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Situating Cultural Technologies Outdoors: Designing for Mobile Interpretation of Rock Art in Rural Britain

Areti Galani, Deborah Maxwell, Aron Mazel, Kate Sharpe, International Centre for Cultural and Heritage Studies, Newcastle University, United Kingdom


Mobile development and technology is the now, the here, the cutting edge. Rock art, or 'cup and ring' marks – abstract Neolithic and Early Bronze Age carvings in stone – is the past. This paper discusses the Rock Art Mobile Project (RAMP) which addresses the challenge of designing and delivering mobile interpretation to three rock art areas in Northumberland, UK. RAMP proposes a departure from the more traditional design approaches of delivering scientific content in the form of an archaeological mobile guide. It acknowledges that rock art interpretation requires a 'design space', which facilitates empathy between users and designers, and allows the existing archaeological content, the public's fascination with the 'cryptic' meaning of the rock art sites and the technological, environmental and personal situation of the user to be explored and to inspire technological development.

Keywords: experience-centred design, mobile, digital interpretation, design methods, user experience, outdoors

1. Introduction

Rock art – ancient carvings 'pecked' onto natural stone surfaces – forms a hugely significant part of the heritage of the North East of England. The abstract motifs, often referred to as 'cup and ring marks', provide a tangible and iconic link to our prehistoric ancestors which extends beyond the basic activities of everyday survival, to hint at a much richer, creative, and potentially spiritual dimension to their lives. Mostly found in situ, on outcrops and large, earth-fast boulders, rock art also reflects the intimate relationship that Neolithic and Bronze Age people had with the natural landscapes they inhabited between 6000 and 3500 years ago.

Rock art in the North East of England presents a concentration of approximately 1600 panels of various sizes and details (see figures 1 and 2), representing a significant proportion of the known rock art panels recorded in the whole of England. The purpose or meaning of the cups and rings remains shrouded in mystery and continues to challenge archaeologists. The open, dynamic, debate around British rock art (see for example Barnett & Sharpe, 2010, Beckensall, 2010 and Mazel et al., 2007) together with its physical availability, primarily above ground, makes rock art an accessible and 'democratic' part of the historic environment.

Figure 1. Typical motif at Weetwood Moor, NorthumberlandFigure 1. Typical motif at Weetwood Moor, Northumberland

Figure 2. View over carved panel at Lordenshaw, NorthumberlandFigure 2. View over carved panel at Lordenshaw, Northumberland

None of the rock art sites in North East England are proactively managed; no purpose-built visitor facilities are available, and few have any signposting or interpretation boards. Most are situated on private land with Open Access to the public, under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CROW). Under these circumstances it is difficult to make confident assumptions about visitor numbers; a recent study of heritage visitation patterns in Northumberland indicated that 78% of surveyed day visitors came from within the region, and 'the Countryside' was found to be the second most visited destination (Smith-Milne, 2008). This is supported by a one-day RAMP survey undertaken on a Bank Holiday in May 2010, which found that 63 people visited rock art at Lordenshaw in North Northumberland, the majority of whom lived locally (less than 40 miles away) and were regular visitors to the countryside. Public interest in rock art was confirmed in the overwhelming response to the website Northumberland Rock Art: Web Access to the Beckensall Archive ( developed by Newcastle University in 2005; during the first five days of its launch more than 15000 unique visitors accessed over 350000 web pages (Mazel & Ayesteran, 2009). An additional indication of enthusiasm for rock art was reflected by the high number of volunteers, more than 150 over four years, in the subsequent Northumberland and Durham Rock Art Pilot Project, which updated and extended the Beckensall Archive to include the rock art of County Durham, consolidating all records in the England's Rock Art (ERA) website ( in 2008 (Sharpe et al., 2008).

Significant digitisation work took place in both projects: the ERA website hosts considerable digital assets, which include detailed descriptive records together with 14600 images and drawings, and 420 3-D models for 1574 carved panels in the North East of England: a rich resource which has yet to be fully exploited for either academic research or heritage purposes.

The Rock Art Mobile Project (RAMP) bridges these desktop-based digital resources and the physical carvings by bringing the database into negotiation with the Northumberland landscape, and into the visitors' reach, through the application of mobile platforms. By putting user experience at the heart of the design process, this project not only takes advantage of the 'variability' of digital media (Manovich, 2001), which enables the flexible re-use of cultural digital assets on mobile platforms, but also seeks to address the reported tension between handheld guides and narrative (Parry, 2008) by situating mobile content in the personal narratives of rock art visitors.

