Experience Digs Virtually

Snapshot of a Classical Archaeology seminar - at the University of Bonn using VR
Snapshot of a Classical Archaeology seminar - at the University of Bonn using VR glasses. Photo: ViCo project/Philippe Kluge all images in original size .

Archaeology and Digital Humanities at the University of Bonn join forces in international project

How do you explore an excavation site without being there in person? The Classical Archaeology team and the Bonn Center for Digital Humanities at the University of Bonn want to use new digital tools such as 3D technologies and virtual reality in their research and teaching. Their researchers are collaborating with the Universities of Amsterdam and Oslo and the Open University of the Netherlands in an international project entitled "Virtual Worlds in Teaching Archaeology." The European Union is co-financing the project to the tune of some 400,000 over the next three years.

The use of digital documentation methods in research and teaching is growing ever more important in the field of archaeology. Just as they have elsewhere in Europe, local initiatives have also been springing up at the University of Bonn that harness the new digital possibilities three-dimensional (3D) technology and virtual reality (VR) offer research and teaching in the archaeological subjects. "Up until now, however, these various initiatives haven’t been linked together, preventing synergy effects from being leveraged," explains Professor Stefan Feuser, Heisenberg Professor for Classical Archaeology at the University of Bonn. "Yet the ability to digitize tangible cultural heritage using 3D and VR visualization methods and incorporate it into teaching in a meaningful way is key to bringing about the digital transformation at universities." This will require giving students appropriate training, devising standards for sharing and exchanging virtual worlds and developing learning scenarios at university level, he says.

Learning scenarios featuring 3D data and VR environments

These are the objectives being pursued by "Virtual Worlds in Teaching Archaeology." In this international project led by the University of Bonn, it has come together with the Universities of Amsterdam and Oslo and the Open University of the Netherlands to develop and trial learning scenarios that use 3D data records and VR environments. The European Union is co-financing some 400,000 of funding to the project over the next three years under the ERASMUS+ Programme. The project is building on the successful groundwork laid by the University of Bonn in its ViCo subproject entitled "Virtuelle 3D-Welten" ("Virtual 3D Worlds"). Professor Feuser is coordinating the project, working closely with two 3D technology and VR specialists: Dr. Matthias Lang and Philippe Kluge from the Bonn Center for Digital Humanities.

How can one inspire a love of archaeology in students?

The question at the heart of the project is how archaeology degree programs can harness virtual technologies in order to inspire a love of the subject among their students right from the start. "Up until now, archaeological finds and buildings have always been beamed onto the wall as 2D photos, maps or reconstruction drawings using an overhead projector," the researcher points out, who is a member of the transdisciplinary research area "Present Pasts" and the Cluster of Excellence "Bonn Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies" at the University of Bonn. However, new technologies are now opening up various possibilities, such as stepping into archaeological digs virtually wearing 3D glasses, understanding digital reconstructions of temples, holding objects in your hand, examining them and placing them in their original context.

First, however, the necessary underlying data will need to be assembled in the form of 3D models and VR worlds and ideas for learning scenarios will need to be developed. This is to be achieved in the project through international collaboration and agreements on data standards. Says Feuser: "Our main aim is to have enough digital models and teaching ideas in three years’ time to enable students to learn inside 3D worlds in their first semester." Students will be involved in the development process and will be able to contribute their own ideas and views in a series of summer schools. Testing and evaluation will be done as part of courses taught at the universities involved.