3.6 Virtual Archaeology

This section is under development.

In the 1980’s and early 1990’s during the hype of futuristic movies like Tron (the original - 1982), War Games (1983) and Lawnmower Man (1992) in which virtual reality played a key role in transporting characters and audiences into an immersive virtual space, the notion of Virtual Archaeology was born, or more specifically, coined. Virtual Archaeology saw its beginnings in what is now Computational Archaeology, or basically, the use of computer science in archaeology. As it is today, and very much represented within this textbook, computer archaeology is divided into two distinct fields; a) the use of mathematical data to analyze and predict archaeological information and b) the visualization of that data into 2D, 3D and 3D printed (re)visualizations, which are representational of the known and constructed knowledge archaeologists create when we are analyzing the context, landscape and time stratification of an archaeological site. When archaeologist Paul Reilly coined the term in 1987, before the widespread introduction of personal computers, his intent was to bring to light that visualizing archaeological data beyond just graphs and charts, enhances and communicates the narratives buried within the archaeological sites we excavate and the knowledge we are constructing through the analysis of those limited data sets. The key however to Reilly’s notion was that the raw, scientific, archaeological data, however scarce, still needed to be the starting point of the virtual representation.

In this chapter, we will explore the theory and method of virtual archaeology and how it relates to the broader notion of Digital Archaeology.

3.6.1 Basic principles

  • Archaeological narratives, the stories we create in order to explain the material culture we find within archaeological sites, must begin with data, no matter how small, that we derive from the archaeological landscape.

  • To explain our hypothesis and to give credence to our virtual (re)imagination of the archaeological material, whether it is an object, landscape or built environment, we must and can use a combination of theories and methods to support our virtualization of the archaeological past.

  • Virtual archaeology is just not seen. It is felt, smelt, heard, it has texture and weight, it has a narrative. It can be accessible and restrictive depending on the wishes of the descendent caretakers or the needs of the greater public. Virtual archaeology is not virtual reality but a means in which to experience the archaeological past phenomenologically.

3.6.2 Main Challenge

Throughout this volume, the authors and the examples presented have laid out what Digital Archaeology is. The acquisition of data from the archaeological landscape, the visualization of that data through the technology and techniques best suited for the type of data being captured and communicated, as well as the means in which Digital Archaeology is partially or fully integrated within a broader more digitally dependent archaeological process.

Virtual archaeology relies more heavily on the construction of new knowledge through the making or (re)imaging of 2D images, 3D models or 3D printed objects, but also can include immersive environments and non-ocular experiences. What does that mean? As archaeologists, we interpret the archaeological material that reveals itself. We draw from past knowledge and experience; what we have learned in school, on other archaeological excavations, what others have said on the subject before us, but more importantly what the object, landscape or built environment says to us personally.

Virtual archaeology helps to support the archaeological narrative, but it also can create new knowledge and thus new narratives.

3.6.3 The Archaeological Narrative

What is the “archaeological unknown”? When an archaeological artifact, landscape or built structured is (re)discovered, its context is partially or fully missing. Archaeologists have to then develop a “best guess” theory of the meaning, motivation and context of the archaeological material based on experience, known knowledge and creative interpretation. In many ways it is detective work, sousing out who might have made the artifact, landscape or structure, why or what was the motivation and how did it come to rest in within a particular spot. Archaeologists usually use theories, developed by themselves or borrowed from other archaeologists to explain the who, what, why and how. As digital archaeology is in many ways about the interpretation of data points, there is always a scientific, quantifiable flavour to the interpretations or data generated through digital means. We as archaeologist, then source our personal toolkit of skills, knowledge and experience to paint an interpretation, visual, phenomenological or written, of the artifact and the data potentially associated with the object, landscape or structure.