Rather than focusing on the whole of Northumberland, RAMP concentrates on three rock art areas which are considered suitable for mobile media interpretation (namely: Lordenshaw, Weetwood Moor and Dod Law) based on the interest value, quality and range of the carvings, general site accessibility and, perhaps most importantly, the ability to withstand any potential increased visitor numbers. This was determined using conservation and management data in the ERA database, and through discussions with local heritage managers and stakeholders.

This paper initially locates RAMP within the technological and natural context of rock art visits. It then presents the rationale for adopting experience-centered design methodologies in the delivery of the project. Drawing on examples from participatory workshops, the paper discusses the formation of a 'design space', which responds to participants' key needs, including locating the rock art in the landscape, their desire for archaeological speculation, and their inclination to reflect on their sense of place. The paper concludes with a discussion of the design sensitivities which have informed the direction of the implementation process.

2. Landscapes: Technological & Natural

Archaeological findings, both urban and rural, often inhabit outdoor environments which may not be adequately served by traditional interpretation media for a host of aesthetic, conservation or statutory reasons. It is easy to envisage how such sites and digital mobile media could work together, and indeed early research projects such as ARCHAEOGUIDE (Vlahakis et al., 2002) focused on the delivery of archaeological content in situ via location aware hand-held devices. In these cases, as well as in more recent commercial reiterations of the concept (e.g. the GPS-based multimedia guide in Culloden battlefield (Pfeifer et al., 2009)), the motivation was firmly grounded in both the flexible delivery of sound archaeological information on site and the perceived user need for content personalisation. In the majority of these initiatives, digital mobile guides are introduced in managed archaeological or heritage sites, and are delivered through institutionally-owned devices on loan to visitors for the duration of their visit.

The location of rock art panels in open access outdoor sites with occasional and impromptu visitation patterns required a different approach to the design of mobile digital interpretation, which would take into consideration i) the current technological landscape, and ii) the physical environment of rock art, both of which we consider in the following section.

Technological landscape

There is no doubt that mobile development is a growing trend. The 2009 Oxford Internet Survey (Dutton et al., 2009) indicated that 89% of British people owned a mobile phone and in May 2010, AdMob (2010) reported that Western Europe experienced a more than six times increase in mobile traffic over the previous two years. This trend of increasing mobile traffic is not only due to mobile or cellular phones but also includes the increasing array of tablet and ebook devices (for example Apple's iPad and Samsung's Galaxy Tab). This rapidly moving field brings complexity as well as exciting new possibilities, as mobile platforms encompass a plethora of screen sizes (including variable orientation from portrait to landscape), hardware capabilities (e.g. gyroscope, GPS and accelerometers), input methods, and proprietary operating systems.

At the same time, as indicated by a recent Museums and Mobile Survey (Tallon, 2011), cultural institutions are increasingly contemplating the possibility of developing digital mobile interpretation, with an emphasis on utilising users' own devices, multimedia guides and smart phone applications (see also Doyle, 2010). In the meantime, feedback from the current cultural providers of mobile content suggests that on one side, apps are the most promising ways for iPhone and Android users to find and use content (Bernstein, 2010), versus the potential for wider visitor access through mobile websites (Forbes, 2010). However, in general, development trends in the museum and heritage sector are heavily skewed towards iOS-based applications, with the mobile web and Google Android development far less supported (despite Android's rapidly growing install base), and this is duly reflected by the regular lists of recommendations and reviews posted on blogs and on Twitter (e.g. via Twitter's #mtogo hashtag). Apps range from being simply a pre-packaged, mobile-friendly version of an existing website, to interactive games (e.g. Tate Trumps iPhone app), augmented reality (e.g. Museum of London's Streetmuseum iPhone app) and guided interactive video tours (e.g. Untravel Media's Walking Cinema: Murder on Beacon Hill). Location-aware applications support navigation around outdoors physical locations through a range of solutions such as GPS (Tarasoff, 2009), QR (Quick Response) and similar 2D codes (e.g. Manchester Art Gallery's Decoding Art project, Geo-tagged photographs (e.g. Beeharee & Steed, 2006) are an exploratory alternative to the above, seeking to tackle GPS limitations, for example under tree cover and 'urban canyons' (i.e. signal obstruction by buildings) as well as increased battery depletion for GPS-enabled mobile phone handsets.

Natural landscape

By comparison with these examples of indoor and urban mobile applications, rock art in Northumberland is situated in the rural landscape, amidst windswept hills and moorland where electricity supply is not readily available. Frequently located at sites affording extensive vistas (see figure 3), the carvings generally occur on flattish, exposed sections of bedrock. They are often found closely grouped, perhaps separated by bracken or heather, and are exposed to the elements, partially covered by lichen, moss and general detritus. When looking at rock art, the visitor is seldom shielded by trees, or cliffs; the wind is free to rush in all directions, potentially whipping away the spoken word. There is little shelter from either driving rain or bright sunlight which reflects on mobile device screens reducing visibility.

