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Archaeo News 

27 May 2007
Virtual explorations of the ancient Ohio Valley

Kathy Choi touches a kiosk screen, then looks up at a larger wall screen to see digitally created yellowish-brown mounds snaking through bright green grassland dotted with brilliant blue rivers and lakes. The ancient earthworks in the Ohio River Valley (USA) now are grass- and tree-covered mounds and walls diminished by development, floods and agriculture. But she's seeing them as they might have looked 2,000 years ago, by way of a computerized fly-over. "It makes it all seem more real," said Choi, maneuvering her way through the Cincinnati Museum Center's interactive video tour of Fort Ancient and other earthworks. Archaeologists and historians agree. Museums, educators and others are increasingly using video, animation, graphics and other technology to depict historical sites beyond what text, maps and drawings offer.
     Phil Getchell, the museum's director of new media, said museum officials are looking for other new ways to use virtual reality technology, and he sees museums increasingly turning to virtual heritage. "It really seems to have taken off over the past two or three years, especially as it has become more affordable," Getchell said. Virtual heritage exhibits and projects - considered novel a decade ago - have become popular in Europe and parts of Asia, where there has been more national funding. They are gaining momentum in the United States as computer speed and technology improve and costs drop.
     Virtual heritage also is seen as a way to digitally preserve and document sites threatened by the environment, pollution or by warfare and looting and a means of improving people's understanding of the past. "It creates a vivid image that can persist in the public imagination and provide more insight and appreciation of lost architecture and cultures," said John Hancock, a University of Cincinnati architecture professor and director of 'Earthworks: Virtual Explorations of the Ancient Ohio Valley.' The interactive video tour has traveled to sites in Ohio and Kentucky, and discussions are under way to take it to museums in Indiana, Minnesota, Oklahoma and Connecticut. Parts of the traveling exhibit are permanently displayed at such sites as the Cincinnati museum and the Field Museum in Chicago.
     The Adena, Hopewell and Fort Ancient American Indian cultures that flourished 800 to 2,400 years ago built the earthworks, which include mounds and enclosures of varying sizes, often in geometric or animal shapes. Some were used for ceremonial and social activities. The 18,000 feet of ancient earthen walls at Fort Ancient north of Cincinnati contain enough soil to fill 200 miles of dump trucks carrying 15 to 20 tons each and laid end-to-end.
     In trying to find the best way to re-create the earthen architecture, Hancock's team first thought the animation camera had to move viewers as if they were walking on the ground since most virtual heritage projects involve more standard types of architecture such as buildings where the camera moves alongside and even into sites. But they decided to move the camera up, providing a bird's-eye view to give viewers a better idea of the scope of the earthworks when they were intact. Despite potential drawbacks, virtual heritage is moving forward, researching ways of connecting to senses other than vision and hearing and even the possible use of holograms.

Sources: Associatated Press, ABC (27 May 2007)

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