Ancient ‘Plain of Jars’ cemetery recreated in a virtual reality

The aerial landscape images and other data from research in the Plain of Jars are integrated in an advanced 3D simulation on the Cave2 virtual reality facility at Monash University.

(Plain of Jars Archaeological Project /MIVP Cave2)

Archaeologists have made an ancient burial site in the virtual reality, to help them study hard-to-reach locations in the so-called Plain of Jars site in Laos, and the millennia-old relics.

The researchers are also using virtual reality to study other archaeological sites in the Plain of Jars, many of them located where undetonated American bombs left over from the War in Vietnam is too dangerous to dig.

The virtual-reality project combines aerial video captured by a drone with geophysical data and documentation of the archaeological excavations at “location 1”, at the Plain of Jars, near the town of Phonsavan in central Laos. It aims to create a virtual record of the unique landscape and its hundreds of carved stone jars, some of which measure up to 11 metres high, and many tons of roads, the researchers say. [Photos: the Discovery of the Mysterious Plain of Jars Site]

The photos and data are recorded in a 3D video-and data-simulation on a room-sized, 360-degree virtual-reality facility at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. The name of Cave2, the facility is designed for advanced “immersive visualization” applications in medicine, science, and technology.

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Project co-leader, Louise Shewan, an archaeologist at Monash University, said that the main goal of the virtual landscape is the preserve of a step-by-step visual and scientific observation of a major five-year archaeological research by Laos and Australian scientists in the Plain of Jars, which began with excavations at the Site February 1, 2016.

Shewan said the virtual landscape will also be used to investigate other jar sites in the rugged and wooded area, and in areas where many of the estimated 270 million cluster bombs dropped on Laos by American warplanes during the Vietnam War, traditional archaeology to be dangerous. To date, there is only seven more than 85 known jar sites in Laos are cleared, and an estimated 80 million undetonated bombs are scattered across the country, according to the Laos government agency that oversees the approval of the efforts.

“We certainly can’t just go and put the shovels in the ground,” Shewan told Live Science. “[But] we can fly the drones by means of these sites, and all information and images in the Cave2 and the making of comparisons such as, is there a consistent placement between the pots, or between different types of buried markers?”

Giant pots

The excavations on Site 1 in 2016, led by Shewan and Dougald O’reilly, an archaeologist at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, established for the first time that the giant stone jars were linked to an old cemetery practice . They discovered the remains of dozens of people buried in common and individual graves around a number of the biggest pots.

The researchers think that the stone jars at Site 1 are approximately 2,500 years old, and that they were used by an Iron Age civilization in order to expose their dead relatives of the elements for a period of time before the bones were cleaned and buried. [The 25 Most Mysterious Archaeological Finds on Earth]

Shewan said the virtual landscape on the Cave2 facility will be updated with new data and the results of further excavations in the Plain of Jars site, so that researchers can visit and their archaeological fieldwork of more than 4,800 km away in Melbourne.

“Long after we leave the field, we can continue with research, and in fact we can be with all the members of our team and go through the dig again, and pick up on the things that we’ve missed,” she said. “It’s also great for learning, to be able to restart the excavation … It really is the virtual reality in archaeology , because we have the sequence of the excavation, and you can speed that up and see the trench down to 10 cm [4 inch] steps.”

Mystery makers

The images and archaeological data that are included in the Cave2 simulation will also serve as a digital recording of the science about the Plain of Jars in support of its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is an ongoing process, Shewan said. (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization — or UNESCO — designate sites as World Heritage Sites, if they meet certain criteria for the representation of the natural, historic or cultural significance.)

The laotian government hopes that the region’s World Heritage status to stimulate tourism and spur further scientific investigation of the Plain of Jars and other archaeological sites.

For now, the virtual Plain of Jars can only be viewed on the Cave2 facility in Melbourne, but Shewan hopes that 360-degree aerial images of the site will be made available to the public or be integrated into a museum exhibition.

She said that the current research in the laboratory on samples of the latest excavations includes the efforts of ANU geochemist Richard Armstrong to determine the geographic origin and precise age of some of the jars at Site 1, by analyzing the radioactive decay of uranium to lead in the traces of the mineral zircon in the rocks from which they were mined.

Shewan own skeleton-chemistry research will focus on the following on the strontium isotopes in human teeth from the graves at Site 1, which can provide clues about the identity of the mysterious jar-makers, of whom almost nothing is known, except for their unusual burial practices.

“We will be able to find out where these people lived and what areas they were accessing their food from, based on the geological signature and that will be a very useful piece of information, because at the moment, we have no habitation sites, and we know nothing about these people,” Shewan said.

Original article on Live Science .

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