Figure 3. View over carved panel at Dod Law, Northumberland

Figure 3. View over carved panel at Dod Law, Northumberland

Yet in some ways, these hostile conditions lend themselves to mobile devices better than static alternatives (e.g. wind up mp3 player). Mobile interpretation can be delivered via both visual and personal audio formats without physically augmenting or intruding upon the landscape as many rock art sites are subject to statutory protection. Additionally, any installation may potentially be subject to livestock and human vandalism. The above conditions also restrict the installation of alternative energy solutions, such as solar powered kiosks to push packaged content to mobile devices in the vicinity via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. So, mobile devices seem to be a sensible option in this environment; imagine non-intrusive, on-demand content delivered to personal Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) handsets, to discover carved panels and to find out more about them.

The environment offers two further challenges: a seasonally changing, relatively featureless landscape which can make finding the carvings difficult, which we discuss later in the paper, and variable network signal, which has often been reported by local residents as nonexistent. However, a systematic feasibility study of five major UK mobile service providers, carried out in the three RAMP rock art sites, revealed some encouraging results: although network signals vary considerably between the three sites, all have strong availability of network signal in several of the rock art panel areas, especially in higher altitude spots. One site enjoys stable and strong signal with all major network providers, whilst the other two are more variable. Frustratingly, weak signal has been found in the public parking areas of the three sites, admittedly the natural starting point of any activity, which may account for the visitors' perception of 'no signal' mentioned above.

3. Methodological approach

With a significant amount of digitised media in place and a good understanding of the feasibility of mobile applications in the natural context of the rock art panels, this research acknowledged from very early on that significant exploration should focus on the narratives, interactions and conversations which take place in people's everyday encounters with this environment. The design process, therefore, actively sought to engage with the 'situated' nature (Suchman, 1987) of these encounters and to allow for 'empathy' to be developed between designers and users. Wright and McCarthy (2008) explain:

"In an empathic relationship the 'designer' does not relinquish his/her position to 'become the user', a position from which nothing new can be created, rather the designer responds to what they see as the user's world from their own perspective as designer. By holding onto their own perspective each person is able to creatively respond to the other from their own perspective."

This design position, the authors continue, allows the designer to understand and anticipate users' response to novel technological encounters, which they have not previously experienced. Drawing on these principles, the first phase of the project incorporated three one-day experience-centred workshops held in late 2010 with predominantly local participants. The workshops aimed to create a 'design space', which would bring to the fore visitors' experiences and relationships with the rock art environment, and their rapport with interpretive and communication media; they also allowed designers to share expertise and knowledge and float preliminary ideas. This flexible approach enabled the team to expand traditional boundaries of the system requirements capture process to include not only technical functionalities and content needs, but also to investigate and incorporate more open-ended concepts, such as the role of ambiguity in archaeological information, the pace and tone of delivery in a self directed activity, and the relative importance of the visitor's sense of place in the experience of rock art.

The workshops took place in Wooler (Wooler1) and Rothbury (Rothbury2, Rothbury3), the closest villages to the chosen rock art areas. Membership of the workshops was initially informed by a preliminary in situ visitor survey, as mentioned above. This day-long survey had suggested that people who visit rock art sites are likely to come from within the local area and visit in a group (i.e. two or more people) which includes repeat visitors. Several workshop participants were recruited from this initial survey. In addition, participants were found from local contacts in villages close to the project rock art sites, responses to posters in community centres, and from direct correspondence with relevant groups (e.g. a local ramblers group, amateur rock art and archaeology groups, heritage organisations and the local geocaching community). Twenty seven people participated, which included some groups of friends and same family members; ages ranged from teenage to retirement, with a trend towards older (retirement age) participants.

The workshops deliberately adopted a low-tech, informal approach. Drawing on the design approach of 'cultural probes' (Gaver et al., 1999), which helped us to focus on the "cultural implications of our designs", they combined conversations (figure 4), some of which were around maps of the area which explored participants' favourite spots (figure 5), a site visit, a storytelling session about participants' own mobile phones, a set of prompts written on lollipop sticks, and flash cards. These activities were designed to support first-hand engagement, multisensory (and multimodal) experience and self-reflection – in a bid to shift away from perceived 'truths' or generalisations about visitor needs and behaviours in heritage sites.

