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Archaeology meets Psychology

Digital and immersive technologies have been playing a central role in research and knowledge transfer for several years. The Department of Classical Archaeology at JLU Giessen, which has already been intensively testing the use of digital interaction technologies in museum contexts and in teaching since 2018, is now also breaking new ground in research. In cooperation with the Department of Experimental Psychology, perception structures are being researched via eye tracking in a virtual reality experiment using 3D models of ancient sculptures.

When dealing scientifically with images, it can be interesting for a deeper understanding to also examine how viewers perceive representations and react to them. For classical archaeological research, which is centrally concerned with the visual culture of Greek and Roman antiquity, this is precisely a challenge, however, as the contemporary, ancient viewers can no longer be observed or questioned today.

In a cooperative project between Classical Archaeology and the Perception & Action team of the Psychology Department at JLU, we are currently investigating the extent to which Classical Archaeology can adopt the methods of modern perception research in order to deepen our understanding of how people in antiquity saw their statues and thus also their world.

The project focuses on sculpture from a time of elementary change in pictorial composition: in the Hellenistic period, in the 3rd century BC, not only did a new order emerge in the ancient Mediterranean world as a result of Alexander the Great's conquests, but people's view of this world also changed. This is suggested at least by the evidence of the three-dimensional large-scale sculpture of this time, which could no longer be grasped from a single view, but only by the fact that viewers dynamically moved around statues such as those of the so-called Gaul Ludovisi and combined what they saw into an overall impression.

This multiple view ran counter to the compositional principles of sculpture in the period before and after the 3rd century BC: there, sculptures presented themselves as fully comprehensible from a single viewpoint and thus supported a static form of viewing that invited distance and reflection rather than an immersive experience, as seems to have been the case with the sculptures of the 3rd century BC.

The project now investigates how modern viewers move around these multi-viewpoint statues and compares this with the movement and viewing patterns when encountering single-viewpoint statues. The aim is to find out whether specific patterns can be identified for the different types of composition and, at the same time, whether the multi-perspective of the statues of the 3rd century BC is generated by 'tipping points' in the composition - i.e. whether it is always specific points on a statue that cause viewers to move on or back. The underlying hypothesis is that - if clearly differentiated movement and viewing patterns between the types of composition are established - the evidence of modern viewing paths can also be postulated for ancient viewers. At the same time, the example of ancient sculpture offers an interesting subject for modern perception research to investigate the interaction of people with complex objects in space - and also how human perception structures are influenced by immersive technologies.

For the investigation, an experiment was designed in a virtual reality (VR) environment, in which the test persons each look at and walk around 12 statues of different, i.e. single- or multi-viewpoint, types, while their movements in space and the dwell time of their eyes are recorded by eye-tracking in order to identify prioritised views and potential 'tipping points' in the composition. The results are validated by comparing the data sets with photographs of the favoured sculpture views, which the test persons are allowed to take in virtual reality in a second step of the experiment.

This experimental set-up makes it possible to analyse the subjects' behaviour in an environment they perceive as natural and, at the same time, to retain control over the environment as well as over the tasks set for the subjects without influencing natural human behaviour through a laboratory environment that is far removed from reality and highly impoverished.

The evaluation of the data sets of a first test group of only three subjects has now already shown that clear differences can be observed between the perception of "single-viewpoint" and "multi-viewpoint" composed large-scale sculpture, not only with regard to movement in space, but also with regard to the time spent in front of different viewing sides of the statues.

The visualisation of the superimposed subject movements on the right (see ill. above) shows the participants' engagement with a "single-viewpoint" statue. Here, the focus of observation is clearly on the front side of the statue. Whereas only one of the three participants walked around this statue quite briskly in a uniform movement, the visualisation of the superimposed participant movements on the left, which shows the interaction of the participants with a "multi-viewpoint" statue, presents a completely different picture. Here, too, the frontal encounter with the statue is favoured, but the spatial movement patterns of the participants are clearly more pronounced. Not only do all the participants circle this statue, but they also show increased interest in different views due to the intensive spatial exploration and the extended time spent there.

The detailed evaluation of the tests currently being carried out is still pending, but at the same time the results so far indicate that the effect of the different types of composition can be clearly differentiated and thus potentially interpreted in a way that is meaningful in terms of cultural history.

At the same time, the experiment yielded an important insight on another level that fits well with other experiences in the work of the Department of Classical Archaeology and that we now want to anchor even more comprehensively in teaching at JLU in the future: We have been using 3D models of ancient artefacts and sites in teaching and in the museum context for some time to promote immersive and intensive learning experiences in the context of merging objective and subjective approaches. In the current experiment, those test persons who belonged to the group of students of Classical Archaeology observed that they devoted themselves significantly more intensively to viewing the statues in the VR environment than is the case when they view such statues in two-dimensional photography - as is customary in their studies. Since image diagnosis is at the core of any classical archaeological work, technologies that increase the intrinsic motivation to do so must occupy a central place in the training of future scientific generations.

Contact Persons: Prof. Dr. Katharina Lorenz and Dr. Claudia Schmieder