University of Southampton OCS (beta), CAA 2012

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Reconstructing Fragments: Shape Grammars and Archaeological Research
Myrsini Mamoli, Terry Knight

Last modified: 2011-12-20


Reconstruction of fragmentary archaeological remains includes a high degree of uncertainty. It is the goal of virtual archaeology to experiment with possible variable reconstructions, to visualize and verify hypotheses (Reilly 1991). Grammars of archaeological artifacts are also a systematic tool of reconstruction, allowing for ambiguity and multiple readings, variant reconstructions and interpretations (Hodder and Hutson 2003). As archaeological research and excavation progresses and new material evidence comes to light, grammars can be modified to account for the new designs, or the new material can verify hypothesized designs generated by the grammars.

This work suggests shape grammars for the analysis and reconstruction of archaeological artifacts. Shape Grammars (Stiny 1976; Stiny 2006) is a formal method of computation that addresses the shape and geometric form of artifacts, and is valuable as a descriptive, interpretive, generative and evaluative tool in analysis and design. With a set of rules and vocabulary of shapes, shape grammars can describe and generate possible designs – known and hypothetical, following the same design principles. The visual representation of data allows the archaeologist to evaluate its validity or identify discrepancies more easily than with symbolic and verbal descriptions.

Grammars and shape grammars are not new to archaeological research. Hodder used a grammar to describe all the known Nuba designs and also generate other hypothetical designs in the same style (Hodder 1982). Chippindale authored a shape grammar to visually analyze the design of megalithic chambered tombs (Chippindale 1992), and Knight authored a grammar to analyze the Meander motif in Greek Geometric Pottery and show how changes in the grammar account for stylistic change based on temporal/geographic criteria (Knight 1994). These grammars emphasize the continuity in the design principles of a class of artifacts rather than the differences between its instances.

This work suggests a shape grammar analysis of the architectural form of ancient libraries in the Greco-Roman world. The importance of this approach is bi-fold; first, it explores systematically and generates the range of variant possible scenarios of reconstruction of libraries in the corpus, based on the surviving fragments; and second, it predicts the design of other hypothetical but possible libraries that might be excavated one day.




Shape grammars; Archaeological Reconstruction; Ancient Libraries