Figure 4. Group discussion after site visit (Rothbury, Workshop 2)Figure 4. Group discussion after site visit (Rothbury, Workshop 2)

Figure 5. Group discussion around favourite places (Rothbury, Workshop 3)Figure 5. Group discussion around favourite places (Rothbury, Workshop 3)

The aim of the site visits was not to provide a guided tour experience, which would favour the archaeological narrative of the encounter. Rather, we aimed to lead participants to rock art panels and allow them to engage with the landscape and group as they saw fit. The dialogue which emerged between specialists and groups evolved naturally, indicative of the information needs of participants (figure 6). Knowledge sharing with the specialists was partly in the form of answering questions, enabling group members to probe the extent of known facts and archaeological interpretation, and also served as a moderating sounding board when participants put forward suggestions about the rock art. Participants could also use booklets with sample visual content from the existing database (figure 7), listen to spoken words (e.g. a poem recital) and music on mp3 players, and make notes on wooden lollipop sticks, which carried prompts such as: "This reminds me of…", "This landscape makes me feel…" and so forth. Brushes and a profiler gauge were also provided to allow participants to physically interact with the rock (figure 8).

Figure 6. Conversation with specialist, Lordenshaw site visit (Rothbury, Workshop 2)Figure 6. Conversation with specialist, Lordenshaw site visit (Rothbury, Workshop 2)

Figure 7. Participant exploring the carving through touch and visual material, Lordenshaw site visit (Rothbury, Workshop 3)Figure 7. Participant exploring the carving through touch and visual material, Lordenshaw site visit (Rothbury, Workshop 3)

Figure 8. Participants engaging with rock art, Lordenshaw site visit (Rothbury, Workshop 3)Figure 8. Participants engaging with rock art, Lordenshaw site visit (Rothbury, Workshop 3)

The workshops generated a rich and diverse pool of documentation in the form of notes, photographs, video recordings, participant photographs, and notes on lollipop sticks. This data was then used to generate a set of conceptual thematic maps, similar to affinity diagrams (Beyer & Holtzblatt, 1997), using sticky notes (figure 9) which afforded not only a plasticity in data coding, but also encouraged a collaborative and visual method of working between the project team. This treatment of the collected materials highlighted significant personal and shared realisations of the rock art experience, three of which we discuss in the next section.

Figure 9. Conceptual thematic map on sticky notesFigure 9. Conceptual thematic map on sticky notes

4. The Rock Art Experience

The documentation of the workshops provided insights in three main design areas: specific responses to proffered media, technological insights, and more intangibly, responses to and reflections on the rock art environment and group site visit. Responses to media consisted of comparisons between modalities (e.g. audio to visual), content tone (through a mix of formal description and creative writing), and visual representations (between photographs, diagrams and archival imagery). Whilst pertinent to the specific content and design needs of the mobile experience, these results can be subjective in this preliminary phase of the investigation; we reserve, therefore, our desire to report on them in a later publication following the prototyping phase of the project. In this paper, we instead consider participants' more nuanced reflections on landscape use and personal interactions, which have affected our design inspiration. More specifically we discuss:

  • Practices around finding rock art ('findability');
  • The place of archaeological speculation in engaging with rock art; and
  • The participants' connection with the landscape ('sense of place and self').

We conclude this section by reporting on the participants' types of mobile handsets and usage levels in their rock art visits, countryside activities and everyday life.

NB. All participant names have been changed.


As described in Section 2, Natural Landscape, the physical locations of rock art mean that they are not necessarily visible from a distance; easy viewing is very much dependent on oblique sunlight and low vegetation growth. Anita (participant in workshop Wooler1) told us about visiting Weetwood (one of the RAMP sites);

I'd been up there before and I'd seen some of them, but I saw some today that I hadn't seen before. The one that was in the wood, I'd never seen that one before, I didn't even know it was there – because all it says on the map is 'cup and ring marks'. And the last time I was up there I couldn't find that-the main one, I couldn't find it at all. And we walked backwards and forwards, and backwards and forward until everyone said, 'Come on! We want to get to Wooler before the tea shops shut'. And in the end I gave up. So I was particularly interested to go up there today and I've taken it all down on the GPS and got the, er, map references so I can find them again.

Anita (retired) is a keen walker and countryside visitor; she is a volunteer ranger for the Northumberland National Park, so is comfortable in the countryside. Yet her recollection of difficulty in finding rock art rang true for several participants over the three workshops. Her story illustrates several key points, i) she was unaware of all but the main rock art panel (which is situated on a pathway) despite the existence of several other carvings in a 250m radius, ii) there is a lack of interpretation in situ and in mainstream information channels (i.e. tourist information brochures and on Ordinance Survey (OS) maps), and iii) she developed a method for dealing with the 'findability' issue by recording panel co-ordinates with her GPS.

