Back in the 1980s, Donald H. Sanders knew there was a better way to teach archaeology to kids than having them look at slides and drawings of ruins — it was just a matter of the technology catching up with the need.
"There had to be some way to get kids a little more interested in history and the past," said Sanders, "and to get them to understand what they are looking at. Looking at the plan or looking at a pile of rocks, neither one of them is translating into anything that they can understand."
Nearly two decades later, Sanders helms LearningSites, a educational technology company that specializes in reconstructing the lost sites of ancient history in all their glory, allowing students to look history right in the eye and spend time examining the peripheries and details of the site. Sanders also runs the Institute for Visualization of History, which applies virtual reality to a wider historical discipline than just archaeology.
"It's a unique way of understanding the past," said Sanders, "and a unique way of bringing together all kinds of technologies."
Key is in the research
The key Sanders' success is the meticulous research that goes into the construction of each virtual world. As Sanders points out, if the scholarship behind their product is not accurate, then they will lose customers, which include schools, museums, and governments.
Each virtual world begins with historical drawings and planned views of the building, as well as visuals from the actual excavations, in order to reproduce a structure from every possible angle. Often, LearningSites will go to other sources, museums and academics who study the site, to glean further information as the project leaps into the third dimension and requires more color, texture, and general detail.
The process of building the virtual site from the ground up is not so different from the process of creating a computer game, but there are notable departures of intent. While game designers are allowed a degree of creative license, LearningSites must adhere to scholarship. Games are built for speed, not accuracy, so their scenery tends to be at a lower resolution and often looks better as you speed past it than it does when you stop and stare. Equally, in an effort to keep the action going, computer games include boundaries on explorable landscape — with Sanders' products, exploration is the reason they exist.
Archeological discoveries made
"Ours has to be meticulous down to the last detail if you are actually going to go into the world and be able to study that. As if you were there," said Sanders. "All these buildings on a lot of the sites we work on are either gone, hard to get to, or expensive to get to, so if scholars want to be able to study them or you want to take school children on a virtual field trip, you have to bring it to them with as much complexity and accuracy as possible."
Careful attention to detail has sometimes resulted in the company making a few archeological discoveries of their own. While reconstructing the Battle Monument at Actium, commemorating the naval battle that pitted Caesar Augustus against Anthony and Cleopatra, certain details of the battle and the technology were applied to solve some mysteries in the physical remains on the site. Anthony's ships had ramming prows that, following their victory, the Romans broke off and attached to a stone wall as a warning to other attackers. It was Sanders and his team who realized this by taking the virtual prow and the virtual wall and working with them.
"The only thing that is left today is this wall with these peculiar little sockets in the wall," said Sanders. "What happens is if we take this particular ram and we bring it up to our virtual model and stick it in the wall, we find out it's a little too small. What we did was we could take this smaller ram and expand it in the program but keeping all the aspect ratios the same until it was the size and shape that fit into that socket."
Work on shipwrecks under way
Sanders also has begun working on shipwrecks. One in particular, which happened off the coast of Cyprus in 350 B.C., split apart when it hit the bottom and contained hundreds of rare artifacts, some that still need to be identified, their purpose a total mystery. Returning to the site is cumbersome and expensive and oceans currents impede further visits by continually covering the site up after archaeologists clear it.
"The idea, and one of the things we can use technology for," said Sanders, "is to be able to go back to what was found in the archaeological record, build a model, clam shell the ship back together again, raise it up, and try to find out how this material was originally stored."
One of the most important sites the company has worked on is the northwest palace of the Assyrian King Ashurnasopal (Nimrod), which is in Iraq. In fact, this is just one of many sites the company has taken on in Iraq, which has paid a price in archaeological richness as the war rages on.
"Hundreds of sites around the country were looted," said Sanders, "and since then, it's about a dozen sites a day are completely lost, looters get in there and destroy the place."
Iraq, which actually boasted one of the best antiquity services in the world under Saddam Hussein, is now facing an archaeological apocalypse.
"They were very conscientious, they were very thorough," said Sanders, "they were very accurate and they also kept a very good handle on what they had and there was no looting going on. As soon as the regime was down, the antiquity service fell apart, the looters immediately came in and began flooding the marketplace, selling all this stuff."
Part of the challenge has been to create a digital record of what each site contains and its condition. In the case of Iraq, LearningSites is collating information from museums and archaeologists, members of the government from both the United States and Iraq, and archaeological teams sponsored by the Smithsonian and National Geographic in order to create a cohesive virtual site that could never exist again in the real world. One of the major achievements of the project is the virtual reconstruction of wall reliefs that have been scattered throughout museums in the real world.
"If you went to all the scholarship, there are hundreds and hundreds of books written about this palace," said Sanders, "you'd have to spread them out and find out what this guy says about this, what that guy says about that and then go to this page, here we put them all together."
Sanders said the typical virtual reality project has moved away from functioning merely as a replica of a building or a site. The medium is evolving into a more informationally inclusive format, where real world information about the virtual one is at the user's fingertips. The company is working on an ambitious history of the Jewish people that includes an excavation simulation, interactive history features, user controlled border and settlement maps, and the ability to zoom into cities and watch their changes through time, among other educational features. This will be available for free online.
Sanders has found that some teachers are reluctant to embrace the technology, partly because the expertise of kids can cause a role reversal in the classroom but Sanders believes that what is gained is worth a shift in the balance of power — and the interaction can make a teacher's job more engaging, as well.
"It becomes a series of problem solving tasks," said Sanders, "in which the kids actually have to go through the world, learn about the world, extrapolate the information from it, and give it back to the teacher in a way that is much more engaging and traditional."
LearningSites' work can be viewed at www.learningsites.com and www.vizin.org.
The second site seems to have the best stuff (and the most attractive layout, if you have flash and a reasonably fast connection).