Photo of Professor Linda Hurcombe

Professor Linda Hurcombe

Research interests

She has recently published a book on Archaeological Artefacts as Material Culture which draws together many of her interests in a range of objects and issues. The book seeks to integrate practical and theoretical approaches and social and hard science information. In some ways the book deconstructs the archaeological study of artefacts and takes a historiographical approach to the topic.

Linda is now involved in a new research cluster Touching the Untouchable. Increasing Access to Archaeological Artefacts by Virtual Handling, funded by the AHRC and the EPSRC. REACT HEIF funding and a recent AHRC development grant have developed this work further. Computer interfaces that provide information to the sense of touch offer exciting possibilities for interactive museum displays in which the visitor can handle virtual replicas of museum objects. Experiencing objects in this way provides an opportunity to participate in the sensory worlds of the past and offers new forms of accessibility for a wide range of museum visitors. The focus of the proposed research cluster is this virtual handling of museum objects, with archaeological textiles selected as a case study. New touch technologies offer the chance to handle virtual replicas of these rare and fragile objects. In addition, such a computer system is far more portable than a large collection of real objects and so offers significant outreach potential for public groups unable to visit the museum.

You can find out more here- www.exeter.ac.uk/scienceheritage

Together with her colleagues Professor Van de Noort and Professor Harding, Linda was involved in the AHRC-funded project Cornwall and the Sea, culminating in the recreation of a Bronze Age sewn-plank boat built with ancient tools.

She is currently working on an EU-funded OpenArch Project, which will enhance scientific rigour within experimental and open-air archaeological museums around Europe.

Two recent articles in World Archaeology (see below) present a holistic view of material culture with a contribution to the current debate on materiality in archaeology and an overview of her innovative 'organics from inorganics' project which uses lithic and ceramic artefacts as evidence for the missing perishable organic material culture component.

Hurcombe, L. 2007 A sense of materials and sensory perception in concepts of materiality, World Archaeology 39(4): 532-545.

Hurcombe, L. 2008 Organics from inorganics: using experimental archaeology as a research tool for studying perishable material culture World Archaeology 40(1): 83-115.

From 1987-1998 she was involved in extensive survey and limited excavation work in the Pabbi Hills, Northern Pakistan, undertaken with Prof Robin Dennell from Sheffield University. As well as taking part in the fieldwork she has conducted the detailed analyses of stone artefacts found on the same eroding slopes as c. 40, 000 fossils. The fossils can all be assumed to have eroded from the soft clay, silt and sand sediments mostly dating from c 1-2 million years, but no such easy relationship can be accepted for the stone tools found on the same surfaces. The artefacts have been graded and novel recording systems have been used to look at issues such as complexity and different reduction sequences. These are supplemented by extensive experiments and observations on the taphonomy of stone in this environment. These include the study of fracture surfaces in a modern exposed river pebble bed, experiments in free fall fractures down slopes, and last but not least, taphonomic experiments using experimental pieces laid out at different stations on hillsides and in gullies and stream beds to investigate stone movement. The hillside experiments ran for 10 years, an unusually long timeframe for such experiments. The research has been published in a number of articles and as an extensive contribution to the project’s research monograph (Hurcombe 2004).

Other research on stone tools had included functional analysis (see below) and studies of thermal fractures as a neglected aspect of damage which is too often written off as of no cultural significance when the reverse may be true.

The book on obsidian usewear (Hurcombe 1992) is a good starting point for anyone interested in functional analysis on this raw material but the approach taken and the structure of the experiments is relevant to all wear studies. In general the usewear analyses undertaken by Dr Hurcombe have tried to look at the activities the wear represents and she has become especially interested in the evidence of organic material culture (e.g. Hurcombe 1998, 2007and 2008).

Some stone tool traces show evidence of plant processing which is much more readily explained as craft processing rather than subsistence activities. Linda Hurcombe followed up these issues using a Leverhulme pilot project which investigated plants as the raw materials for crafts with the help of professional basketmaker, Linda Lemieux. Together they have produced an experimental reference collection of different plants and examples of different basketry and cordage technologies and the impressions they might leave in clay, and the wear traces on stone tools used as part of the processing activities Hurcombe in press). More recently the two Lindas have jointly studied the basketry remains from the Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s flagship.

