For most history students, "exploring the past" means sifting through mountains of data. But digital archaeologist Marcus Abbott wants to make early human civilisation — or its digital simulacra — freely accessible to anyone who wants to explore it. His first prehistoric VR environment? A 3000-year-old spiritual site in the East Anglian fens.
Abbott is a professional archaeologist based in the UK, where he specialises in bringing contemporary technologies to bear on the country's hundreds of archaeological sites. In 2012, he helped uncover new evidence about Stonehenge using a laser scanner, which revealed previously-unknown drawings etched upon the face of the site's well-worn stones. As a consultant for the British company Arc Heritage, he uses 3D scanners, LIDAR and 3D modelling to glean new information about sites that are normally thought of as well-explored — the latest of which is Flag Fen, a Bronze Age religious site in East Anglia.
It's taken Abbott hundreds of hours to recreate the landscape and settlements around Flag Fen, which was populated several millennia ago by early Brits who placed a mysterious spiritual significance upon the site. Back then, the land was far marshier, however, so Abbott relied on paleo-environmental survey data to model a rough simulation of what the land was like. On top of that, he's added round houses, wooden platforms, track ways, fences and causeway structures, all working from archeological reports to ensure historical accuracy.
So when will we be able to access this ethereal prehistoric world? That's the next challenge. Abbott's recent Kickstarter campaign — for the modest sum of £800 — was successfully funded earlier this month. Now, he'll use that money to take his 3D model and turn it into something that's public, free, and easily accessible, its exact platform to be determined. "Currently the 3D world sits on a hard drive and is inaccessible," he told Gizmodo over email. "I think the next logical stage is to find a way of making this VR publicly available and that is what this project is all about."
Right now, Abbott is developing a rough storyline that will lead virtual explorers through Flag Fen, but users will also be able to explore the wetlands on their own terms — almost as though it were a Myst-style gaming landscape. He's also still conceptualizing other details of the final product, including a time slider that would let users toggle through historical epochs from the Ice Age to the present. Sound is another issue. Abbot hopes to create a corresponding archaeologically accurate soundscape that would lend another visceral layer to the environment.
And eventually, if the Flag Fen project succeeds, he'll branch out into other sites — even allow us to travel between them to see the disparity between settlements. "We have concept art for a project north of the Fenlands," he adds. "If we get the funding to build this in, you could then go from the wooden monuments of the Fens to a landscape whose monuments are made from stone which would be a nice cultural shift."
It's fascinating to imagine toggling chronologically through these early prehistoric sites — there's no telling what housing development or car park occupies these landscapes today. For now, enjoy the renderings Abbott has released publicly, or check out a fly through of his model here. [Past Horizons Archaeology]