Virtual reality brings the past to life
Technology will allow us to reconstruct and explore ancient worlds, adding to our understanding of history
I’m standing at the centre of the Arenès de Lutèce in Paris, which is already spread with sand to soak up the blood that will flow once the gladiatorial games start. Surrounded by the empty stone terraces that loom 45m high, I’m filled with dread, but also … excitement. Is this the same excitement the ancient Gallo-Romans felt some 2000 years ago?
Of course I’m not living 2000 years ago. I’m not even in Paris, where the actual site is a humble park in the 10th Arrondissement. I’m in Melbourne wearing a virtual reality headset. But I’m not experiencing some imaginary world. I’m inside an ancient Roman gladiatorial arena recreated from decades of painstaking archaeological research.
It is as real as you can get, and as archaeologists like myself make more discoveries it will only get more accurate.
Welcome to the virtual reality revolution that is transforming our experience of archaeology and our past. Archaeology has always had a glamorous reputation; you only have to think of Raiders of the Lost Ark. But archaeological work is deeply unglamorous, involving patient sifting and digging of outwardly boring looking stonework and soil layers, matched with precise measuring and more measuring.
University and museum shelves are burgeoning with the fruit of more than a century of archaeological labour laid out in journal articles, monographs and books that usually only other archaeologists consult.
But with the same attention to detail that is the hallmark of an archaeologist, we can now transform this data into an accurate three dimensional experience that can engage the public and even extend our knowledge, as 3D structures allow archaeologists to better understand how these buildings functioned and what questions are unanswered.
That same unglamorous work is exactly how my colleagues and I have constructed Arenès de Lutèce in 3D. Fifteen years ago it would have been beyond the means of humble archaeologists. A standard virtual reality setup would have cost about $80,000. But today, we can experience high quality virtual reality with nothing more than a smartphone and Google Cardboard, which costs about $15.
It was an opportunity that I couldn’t resist. Everyone interested in the ancient world longs to be able to explore the streets of ancient Rome or wander through ancient Athens during the golden age of Pericles and there was no shortage of collaborators wanting to apply this technology, from like-minded archaeologists to computer modellers.
We began by scoping the scenes and collecting accurate measurements and research of every part of the remains to ultimately develop a plausible framework of both the construction materials and the architecture.
Using a combination of cutting-edge software platforms, we were able to reconstruct the building digitally. The reconstruction was then vetted and refined by myself and my colleagues to ensure as much accuracy as possible was achieved. It was then installed in an immersive VR headset for viewing.
The implications of this revolution are profound and far-reaching. Students and enthusiasts halfway around the world will be able to don a virtual reality headset and explore the ancient world at their leisure, effortlessly transporting themselves from one location to another.
People can still travel and experience relatively intact ruins like the Colosseum, the Acropolis, and the Pyramids, but many of the ancient world’s most magnificent structures are today nothing more than tantalising foundation stones, or rubble scattered across grassy fields, or crumbling away unvisited in inhospitably remote locations.
The advent of virtual reality technology gives us the chance to use the past work of archaeologists to reconstruct what we’ve lost and what we may be rapidly losing. Ancient Palmyra has been irretrievably damaged in the Syrian civil war, but the work of archaeologists at the site is preserved and that means we can even restore Palmyra for posterity.
The virtual reality reconstructions will only be as good as the archaeological work behind them, but the beauty of virtual reconstructions is that they can be forever built on and improved as our knowledge expands.
In the early 1900s British archaeologist Arthur Evans controversially chose to physically reconstruct the palace of Knossos on Crete that dates back 3400 years. But his work was heavily criticised because of the materials he used (such as concrete) and the interpretations he relied on.
Unfortunately for posterity, Evans’ passion for reconstruction has now permanently undermined the authenticity of the site. But for the passionate archaeologists of today, there are no longer such physical risks to reconstructing the past.
We will never truly be able to explore ancient Rome or Greece as it was. No technology will ever completely bring the past back, no matter how close we might think we are to understanding it. But reconstructions can pose new questions and lead to new answers. And perhaps one of the most valuable insights I have gained from creating archaeologically accurate reconstructions of the ancient world has been the power of sharing the experience with others and igniting in them the same passion I have for the ancient world.
Simon Young is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne and a member of the Transformative Technologies Unit in the Faculty of Arts. He is also the founder and CEO of Lithodomos VR, a Melbourne-based start up that transforms sites and artefacts from the ancient world into immersive virtual reality experiences in the modern world.
Banner Image: 360 degree image of the Odeon of Agrippa, a late 1st century BCE Athenian agora, from the stage.