Anita's story is typical of other participants, many of whom did not know about less obvious rock art panels in the general area, despite having visited the site and most well-known carvings previously either by accident whilst out walking, or as part of a guided tour. On the workshop site visits, several less obvious panels were visited, selected to show a range of rock art motifs and contexts. This range perhaps prompted these responses, and served to enthuse some participants who did not realise that there was so much archaeology on their doorstep. For these participants, the lack or vagueness of the available visitor information both on site and through traditional tourist information channels limited their experience of rock art, especially within the context of a leisurely group visit. Participants' accounts of their troubles in finding the rock art panels gave us insights in the situation of these visits: purposeful, regular, social, and often relying on intuition around the landscape. For instance, only two of our 27 participants spoke of actively using the ERA and Beckensall websites to find and check rock art locations pre-visit.

Anita's method of storing rock art locations for future reference was a relatively new experience for her, having only recently acquired a GPS. Other participants adopted different mechanisms for finding rock art, with one member claiming to enjoy "getting lost", only navigating with OS maps. It took Robyn (retired, Wooler1) three occasions to locate a specific carving, only succeeding after serendipitously meeting Stan Beckensall (doyen of rock art studies in Northumberland and the UK) in a local café to ask for help. It may be initially hard to comprehend the motivation in seeking a simple carving on a rock in the middle of the countryside, especially when it drives someone to search for it on three separate occasions, but it is important to ground this in the setting of the landscape and the user group.

The landscape was cited as its own reward, where regardless of the success of the rock art search, "…one has a nice day out in lovely countryside looking for them and I think that sort of adds to it – they're usually somewhere where there's a lovely viewpoint" (Robyn, Wooler1). The importance of environmental context was reinforced by Dennis (Rothbury2) who noted that, "If you had the same stones in a museum in Newcastle, well, I wouldn't be bothered at all. It's the landscape, the environment that makes it". Despite the lack of information and interpretation, rock art panels held a fascination for our participants, which was evident throughout our conversations in the three workshops. This was often expressed through ongoing speculations about the rock art panels themselves, which we discuss in the next section.

Desire for Speculation

John: We haven't really got a clue. I mean there's loads of ideas but…we don't know. Because it's a mystery it's much more alluring, yeah?

[General murmurs of agreement]

Stephen: It makes it more interactive in some way doesn't it?

John: Well it allows your motivation-

[Unheard: all talking together]

Anita: Every time you go you think – well I said today, 'It's a game. It's a game like that one in Africa where you put stones'.

Stephen: Which makes it more engaging doesn't it?

(Dialogue, Wooler1)

The 'mystery' of rock art provoked discussion, reflection and speculation. "What does it mean?" was the underlying question at the root of all our workshop discussions and site visits, and was articulated by participants time and time again. Anita's comment in the above quote exemplifies this, suggesting that on each subsequent visit her view of rock art alters. All of the workshop groups enjoyed speculating on the purpose and possible meaning of the abstract marks. The wooden lollipop or 'memory' sticks (see figure 10) recorded a host of imagery (e.g. bicycle wheels, labyrinths, maps, a board game, graffiti or doodles, ridge and furrow plough marks, millstones, ripples from throwing a stone in water, and 'planets around the sun') (see (Morris, 1979) for 104 possible rock art meanings).

For the participants, the perceived mystery and enigma of rock art, in combination with the lack of any signs of authoritative interpretation in situ, enabled a degree of intellectual accessibility, where non-specialists can experience a sense of conversing on a comparatively level footing with specialists, qualifying with "we [i.e. everyone] don't know [what it means]". During the workshops and reportedly in previous visits, making sense of the rock art panels was practiced through dialogue both on site and in discussions post-visit, opening up a space for speculation and providing an opportunity not only to hear the available archaeological answers but also to discover and hear more questions in a group context. Rock art therefore was at the centre of an evolving set of personal narratives, shaped by ongoing experience and social interactions with peers and specialists – a similar understanding to how people make sense of natural quietness in rural environments was reported in Giaccardi et al. (2006). On a more personal level, a smaller group of participants made sense of rock art through their creative practice. Stephen (Wooler1) writes poetry, and rock art has in the past inspired some of his work, which he brought to the workshop. Similarly, his wife Jean (Wooler1), recounted visiting rock art with her sister-in-law who used the carvings to prompt an artistic reflection post visit; John (Wooler1) and Matthew (Wooler1) take photographs of rock art, which have now been uploaded on the Flickr account of the project, and both Dennis (Rothbury2) and James (Rothbury2) have installed geocaches close to rock art sites.

