Students ‘visit’ a lost archaeological treasure via virtual reality

In mid-2015, members of the Islamic State terrorist group used barrel bombs to destroy much of an ancient archaeological site in northern Iraq.

In mid-2017, a group of Yale students toured the site anyway.

The students didn’t actually travel to the ancient city of Nimrud, about 30 kilometers south of Mosul. Rather, in a confluence of the very old and the very new, students “traveled” to a virtual model of the Northwest Palace — often called a “jewel” of archaeological remains in Iraq — via Oculus Rift, a virtual reality (VR) system housed at the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL).

Modeling cultural heritage sites

The study of the ancient Near East has for a long time been very detached from the remains that are still in place in Iraq” due to frequent instability in the region, said Agnete Lassen, associate curator of the Babylonian Collection at Sterling Memorial Library.

Recently, however, companies like Learning Sites, which provided the model of the Northwest Palace to the CTL, have begun modeling many of humanity’s most important cultural heritage sites in VR.

I went to the opening of the CTL [in January 2017] and they demonstrated VR … and I wondered: Can we do this for the ancient Near East? Would this be an opportunity to teach students in Professor Slanski’s class?” Lassen said.

The VR experience of the Northwest Palace at Nimrud was provided by Learning Sites, a Massachusetts-based company that specializes in models of archaeological sites for the purpose of interactive education and research. Dozens of experts in the ancient Near East contribute to the production of these models, making them as accurately and meticulously detailed as possible. In the model, students can not only see what the palace would have looked like, but also interact with objects to learn more about them; for instance, a student can click on a piece of art on the wall and hear its background.

Kathryn Slanski, a lecturer in both Near Eastern languages and civilizations and in humanities, taught a class titled “The Hero in the Ancient Near East.” One of the themes was the thin line between kingship and godliness and the efforts ancient kings to project their power to both friends and foes. Ashurnasirpal II, the Assyrian king who built the lavish Northwest Palace at Nimrud (then called Kalhu), was no exception.

'Lavish' and 'overwhelming' space

[The palaces] were like mountains; they’re so big,” Sanski said. “Rooms with three-meter-high stone sculpted slabs (reliefs) inscribed with cuneiform text talking about the grandeur of the king and his achievements; they’re designed to be overwhelming in scale and lavish in furnishings.”

Many of the sculptures and reliefs from the Northwest Palace, both real and copies, are scattered in museums throughout the world. In the class, Slanski tasks her students with visiting them at the Yale University Art Gallery or the Metropolitan Museum of Art and try to imagine what it would be like to be in the presence of the king surrounded by such intimidating extravagance.

I give them a choice of different personae they could take on, like a foreign hostage or visiting dignitary, and ask them to write a letter home explaining their reaction to the palace,” Slanski explained.

The magnitude of the palace, however, is difficult to impart via museum pieces and photos, she said.

You don’t get a sense for the context or the space” with traditional teaching methods, like viewing slides, visiting reliefs, or exploring the collection of artifacts at the Babylonian Collection, said Lassen. “Virtual reality can give you this understanding of space, of architectural setting … that was a new way for students to interact with these ancient objects.”

Initial skepticism about using VR 

Lassen met with Sanjana Singh, Brian Pauze, and John Harford, members of the CTL team, at the center’s opening last fall. She tried the virtual reality capability there, and when she learned that Learning Sites had already modeled the Northwest Palace, Lassen immediately contacted Slanski.

Slanski was initially skeptical. “I don’t do games. I have a flip phone. I think overall it’s bad for the species to fall in love with technology rather than experiencing as much as possible in person,” she said, laughing.

But then she actually experienced the VR, she said, “It was really cool. It was overwhelming. It was a lot more effective as a teaching tool than I had expected.”

This skepticism of VR in the classroom is warranted, said Harford, because Oculus Rift is, primarily, an entertainment video game system. The CTL, however, focuses on using it to enhance educational experiences.

We’re doing this in a highly limited and directed fashion so that we can understand what the benefits are before we really start to engage the wider community and say, ‘Hey, VR is great; it’ll solve all your needs,” Harford said. “There is a lot of excitement around VR, so we want to go into this as level-headed as we can … to make sure we’re impartial in terms of assessing and measuring those goals.”

The aim is to have a better teaching and learning experience at Yale,” Singh said. “It is not about the technology. It is all about how we use that technology to impact education.”

Freeing students' imaginations

The students in Slanski’s class explored the 3D throne room of the Northwest Palace at Nimrud in April of 2017 after spending the semester learning via traditional methods. Slanski said she noticed a marked difference in the letters from this class versus those from previous classes.

I think the fact that they were literally stepping into, or virtually stepping into, a different space let them be a little freer with their imaginations,” Slanski said. “Students wrote that they could practically smell the smoke from the fire and the incense from the braziers, and one wrote that looking at the ceiling was like looking at the sky.”

Both Slanski and Lassen emphasized that VR in no way replaces the real sites and artifacts. “When you work with little objects, like a note written 4000 years ago, you get that sense of deep connection. You do not get that sense with the VR,” Lassen cautioned.

But what the VR does in combination with the real art is set it into its architectural context,” Slanski explained. “To complement the close encounter with the works of art, I think, was really effective for the students and really powerful.”

 

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