In 1993, archaeologist Janet Spector wrote a highly influential paper entitled, “What this awl means: Feminist archaeology at a Wahpeton Dakota village”. Instead of methodically describing an artifact scientifically, a tradition in archaeology to give weight and authority to what the archaeologist is about to interpret, Spector chose to create a narrative, a living history if you like, of the artifact that was excavated. The artifact, an awl, is used to make clothing and Spector narrated a story that brought the artifact and the person who many have used it, to life, virtually, in the readers mind. This fictional interpretation however was based on the cumulative scientific, anthropological and archaeological knowledge Spector sourced in order to (re)visualize one potential lifeway of this artifact (Spector 1993). It was remarkable because Spector made this archaeological find accessible to a larger audience by creating a narrative which captured the essence of the artifact. Essentially, Spector has given us the permission to creatively interpret the archaeologically unknown, while still being grounded in traditional archaeological theory.

The thread throughout anthropologist Tim Ingold’s 2011 book, “Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description” is that objects have their own narratives. That the world (the environment, plants, animals, humans…) come into contact with objects, add to the objects narrative and as time passes, those narratives are recorded physically upon the object, or within the environment it now rests, but the meaning, the context, is lost. Additionally, Like the awl, artifacts were once raw material. That material, may it be wood, stone or the landscape, all have previous stories, like you do, that make up the object’s existence. When we work these raw materials to fashion a new object, like a clay pot, a spear point or a piece of art, the raw materials have their own way of imposing their narratives into the new object being created. Like a knot in a piece of wood, it forces the carpenter to change direction and accommodate or build upon the materials previous narrative. It is these course-corrections, or as Ingold describes them, wayfaring points (Tim Ingold 2011), that helps us understand what the artifact may be, and mean within the context in which it was excavated.

A wayfaring point is really just a decision-making moment. An artifact is made, used and then discarded but in-between those key points in its lifeway, there are other smaller wayfaring stops which build upon the artifact, landscape or structures where the context or intent has been lost. Ingold also provides a way for us, as archaeologists, to make new meaning from the archaeologically unknown, as we (re)imagine artifacts, landscapes and ancient peoples within 2D, 3D or 3D printed form. The construction of unknown knowledge, or the creation of plausible narratives for those unknown wayfaring moments, helps to interpret the archaeological material. In many ways, we “make” new meaning when we create new narratives to fill in the gaps.

Take for instance, an Iroquoian Longhouse (side image of an excavated Iroquoian longhouse and a reconstructed one). Unlike the stone remnants of the great castles of Europe, or the Pyramids of Egypt, there are no lasting remains of longhouse structures other than the post-hole circles that represent where the wooden superstructure once stood and was buried into the ground, but has now rotted into dirt. Nothing of these structures survive above the soil line, so in order to (re)visualize these grand structures archaeologists have to work closely with the current decedents to interpret the oral stories and histories of longhouses and how they were built as well as source whatever historical images or written accounts the first European visitors made of their encounters with the Iroquoian populations. One might even look towards experimental archaeology (side box with a note on experimental archaeology) to understand what types of wood and bark would be used when (re)visualizing all the bits and pieces that haven’t survived in the archaeological record.

As we are constructing in 2D or 3D, through a written or spoken narrative, we are reimagining based on the information available, what an artifact, landscape or structure would have looked like. We are “making” new knowledge, testing existing theories and creating an alternative narrative for other archaeologists, historians, descendent populations and the public to try for themselves.

3.6.4 Theoretical Pragmatism

Archaeology is a theory laden subject. There is no getting around it. Although archaeology is highly tactile, physical and applied, as archaeologists, we must harken back to established theories, notions and concepts to speak authoritatively in our interpretations.

The concept of Virtual Archaeology is almost 30 years old, yet it still suffers from a lack of theoretical grounding. Paul Reilly freely admits that coining the term “virtual archaeology” in the 1980’s has been problematic, especially now in the present, when virtual reality has come to represent in entertainment as well as science, a very real means of immersing oneself into an alternative, almost hyper-real world. Jeremy Huggett suggests it is because we “fetishize the technology” (Huggett 2004), placing more emphasis on what the technology does instead of critically evaluating what information it provides. Further, in a generation that now consumes and produces information easily, alternative visions and voices, both critically sound and not, compete with an archaeologist driven narrative, thus consumers have become producers.

