June 29, 2017
MAKING DIGITAL VISION: SIGHT AND RITUAL AT BALALYK-TEPE (7TH-8TH C CE)
Balalyk-tepe is the site of a monumental fortress in the Surkhandarya basin in modern-day southern Uzbekistan. The fortress is best known for a set of preserved wall paintings excavated in the 1950s by a Soviet Uzbek-Russian team, who subsequently published their findings--excavation data, architectural descriptions, and sketches and watercolor reproductions of the paintings by L.I. Al'baum. Located in the small, windowless space in the furthest corner of the complex, or Room 14, the polychromatic paintings depicted a group of lavishly adorned men and women banqueting together. Although the wall paintings from Room 14 were well-preserved at the time of their discovery, scholarly accounts and analyses of the monumental visual program nevertheless continue to work from Al’baum’s illustrations rather than the original paintings, which are currently not on display for public view. In other words, the inability to access and study Room 14’s wall paintings limits the scope of scholarly interrogation and analysis.
Methodologies stemming from social theories of architecture alongside the relatively recent technological developments and their applications in the robust field of the digital humanities provide an opportunity to pursue new lines of inquiry regarding the site and its paintings. I engage with digital technologies not to offer concrete conclusions or answers about the meaning or experience of these wall paintings in the past, but rather, to generate new kinds of conversations about painting and vision in antiquity. These digital tools offer unique opportunities to study questions of how bodily engagements and haptic senses shaped spectatorship in the past. Nevertheless, I also directly address the thorny issues related to late modernity's scholarly engagements with virtual models to study pre-modern cultures and vision.
With Room 14’s ritual significance in mind, this paper activates old archaeological and art historical evidence through new methods and tools of visualization to recuperate the multisensorial, perceptual, and gendered experiences of spectatorship, thus contributing to the cultural and social histories of Central Asia during a period of political transition. By integrating visual and architectural analysis with my digital visualizations, I examine the multisensory aesthetics of Room 14 and its wall paintings at Balalyk-tepe and argue that gendered, collective spectatorship is grounded in the materiality and sensations of ritual experience.
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Using SketchUp tools, I virtually reconstructed Room 14 to make digital vision, which I hope will prompt new questions and directions for studying wall paintings in Medieval and early Islamic Central Asia.
CLICK & EXPERIMENT WITH DIGITAL VISION
Left: Digital reconstruction of Room 14, Balalyk-tepe. Credit: Patricia Eunji Kim. Right: Phase 2 top-plan of Balalyk-tepe. Enumeration my own. Image: Al'baum 1960.
Al’baum, L.I. 1960. Balalyk-Tepe. Tashkent.