Hurcombe, L. and L. Lemieux in press ‘Basketry’ in J.Gardiner (ed) Before the Mast: Life and Death Aboard the Mary Rose. The Archaeology of the Mary Rose vol 4., London: English Heritage

Recent developments have chosen to investigate serrated tool edges and further work on plant processing is planned.

Hurcombe, L. 2007 'Plant processing for cordage and textiles using serrated edges: new chaînes opératoires suggested by combining ethnographic, archaeological and experimental evidence', in P. Crombé and V. Beugnier (eds) 'Plant Processing from a Prehistoric and Ethnographic Perspective. Proceedings of the Workshop, Ghent University (Belgium), November 28th 2006'. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, International Series.

She has long been interested in gender issues in archaeology and has published an overview of the way in which there has been bias in gender interpretations within archaeology and the different reactions to these biases (Hurcombe 1995). Most particularly the relationship between gender and material culture has been explored in a series of three books co-edited with a former colleague in History (Donald and Hurcombe 2000a, b, c).

Research Supervision

Dr Hurcombe surpervises research in functional analysis, artefact studies, experimental archaeology, lithic analysis, gender issues and material culture.

Research collaborations

Touching the Past wins 'best paper' award at the International Human Computer Interaction Conference, Crete, June 2014,  'Touching the past: haptic augmented reality for museum artefacts'  Marisa Dima, Linda Hurcombe, Mark Wright

 

Touching the past: investigating sensory engagement and authenticity in the provision of touch experiences in museums across a range of media

Linda Hurcombe (Archaeology, Exeter), Mark Wright (Informatics, Edinburgh), Alison Sheridan (National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh) Ian Summers (Physics, Exeter)

'Please Touch' is an invitation that visitors appreciate and curators want to offer. However, it is often not possible to provide this experience for objects which are rare, fragile, and thousands of years old. The project aims to show how touch experiences can be provided for even the most challenging ancient artefacts. Most museums' presentations of archaeological artefacts are dominated by displays behind glass; vision dominates the sensory experience. The emotional connections built by more multisensory engagement with artefacts offers a better appreciation of the ancient objects and an enhanced museum visit. In particular, some artefacts call out to be touched, yet, for reasons of preservation, touch cannot be allowed. The project specifically focuses on icons of identity which are too precious to allow handling and items which are too fragile to touch, such as ancient clothing. The modern audience is shifting its expectations from passive viewer to active participant and the project offers ways of adapting to this change using digital technologies to connect past and present and overcome the emotional and physical distance between ancient objects and their modern audience. The network cluster and then the development project have between them taken ideas from a range of sources and disciplines. We have moved from ideas to proof of concept trials and developed a range of installations to deliver touch experiences within a museum setting. The approach is multi-disciplinary and has involved installations developed with museum professionals. The solutions and ideas have been tried out as part of a development phase and then formed part of a final public 'touching the past' event housed within Kirkwall Museum, as part of Orkney Science week and the National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh. These events have sought to generate public interest in the research project and to benefit from public reactions to further investigate the ways people value museum experiences.

The kinds of installations explored have included a haptic version of a computer mouse which delivers sensations via a pin array which vibrates against the user’s fingertip.  The sensations are delivered as the visitor moves the ‘mouse’ over a virtual textile image or it can be calibrated to relate to an object displayed behind glass. Laser scans of museum objects have been used to create a variety of 3D prints.  Some are coloured sympathetically to the original while others are of neutral tones which highlight the textural details: Such prints allow colour and texture to be separated. The laser scans have in some cases been manipulated before printing.  These have served to highlight details which are difficult to see on the original or they have been used to take a positive cast of an impressed detail allowing textile and basketry impressions on ancient pot sherds to be printed to recreate the original surface of the perishable material culture artefact.  Prints have also been used as objects which can be picked up in interactive computer displays and instigate a virtual display of the original findspot or present a narrative account of the context in which the object would originally have been used.

The focus is specifically on the physical sensation of touching an object rather than touch systems to interface with a computer. The project has at times focussed on the ancient objects with the technology in the background because this is what museum curators generally wanted but we have also moved into engaging with the public in how the modern technologies work and drawing them into the research process. Traditional technologies are used alongside the new. The novel installations planned by the project participants are innovative and use a combination of old and new technologies with theatre tricks. The key to all of the installations is to provide sensory cues deploying modern technology but to retain the focus on the authentic object in the case. The relationship between the location of the 'touch experience' provided, with the location of the original objects manifested itself in two ways: either the replica was within sight of the original object or directly superimposed on it by lighting tricks, or, the real and replica objects were linked with particular places as part of the emotional connections people forge linking objects and identities. In both locational arrangements there seemed to be interesting reactions from the public. At their heart lie issues of authenticity and our emotional connection with physical objects across time and space. What makes a touch experience in a museum authentic if the visitor is dealing with physical or digital replicas, and how can the physical divide be bridged? These are the questions that the project has investigated. The engagement with objects is largely a personal experience so opinions and comments have been crucial aspects of understanding visitor reactions. The installations have been trialled in public contexts and the project has collected comments from the researchers themselves, from visitors via surveys, observations and discussions; and from museum professionals via discussions. 

Terms like 'visual culture', 'sensory engagements' and 'sensory worldview' are ways of thinking about the perceptions of material culture in past societies. They arise from concepts such as phenomenology which have become part of the current discourse in many humanities subjects. The project considers these issues and relates them to sensory engagement in the museum.  Museum professionals and exhibition designers need to make informed decisions about the use of different kinds of technologies and replica objects in their displays. The study offers a range of ideas, some of which are relatively simple. We have listened to the views of end-users and know that there are subtle differences in emphasis but that all are looking to use modern and traditional technologies to enhance the museum experience, but they need to do so on the basis of sound evidence and in ways that are cost-effective. No one solution will fit all agendas and visitor group needs. That is why the installations use a variety of methods of delivering a 'touch experience'. The research provides a range of case studies and explores new ways to interweave the traditional and modern technologies. In particular, the specific focus on how to make stand-in touch experiences 'authentic' and what features increase this aspect of the experience is a crucial research agenda. Visitors want to engage with the past in ways that offer a deeper appreciation, and museum staff know that maintaining the quality of experience, and its perception as 'authentic', are paramount. In addition, museums want to expand the range of artefacts which visitors want to see. Providing new ways of experiencing an object as it was during it's ancient life will make 'walk-past' artefacts more engaging. Some of the installations may also offer commercial opportunities linking visitor and museum experience via souvenirs.

In archaeology and museum studies the role of the object as a focal point for forging emotional connections between past and present and across physical spaces is a strong emerging theme. The iconic object also connects with issues of identity which is a firm part of the post-modernist debate on belonging, and of relevance for dispersed and diverse communities. With the need to ensure public relevance and accountability, those who study or present the past have to address the second life of objects in the contemporary world if they are to have relevance to the present. The consideration of linking island identities with 'their' objects and the physical display of these across the sea and many miles away is a sensitive point to local communities. The research agenda linking local finds with displays in a distant museum is thus part of a modern discussion on communities at different scales and in different places. The installations which offer ways to bridge this physical divide can provide a stimulus for rethinking this disjunction and making the same heritage items a tangible experience in two separate locations, connecting communities across time and space.

OpenArch

OpenArch is an EU funded Culture project (2011-2015) building on the international collaborative success of EXARC (an international organisation of Archaeological Open-Air Museums and Experimental Archaeology).  The project has 10 open-air archaeological museums from the Netherlands, Germany, UK, Serbia, Finland, Italy and Spain, plus the organisation EXARC and the Department of Archaeology, University of Exeter (led by Linda Hurcombe) working together to enrich experimental archaeology among participants and to imporve the visitor experience across Europe. 

 
The main idea of Archaeological Open-Air Museums is to present both the tangible and intangible past to the public. The tangible parts of Archaeological Open-Air Museums are the archaeological remains and the reconstructions of these (houses, ships, complete environments). The intangible and most interesting part of an Archaeological Open-Air Museum is the story of the people that once lived there. The work in OpenArch is divided in Work Packages. All Work Packages are the responsibility of the entire partnership, but one or two partner will coordinate them. University of Exeter along with Kierikki Stone Age Centre, Finland, is responsible for the Dialogue with Science (Work Package 5).  Key staff from the Department of Archaeology involved in the project are Linda Hurcombe, Bruce Bradley, Alan Outram and Gill Juleff and a number of postgraduate students.

The University of Exeter has organised a number of workshops:

6th-11th October 2012: University of Exeter, Practice, and the pedagogies of experimental archaeology.

20th-24th May 2013: University of Exeter, The life cycle of structures in experimental archaeology: an object biography approach

5th-7th December 2013: National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, Touching the Past: engaging the public with the sense of touch using traditional craft replicas and modern technologies