity? What do digital 3D models of historic objects do to their physical counterparts and visa versa? How do their biographies intersect? How does participation in their production inform the experience and negotiation of their authenticity?

Authenticity has traditionally been seen as an intrinsic and immutable dimension of tangible historic objects, monuments and landscapes; qualities that define their significance and their truthfulness. In contrast, the authenticity and value of physical replicas and reconstructions has a much more difficult history. Whilst changing according to their modes of production, accuracy, institutional associations and subsequent uses, their authenticity is almost always seen as secondary, and indeed a potential threat, to the original objects they represent. In Theorizing Digital Heritage, Fiona Cameron explores how digital visualizations of historic objects and monuments (including digital representations and physical reconstructions), often acquire a similarly complex and ambivalent status. This is accentuated by the ‘weirdness’ of digital objects. As one of us (Jeffrey) argues in Challenging Heritage Visualization, such objects are inarguably different from the ‘real’; lacking in substance and physical locale, they apparently defy the laws of nature with their infinite reproducibility and inability to degrade.

But we suggest that these seemingly clear cut distinctions between originals and replicas, both physical and digital, are in fact far more complex than they might first appear. The authenticity of originals is culturally mediated and, as one of us explored through ethnographic research, it involves complex networks of relationships between people, places and things (see Jones; also Macdonald). Just as the intrinsic authenticity and value of originals is widely challenged, so the inauthenticity of physical replicas and reconstructions can be questioned. Physical replicas and reconstructions can acquire authenticity depending on their modes of production and consumption, and the networks of institutional and individual relations from which they arise (e.g. Foster and Curtis). Likewise in considering digital media the notion that virtual replicas and representations signal the end of authenticity has been questioned (e.g. Cameron; Jeffrey). Using Latour and Lowe’s appealing metaphor from the title of their article in Switching Codes, we see a ‘migration of aura’, but how does this work and under what conditions?

Recently our separate research on these issues came together in the ACCORD project, which involved a collaboration between Glasgow School of Art, the University of Manchester, Archaeology Scotland, and the Royal Commission for Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland (now part of Historic Environment Scotland). Through the project we explored how community co-production of 3D digital heritage visualizations impacts on the authenticity associated with them (and in turn the tangible heritage they represent). Working with 10 community heritage groups across Scotland, we co-created 3D visualizations of heritage places, which importantly were identified as places of significance by members of the groups. The ACCORD team used a form of short-term ethnography (Pink and Morgan 2013), using mixed methods, including focused group interviews and participant observation. In turn, the production of the 3D visualizations acted as the kind of intervention in people’s lives recommended by Pink and Morgan; in effect creating an ‘intense route to knowing’.

The research reveals that 3D heritage visualizations can acquire meaningful levels of authenticity and value, at least from the point of view of those involved in their production. At the same time strong distinctions between originals and 3D models are upheld, and certain characteristics undermine the migration of aura from analogue to digital forms. These include the absence of touch (with our non-haptic models), the loss of wider context or setting, the absence of experiential dimensions such as the weather, sound, changing daily and seasonal qualities. Nevertheless, complex and dynamic relationships are set up between heritage objects and their digital replicas. These involve subtle forms of partial migration and borrowing, alongside the generation of new forms of value and authenticity. 3D printing creates a further element of complexity as the digital object ‘migrates’ back into the material world. In this case, we can see an analogue-digital-analogue cycle at work, in which some original forms of authenticity are lost, but new ones are created through the production process.

Ardnamurchan Community group creating a detailed model of the Camas Nan Gael standing stone and early medieval carvings.
Ardnamurchan Community group creating a detailed model of the Camas Nan Gael standing stone and early medieval carvings.

The community co-design and co-production employed in the ACCORD project is a key part of this process, producing relationships between people, places and objects that informs the experience of authenticity. So, whilst most research on the authenticity and value of digital media focuses on issues such as metric accuracy, design aesthetics and consumption, we suggest that modes of production and participatory practice are equally, if not more, important. The results have important implications for heritage practice, as well as for the application of digital 3D visualization more broadly. They suggest that forms of community participatory practice could be used to explore the authenticity and significance of original historic objects and monuments. At the same time, such methods could be used to create rewarding and significant relationships with digital objects, for those involved in their production and beyond. For instance, they might impact on wider audiences, if the biographies of digital 3D models, and their relationships to people are places, are made explicit. At present we are developing a follow-on project to explore the impact of these proposals, through community co-curation of exhibitions of centred on the ACCORD digital models.

Siân Jones is Professor of Archaeology and Heritage Studies at the University of Manchester. She is interested in the production and consumption of cultural heritage and has written on authenticity, social significance, conservation practice, and community archaeology/heritage. You can find her on social media @blinkymanx and

Stuart Jeffrey is Research Fellow in Heritage Visualisation at the Digital Design Studio of the Glasgow School of Art. His research encompasses multiple aspects of technical recording, reconstruction and visualisation in the heritage context, particularly how outputs from these processes are received by their intended audiences. @stuartjeffrey and

Funded by the AHRC, ACCORD is a 12 month project. Others involved in the project include Mhairi Maxwell (Glasgow School of Art), Cara Jones (Archaeology Scotland), and Alex Hale (HES). You can find us on social media @ACCORD_project and


Dr. Colleen Morgan (ORCID 0000-0001-6907-5535) is the Centre for Digital Heritage Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. She conducts research on digital media and archaeology, with a special focus on embodiment, avatars, genetics and bioarchaeology. She is interested in building archaeological narratives with emerging technology, including photography, video, mobile and locative devices. Through archaeological making she explores past lifeways and our current understanding of heritage, especially regarding issues of authority, authenticity, and identity.

She received her PhD in Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley and her BA in Anthropology/Asian Studies at the University of Texas. Since that time, she has worked both as a professional and academic archaeologist in Turkey, Jordan, Qatar, England, Greece, Texas, Hawaii and California, excavating sites 100 years old and 10,000 years old and anything in-between.

She remains deeply interested in excavation methodology, high falutin’ theory, interstitial spaces, skeuomorphs and good bourbon.

One thought on “Material/Digital Authenticity: thoughts on digital 3D models and their material counterparts

  1. Elaborating a point that I made in an earlier comment on another post in this series, how much of the thinking here is affected by the implicit assumption that “originals” are rare, resembling works of art of which only a relatively small number of works exists for each artist. What happens, then, when the original artifacts are numerous, as, for example, Jomon potsherds are in Japan? How does our sense of the “original” change, when originals are a dime a dozen?

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