Well established archaeological theories support parts of the virtual archaeological method and practice, but there isn’t one theoretical approach we can wrap around virtual archaeology to ground it to the current concept of archaeological science, of which most of digital archaeology is born. There is however a “theoretical pragmatism”, derived from a humanistic and philosophical approach to understanding the archaeological landscape, that provides a freedom to pick and choose elements and parts of various archaeological theories to support a virtual archaeological interpretation.

Called “archaeological cabling”, Alyson Wylie, an archaeologist who has specialized in the philosophical notions in archaeology, provides a theoretical pragmatism that easily lends itself to the theory and practice of virtual archaeology ((Wylie 1989, Wylie (2002)). Quite simply, a rope, has many strands and when they are twined together, it makes for a stronger combined element. Virtual archaeology in many ways is a combination of multiple theories which helps to solidify what we are saying about the archaeological unknown. These theories can be drawn from any subject area and can even be smaller parts of theories that help to support what your thesis might be. In essence, it is a practical approach to building a plausible interpretation of the virtual and digital material you create when interpreting the archaeological landscape or artifact.

Another practical tool in which to support your (re)visualization of an archaeological landscape or artifact is through “paradata”. The concept of paradata was derived from a set of principles called “The London Charter” developed in 2006 to guide those archaeologists and digital experts in the virtual (re)imagination of archaeological landscaped and artifacts (Bentkowska-Kafel 2012, H. Denard (2012)). There are many interpretations of what paradata actually means, but for our purposes, let us assume it is like a personal blog, which records your interaction with the archaeological object or landscape (see http://theskonkworks.com/ as an example). As you build upon the archaeological digital assets, you are making course corrections, changing direction and including new interpretations. The software may force you to do something that loses data, or the speed in which the computer or platform requires your virtual assets to be simplified. All of these micro-negotiations as you are interpreting and building upon the data, are wayfaring course corrections and as such, the “paradata” is a narrative diary of those seemingly not very important decision, which in reality have a major impact on how we as consumers of your final virtual archaeological product, consume it.

Ultimately, it is the paradata, how you chose to virtually construct knowledge, that is the key and not the final virtual object itself.

3.6.5 Phenomenology and Virtual Archaeology

Phenomenology is the term we use to theoretically describe the immersive qualities such as look, touch, smell and hear in a landscape, or in our case, within a virtual or non-virtual environment. Each are triggers that ignite a previous experience you might have had. For instance, if I described rotting garbage, you likely have an image already in your mind and that may even trigger a memory of what that smelled like. Take it one step further, if I virtually create an image of garbage within a virtual environment, your subconscious memory will likely trigger the mind to think about the rotting smell as well. As such, you become immersed in the virtual space. If you add the sounds of something digging through the garbage, like a raccoon, or use highly detailed textures to simulate the ability to touch, then you are further immersing the participant into another world.

Consider your possible experiences at theme park’s such as Universal Studios or Walt Disney World. When you enter into the Harry Potter Diagon Alley™ attraction, you are immediately immersed in sounds, constantly changing temperatures (with the fire breathing dragon), the physicality, textures and surfaces of the buildings, roads and props. Smells of food cooking, or the sweat aroma of candy coming from Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes candy store, all contribute to that immersive experience, which takes you for a moment, into the world of Harry Potter.

The JORVIK Viking Centre in the City of York in England is one example where they have taken the experience of the theme park, including all of the phenomenological elements, and combined that with the interpretive qualities of a museum or archaeological environment (side box with a JORVIK Viking Centre image and website URL https://www.jorvikvikingcentre.co.uk/). The “virtual archaeology” is in the physical interaction between the audience and the props, sets, smells, textures, sounds of the archaeological interpretation presented. In this case, there is no digital, just the mechanics that lies beneath the surface, unseen by the viewer, however it is still virtually represented.