Figure 10. Discussion around comments on lollipop sticks (Wooler, Workshop 1)Figure 10. Discussion around comments on lollipop sticks (Wooler, Workshop 1)

Sense of Place and Self

An overwhelming aspect of rock art experience in the context of the workshops and beyond, was the participants' connection with temporal, social and physical aspects of the landscape through the rock art itself. In our team's discussions of the workshops we loosely referred to this aspect of the visit as 'sense of place and self' following Jorgensen & Stedman's (2001) approach where 'sense of place' is considered to be "an attitude towards a spatial setting" comprising of identity (beliefs about the relationship between self and place), attachment (emotional connection to place) and dependence (conative, i.e. directed towards action).

Participants who attended the RAMP workshops were comfortable in the rural environment, being largely regular visitors to the countryside, in line with Tuan's (1974) claim that "familiarity breeds affection when it does not breed contempt". They talked about the countryside in terms of being able to connect with and be part of nature, giving them a sense of 'being alive and carefree'. Several individually written responses to the lollipop stick prompt, "This landscape makes me feel…" said simply, "Exhilarated".

A sense of tranquility came out from the responses too, with participants citing a multisensory experience: panoramic views from hills or coast, the sounds of birds and the wind rushing, lying in heather watching sky larks dart across the sky, and drinking coffee from a flask or eating a picnic lunch. This was reflected both in the measured way participants moved through the rock art sites, sometimes sitting down to absorb the atmosphere (figure 11), and in discussions afterwards. Louise (Rothbury2) wanted to simply "sit there for twenty minutes", Alison (Rothbury3) to take more time to "absorb the landscape" and "experience what there was to feel" (Karin, Rothbury3). This correlates with survey findings (Smith-Milne, 2008), which suggested that heritage tourists are "motivated by a wider range of factors than the heritage itself", including a "desire to be entertained, an emotional and / or social connection with a particular place, subject, culture, history and so on. Other types of experience include a desire for peace and tranquillity, an interest in learning".

Participants explored the environment through sensory engagement with the landscape and the rock art, touching carvings with their hands (figures 7 & 8), and in a couple of instances, their bare feet. Several participants claimed that by touching the hollows and tracing the grooves they were able to feel more of a connection with the carver, putting their hands where human hands had once been long ago.

I think often perhaps we are told that things are fragile and 'Don't Touch it' and, you know, '[Don't] look at it', and, 'Not too near it' and, 'Don't walk on it', and by not touching it, we make it lost. Whereas I felt an interesting thing where I was running my hand through some of the cup marks and I thought, hmm, perhaps if this has been done so many times and I remove another thirty little grains from the outside of weathering then I'm also taking part in that process.

Michael's (Rothbury3) account of his experience suggests a felt connection between the past and present, bringing a direct sense of individual participatory engagement with the carving and the landscape. His contemporary take on the carving and erosion process provided an opportunity to reflect on his personal contribution to the longevity and continuity of rock art which was shared by other participants in the group. It appears then that in this case, Graham et al.'s (2009) suggestion that "the historic environment contributes towards a distinctive sense of place and a sense of continuity which can support a greater sense of people's self-esteem and place attachment", is particularly materialised through the visitors' situated and multisensory experience of rock art.

Figure 11. Participant absorbing the surroundings, Lordenshaw site visit (Rothbury, Workshop 3)Figure 11. Participant absorbing the surroundings, Lordenshaw site visit (Rothbury, Workshop 3)

Before we discuss the design implications of the above issues, it is worth pondering on another aspect of the RAMP workshops, the participants' relationship with their mobile technologies.

Participants' use of mobile technologies

As mentioned above, the workshops were designed to open up dialogue among participants, and between participants and designers. Given the premises of the project, the team sought to understand the relationships participants have with their mobile phones, especially in the context of rock art visits. This would allow us to develop our design not necessarily for the current technical skills and hardware capabilities of the specific participants and their phones, but in a way that would enable these participants (as well as other future rock art visitors) to feel comfortable in engaging with a technological intervention in the context of a rock art visit. The conversation around personal mobile technologies brought up a series of details regarding uses and handset capabilities, ranging from those participants who extolled the virtues of Bluetooth to those who had never sent a text message (though both extremes were in the minority). The majority of the participants had older mobile phones, some as 'hand-me-downs', and others as deliberate selections made at purchase. The majority of the participants reported low usage of these devices which correlates with the lower end capabilities of the handsets, and the corresponding fact that most of the phones were Pay As You Go (PAYG) as opposed to contract-based (which generally have a higher specification and bundled internet access). Unsurprisingly, participants were concerned that any kind of mobile tour might deplete their pre-paid phone credit.

