COOL IMAGES: Virtual Archaeology Worth the Trip

Science  20 Nov 1998:
Vol. 282, Issue 5393, pp. 1379
DOI: 10.1126/science.282.5393.1379b

Forget the long plane rides to remote field sites and the grubby toilets and dearth of good coffee once you're there. Now you can fly through a prehistoric village, wander a museum's halls, and pick up and inspect an ancient vase all from your desktop computer. That's just a sampling of how computer visualization is transforming archaeology on the Web.

Popping up on many Web sites are panoramic views, 360-degree photographs that let visitors, with a few clicks and key strokes, zoom around a dig or see all sides of a tomb or artifact. The effect can be dizzying, as you may find at this tour of Peru's Machu Picchu site.* Archaeologists are also teaming up with computer experts to reconstruct villages from maps, photos, and wire models. A prime example is a Web site for Ceren, a village in El Salvador that was buried in ash around A.D. 600. Web visitors find themselves strolling through virtual houses complete with cooking utensils. Adding to the multimedia experience are slide shows with maps, drawings, and text, notes project leader Payson Sheets, an archaeologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

For even deeper immersion, there's Paloma World, a project that has recreated a 3400 B.C. village on the coast of Peru. The fly-throughs of thatched huts are fun, as are buttons that let visitors “excavate” skeletons from a tomb. But for students at the University of Missouri, Columbia, the view's even better: In a special room where images are projected on a curved screen, they can don goggles and gloves that let them walk around and pick up virtual artifacts. “It has a remarkable effect” on engaging students' interest, says Missouri archaeologist Robert Benfer.

Many reconstructions can be seen only on CD-ROMs, on which archaeologists are increasingly cataloging their finds instead of packing them into pricey hardback books. For more exotic Web destinations, including a virtual Stonehenge, see this list.§

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