It’s not just about the VR/AR experience. As we explore the digital virtual environment, we must take care in understanding how one might incorporate some or all of the phenomenological experiences within what we intend virtualize. The combination of smell, touch, feel, hear and see helps users engage with the virtual environment more effectively.

3.6.6 Lasting Considerations

What have we learned? That virtual archaeology is not about technological experience, but how we engage through a multisensory heritage driven experience, that is enhanced by technology. As makers of archaeological knowledge, we are, through the process of employing virtual archaeology theory and reflexivity, proceeding along a path that the data, the materiality of the artifacts and the technology we intend to use to convey the narrative, provides new windows of discovery and research. And finally, that virtual archaeology is theoretically pragmatic, employing corded strands of new and traditional archaeological theory.

3.6.7 Exercises

One of the best ways to play with the notions of virtual archaeology is to test it with already existing heritage visualization experiences such as Lithodomos (https://lithodomosvr.com/) or by trying to enhance quasi-heritage gaming experiences like Ubisoft’s Assassins Creed: Origin Discovery mode.

Let’s use Lithodomos VR as an example. You’ll need a Google or Apple phone, the Lithodomos VR app and a VR headset like a Google cardboard or one that is phone compatible. Choose one of the several archaeological VR experiences already made. Now that you have the visuals already created, add additional phenomenological elements to the VR experience.

For instance:

The Ancient Athens, Rome or Jerusalem modes are all visualized within the 3D environment with a bright and hot, mid-day sun. Try standing out in the hot weather or under bright lights inside, and the actual heat radiating from the lights or the sun, will affect how you experience the virtual space.

Add and mix stock recorded sounds of dogs barking (see this video) and noises of people in an outside market (see this video as an example) using a standard digital audio mixing software, then play as an audio loop while viewing the VR (in the sun).

Choose a physical walking surface the resembles the walking surfaces within the VR. If the streets are cobblestone, find a heritage landscape that has a similar physical surface. So, when you are standing or walking with your VR headset on, your feet physically have the same experience as what you are visually seeing in VR.

Add real, physical smells to the experience. If it’s a market scene, then have ripe fruit and vegetables within smelling distance. If there is a fire within the VR experience, add a bucket of real ash from a fireplace within range of where the viewer is standing. If there are herbs hanging in a house, add fresh hanging herbs. If it’s a scene that should have the stench of garbage…you get the picture. Enclosed, smaller spaces are much better for allowing the aromas to affect the VR experience and if using garbage, will have the effect of attracting real flies to add to the experience!

Although this exercise may sound ridiculous, it gives you a quick and easy way to play with all of the phenomenological sense without having to struggle to learn 3D modeling or Game coding. The goal is to see how immersive you can make the user feel, by enhancing the visual heritage experience. By doing so, we are pre-testing our assumptions of what a virtual archaeological experience should really be like, before committing to a full 3D production of a new archaeological landscape.


Spector, Janet D. 1993. What This Awl Means: Feminist Archaeology at a Wahpeton Dakota Village. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press.

Ingold, Tim. 2011. Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description. Oxford; New York: Taylor & Francis.

Huggett, Jeremy. 2004. “Archaeology and the New Technological Fetishism.” Archeologia E Calcolatori 15: 81–92. http://soi.cnr.it/archcalc/indice/PDF15/05_Hugget.pdf.

Wylie, Alison. 1989. “Archaeological Cables and Tacking: The Implications of Practice for Bernstein’s ’Options Beyond Objectivism and Relativism’.” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 19 (1): 1–18.

Wylie, Alison. 2002. “Archaeological Cables and Tacking: Beyond Objectivism and Relativism.” In Thinking from Things: Essays in the Philosophy of Archaeology. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Bentkowska-Kafel, Hugh Denard, Anna. 2012. Paradata and Transparency in Virtual Heritage. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing.

Denard, Hugh. 2012. “A New Introduction to the London Charter.” In Paradata and Transparency in Virtual Heritage., 57–71. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing.