VRchaeology: Using Virtual Reality to Teach Archaeology Skills at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

I am spending this summer doing a deep-dive into the use of virtual reality (including social VR) in higher education, partly for this blog, and partly to find good examples of such usage for my presentation in September to my university’s senate committee on academic computing.

One such project that got my attention was an interesting virtual archaeology program, called VRchaeology. While it may not be social VR, it is certainly an innovative way to introduce archaeology skills to new students, and much more immersive than textbooks, lectures, and videos!

The State of XR and Immersive Learning Outlook Report 2021 (available to download here), recently published by the Immersive Learning Research Network, describes the project as follows:

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is using XR to teach archaeology and address the challenges of students finding time and funding for fieldwork, an essential requirement of that discipline. The VR laboratory, VRchaeology, is one such project, funded by a National Science Foundation grant and designed by anthropology professor Laura Shackelford; educational policy, organization, and leadership professor David Huang; and computer science graduate student Cameron Merrill. The virtual experience is based on an actual North American cave site excavated in the 1930s and includes over 110 virtual artifacts, many of which are based on objects in the University’s own collection.

These immersive experiences cover complex activities that comprise the work of a professional archaeologist, from initially mapping a site to creating an excavation grid and using ground-penetrating radar. Students learn how to dig for artifacts, record data, collaborate with each other, and reach scientific conclusions. Importantly, students have the agency to manage their own learning journey. In addition, their possible miscalculations and missteps do not impact the value of the historical artifacts, nor alter the significance of an actual site; instead, they help them develop and apply a deeper understanding to students learning to become expert archaeologists in their own right. With the virtual cave lowering the barriers to the fieldwork requirement, it also opens up the discipline to lower income students who may be unable to travel to an actual site.

Image source: iLRN State of XR and Immersive Learning Outlook Report 2021
UIUC anthropology professor Laura Shackelford; educational policy, organization and leadership professor David Huang; and computer science graduate student Cameron Merrill, the creators of VRchaeology (source)

Much the same as the Egyptian tomb of Queen Nefertari, which was set up in the former social VR platform High Fidelity, one purpose of the VRchaeology platform is to provide access to potentially fragile places and objects that would not be suited to a real-life site visit by hundreds or thousands of students. According to the project’s website, VRchaeology’s use is clearly spelled out:

It is…

• A semester long course to introduce field and lab methods
• A replicable, controlled teaching environment
• A way to introduce archaeology to a new audience
• An active, immersive environment

It is not…

• A replacement for field school
• A complete lesson in methods for Majors or graduate students
• A stand-alone game
• A passive experience

VRchaelogy is used by undergraduate students who might not have the time or money to attend a real-world dig site, and the course it is used in satisfies the field school requirement for those pursuing an archaeology degree at UIUC. An article from the Illinois news bureau about the project adds:

“Field school is a requirement of most archaeological programs across the country,” said Illinois anthropology professor Laura Shackelford, who led development of the class with…Wenhao David Huang and computer science graduate student Cameron Merrill. “But traveling to a field school site can cost anywhere from $500 to $5,000.”

This, and the fact that traditional field school expeditions are often scheduled during breaks, makes it difficult or impossible for many students to attend – cutting them off from the study of archaeology altogether.  

“This class makes it possible for many more students to get an education or explore a career in archaeology,” Shackelford said. The class is also accessible to students with physical limitations who are unable to travel to or navigate a field site…

The students learn the archaeological techniques required in any excavation. They set up a research grid on the cave floor and systematically locate and record any artifacts they find on the surface. They draw a map with all of the surface details and then decide where to excavate. They take photos of special features or finds. They dig. They collect artifacts. They conduct laboratory analyses. They keep track of their progress in a field notebook.

All of these tasks are accomplished in the virtual world.

Here’s a two-minute YouTube video overview of the VRchaeology platform:

If you are interested in learning more about the VRchaeology project, here is a list of academic publications and recent press articles. Dig in! (Get it? Dig in?!??)

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