More importantly however, participants were asked to tell the group a story about their mobile phones; in these stories mobiles were cited largely as producing feelings of 'safety' and security when in remote rural settings, or when out driving, and therefore a permanent companion on rock art visits. This admission, however, came hand-in-hand with the perception that mobile signal at rock art sites was non-existent, perhaps borne out by the fact that signal strength is weak at all the 'site entrances', as discussed above.

Participants were also divided among those who actively engaged in imagining the positive transformative effects of a mobile application for the rock art experience, and those who warned the RAMP team about the disruptive effect of technology in the tranquillity of the landscape. Furthermore, participants with smart phones were observed taking photographs throughout the visits and in two instances to combine low capability mobile phones with high-end iPad devices (figure 12) – the majority of the group used their electronic cameras to capture the visit. They also accepted and made calls throughout the day. The overall experience, hence, was regularly recorded, mediated and in some instances disrupted by the use of an array of technologies.

Figure 12. Participant using own iPad during Lordenshaw site visit (Rothbury, Workshop 2)Figure 12. Participant using own iPad during Lordenshaw site visit (Rothbury, Workshop 2)

5. Moving forward

The first phase of the RAMP project, so far, points towards a number of design considerations that we aim to explore in the technical implementation of the project. We see these design sensitivities in relation to our previous work on embedded digital media in cultural spaces (Schnädelbach et al., 2010) and heritage management in rural environments (Barnett & Sharpe, 2010), and as drivers for designing and evaluating situated cultural technologies outdoors. The most relevant of these considerations for the next phase of the project are summarised below:

Intuitive 'findability'

Arguably, one of the fundamental rules of any heritage interpretation, analogue and digital, is for people to be able to physically find it and access it. As discussed previously, the perceived intellectual accessibility of rock art and the relationship with its natural context is one of its appeals. The somewhat hidden nature of its location could well have been another manifestation of this, a puzzle or riddle to solve, another facet of its enigmatic nature. However, the feedback at the workshops clearly demonstrated that this was not the case (people expressed frustration in not being able to locate the panels in past visits), it further revealed the participants' enjoyment in using their intuition and resourcefulness in navigating the landscape. Aiding navigation outdoors in either urban or rural environments has been the topic of extensive research (Wenig & Malaka, 2010). Technologies such as GPS assume that users have appropriate hardware; its challenges for heritage applications are well explored (e.g. Pfeifer et al., 2009). Furthermore, alternative approaches to providing directions, e.g. through textual descriptions, geo-tagged photographs and haptic feedback (e.g. Robinson et al., 2010) may prove unsuitable in the RAMP sites, which are dramatic and beautiful, but not particularly rich in unique features.

Over the forthcoming months RAMP will test a number of these methods including i) static GPS coordinates, the method of choice for rock art enthusiasts and geocachers, ii) annotated digital photographs of the view as an orientation mechanism, a commonly used mechanism in multimedia guided tours, and, what we feel may be the most viable approach in this context, iii) considerate and managed physical interventions in the landscape (e.g. through the existing public path signage) which could provide anchors for landmark-based navigational descriptions.

Communicating archaeological ambiguity

In their exploration of ambiguity as a design opportunity, Gaver et al. (2003) commenced their discussion by accepting that, "Ambiguity can be frustrating, to be sure. But it can also be intriguing, mysterious and delightful". This certainly rings true in the case of rock art experience. As already discussed, in the process of the workshops, participants were observed to seamlessly interweave and evolve their own archaeological narratives about rock art through their engagement with the natural landscape, their sensory explorations, and the more evidence-based conversations with rock art specialists in the group. How then, could the engagement with rock art through the inherently positivist medium of terse mobile interpretation maintain the dynamism of this experience, whilst putting forward a sound archaeological discourse? It was obvious to the RAMP team that the specialist point of view is that although there are a lot of things we do not know about rock art, there are certain things that we do know.

In this context, RAMP attempts to explore designs that combine Gaver et al.'s (ibid) suggestions for "enhancing ambiguity of information" with techniques used in archaeological research. It will realise this by i) providing an evidence-based set of material and insights which leaves space for the visitor to make their own informed judgements on aspects of rock art, ii) potentially mirroring conversational dialogue through audio or text to introduce informality and openness, and iii) adopting some interactive components, such as uploading user-generated photographs, to enable visitors to share their experience with others through a 'completed portfolio' which documents and personalises their visit.

