OTHER EYES: Understanding the past through bioarchaeology and digital media

Lead Research Organisation: University of York
Department Name: Archaeology

Abstract

"The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is...." -Marcel Proust

This research confronts an emerging issue within archaeology: that of interpreting past people using digital technology. For over 350 years scientists have sought to recreate the worlds inhabited by our human ancestors using drawings, models and dioramas. Using 21st century digital technology, we can now use DNA recovered from skeletal remains to make 3D digital avatars of past people. But what benefits might this bring and what questions does it raise? How do we digitally reconstruct past people and does the authenticity matter? Does the ability to digitally embody a past person of a different age, sex, or with a disability change the way we think about the past? Are there significant differences between traditional 2D illustrations, museum models, and 3D avatars in the representation and understanding of past people? What are the ethics of "resurrecting" past people based on bioarchaeological evidence and can (and should) reconstructions of past people be archived to encourage their creative reuse?

Other Eyes will construct life histories of past people--people who were profoundly different than we are but who can share their experiences through digital technology. This is novel, important research because bioarchaeological information has never been used to create an avatar-based immersive digital experience. Current research in other fields has shown that avatar-based immersion is incredibly impactful and increases cross-cultural empathy. Other Eyes will allow users to interact as Roman-era people, based on human remains excavated in York. These human remains have shown that many past people experienced altered mobility, whereas reconstructions privilege a normative, able-bodied perspective. By creating avatars from bioarchaeological evidence we aim to fundamentally alter how academics and the general public understand and interpret the past.

Therefore the aim of Other Eyes is to better understand the experiences of past people using virtual embodiment and immersive technologies and to then communicate this understanding to others. To achieve this we will:

1. Review the history, context and ethics of reconstructing past people.

2. Investigate the digital embodiment of past people by creating avatars based on artefacts, burials, and other evidence.

3. Assess the capacity for reconstructions of past people to evoke empathetic responses from present people.

4. Develop best practices for the collection, storage and dissemination of data about past people.

Other Eyes will allow people to explore the diversity of the past through digital immersive technology, namely an augmented reality experience (XR) at the Yorkshire Museum. The Yorkshire Museums Trust have a strategic aim to develop digital engagement. As these skeletal remains have an array of impactful physical injuries and demonstrate the ethnic diversity of Roman Britain this will inform present understanding regarding disability and difference in the past. This will allow the evaluation of XR in museums and among researchers. Results will be made available in open access journals, presented at academic conferences and in public talks. The XR will be made available online. The examination of ethics in the use of representations of past individuals will be made available online and to the government. The potentially greater significance of this project is: (i) for archaeology to contribute meaningfully to the global discussion of what it means to be human amongst a growing array of digital media and (ii) to increase empathy with other individuals both past and present, understanding that there were different ways of living throughout time.

Planned Impact

The primary impact goal for Other Eyes is to bring together experts from the videogaming and heritage/museums industry to create an impactful representation of disability and difference based on archaeological data.

Main non-academic beneficiaries are:

1) The general public. Romans and Roman archaeology have broad appeal both within the United Kingdom and abroad. The assemblage used for this project is particularly compelling and includes the Ivory Bangle Lady, a high-status, mixed-race woman from Roman York.
2) The video gaming industry. The UK gaming industry is worth £5.7 billion annually and Yorkshire in particular is home to global brands Rockstar Games and Sumo Digital and other smaller companies such as project collaborator Betajester. This is bolstered by the University of York's Digital Creativity Labs, which the PI is a member and XR Stories, a £15 million investment by AHRC, set up to understand and exploit the potential of immersive and interactive technologies for storytelling.
3) The staff and volunteers at York Museums Trust, and other museum professionals through indirect means. The Yorkshire Museum has an ambition to redevelop their Roman galleries and promote access to collections using 21st century methods.

How they will benefit:

1) The project will benefit the general public and in particular museum visitors, visitors to the annual Eboracum Event, social media users and video gamers by:

* Showing how past people (through direct links with scientific evidence) navigated diversity and disability in the past through engaging, interactive media, and encouraging people to think differently about the past.
* Demonstrating how archaeological evidence can be used to understand life stories that are not recorded by history.
* Showing how archaeological evidence can be used to construct life histories.
* Engaging the public in the research, encouraging and enthusing them to work with the academic project leaders to understand people in the past.
* Enabling video game players to examine early prototypes and to integrate models created by the project into their own work.

2) The project will provide benefit to the video gaming industry through:

* Working with BetaJester, a digital experiences outfit based in York that develop bespoke XR and gaming solutions. This will benefit the general industry by providing a well-documented example of working with academic partners to gain new audiences and interact with new educational content.
* Making the process and products of the project open to reuse by the video gaming industry.
* Demonstrating a successful partnership between academics, museums, and the video gaming industry to create engaging, interactive experiences.

3) The project will benefit the York Museums Trust by:

* Providing an augmented reality experience at the Yorkshire Museum which attracts around 163,000 visitors annually and the Eboracum Festival, a Roman-specific event, which attracts 25,000 visitors. This will add new, immersive content to their existing offering which will enhance the interactivity of their displays.
* Showcasing collections that are not currently on display but complement current and future interpretation.
* Developing the knowledge and experience of over 50 staff and volunteers who will work with the project team, contributing to their programme of continuing professional development.
* Providing an opportunity for the Trust to evaluate how visitors respond to digital and 3D replicas vs original artefacts and thereby contributing to current debates in museum presentation.
* Enhancing the museum visitor experience through digital creativity and the organisation of educational events attracting visitors to the museums which display objects and remains and contributing financial benefits for the museum.
* Meeting the stated goals of the York Museums Trust of communicating archaeological discoveries through innovative engagement.

Publications

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