'Felt' experience of place

One of the challenges for RAMP is to contradict Malpas's (2008) anathema that digital media, by removing "spatial and temporal distance and difference", and by "the way they release things, including ourselves, from place may also bring with it a loss of any proper 'sense' of place, and so of any proper sense of identity." Connecting with the natural, historic, and social aspects of the landscape through one's senses and previous understandings appears to be an essential part of the rock art experience.

RAMP aspires to pursue this through i) the creation of flexible, modular content and pacing of mobile interpretation to provide space for personal engagement and reflection, ii) the balanced use of a range of media, some of which might not be considered to be traditionally interpretive, e.g. poetry and music, to act as creative stimulus, and iii) the considered encouragement of users to use all senses during the visit and the augmentation of certain interactions with rock art through digital means (e.g. by overlaying archival material onto contemporary visuals). Arguably, this latter point highlights a real-life tension between the tactile aspects of the rock art experience and the concerns of heritage conservation, which RAMP hopes to balance in a sensitive manner.

Hybrid media ecologies

When it comes to technological decisions, the workshops suggested that rock art visitors make use of a variety of media in their personal sense making of rock art, including iPads, cameras, maps, books, websites and the physical infrastructure. Understanding how these "hybrid [media] ecologies" work in the context of the rock art visit will help us to support the nature of cooperation and interaction in these environments, which merge physical and digital encounters (Crabtree & Rodden, 2008). For example, RAMP is faced with a fundamental dilemma of whether to work to the lower end phone specification, perhaps by the use of SMS (e.g. Botturi et al. 2009) or recorded voice messages, or to push the user boundaries and adopt a higher level specification, perhaps through the use of an app, despite the fact that most of our participants would be unable to access it in the first instance. Furthermore, there is always the temptation to simply translate the existing database directly into a mobile format, which, however, would contradict our participants' need for situated interpretation, appropriate to repeated, purposeful and intuition-based encounters with rock art in a social group or alone.

To address this, RAMP proposes i) to adopt the emergent Bring Your Own Device paradigm, by developing a comprehensive mobile website, reusing key resources from the existing database (e.g. optimised imagery) and creating additional material as required, to allow Internet enabled mobile devices to access content in situ, ii) to present this material within the ERA website, to enhance visibility of the content online, and provide an opportunity for visitors to download media on alternative personal devices (e.g. mp3 players) pre-visit, and iii) to explore partnerships with creative digital media practitioners for the development of small-scale specialised mobile interventions which would utilise native capabilities of high-end mobile devices and allow rock art interpretation to be disseminated through personal digital channels.

6. Conclusion

This paper has outlined the contextual background to the Rock Art Mobile Project, in particular highlighting the technical and environmental context of the project and the rationale behind the chosen design methodologies. One might then question how this approach fairs against more traditional system design processes. RAMP aims to situate digital mobile interpretation within the personal, technological and natural context of rock art visits; it also seeks to introduce an interpretation delivery mechanism which is 'novel' for both the sites and the traditional user base. Through an experience-centred approach, the design team aspired to develop an 'empathic' relationship with both the landscape and its users. The workshops generated feedback on specific content and modal preferences, as well as the range of participant mobile usage patterns and experience. They also, crucially, exposed a series of observations and comments relating how visitors experience and engage with rock art and the wider countryside. As the premise of this paper is that experience-centred design methodologies can lead to nuanced, thoughtful reflections for conceptual design, it is important to consider what these reflections can tell us in terms of design sensitivities. Whilst conscious of Dourish's (2006) concern for notional, wide-sweeping design implications based on fleeting observations, several clear points emerged which RAMP has already used as inspiration springboards in the design and implementation of the mobile interpretation.

Wright and McCarthy (2008) warn us that experience-centred approaches might run the danger that "empathy will be regarded as something vague, mysterious, unwarrantable, undocumentable and unusable". RAMP aims to address this issue by putting in place an iterative design process, establishing a longer term relationship with participants, and evaluating design prototypes through further participatory design exercises. In all these steps, it is anticipated that a keen awareness of the design sensitivities will drive each decision, providing mobile interpretation in situ to inspire visitors to meaningfully engage with the archaeology and its surroundings.

7. Acknowledgements

RAMP is supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), UK, AH/H037608/1. We would like to thank all participants who attended our workshops, and the local services in Wooler and Rothbury for their hospitality. Figure 2 is included courtesy of England's Rock Art.

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Cite as:

Galani, A., et al., Situating Cultural Technologies Outdoors: Designing for Mobile Interpretation of Rock Art in Rural Britain. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2011: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2011. Consulted