Of Chapels, Clutter, and Archaeological VR

In the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Wired Campus blog, an interesting note:

The Sistine Chapel Reaches Second Life

Steven J. Taylor, director of academic computing at Vassar College, has recreated the interior of the Sistine Chapel in the virtual world Second Life. On the college’s Second Life island, visitors can step inside a pale-yellow building and view a replica of the frescoes that adorn the 15th-century chapel in Vatican City. They can even fly up to the ceiling to get a close up of the nine stories from the Book of Genesis painted by Michelangelo. The purpose of the project is to help students learn about art and architecture, says Mr. Taylor, who created the interior from photographs.

Now that’s something a regular field trip to Rome can’t provide. The last time I was at the RL Sistine Chapel, there were so many school groups and tourists, that the whole experience was rather off-putting. Plus, with the crowd, there was no opportunity to really experience the space the way it was intended – as a place of worship, rather than another check-mark on someone’s itinerary of Europe.

That by the way is what archaeological reconstruction should aim to provide – an embodied experience of a place otherwise impossible to perceive. Too often, archaeological virtual reality is little more than pretty pictures, a rhetoric of display that says, ‘see, look how much effort we’ve put into this! It must be right!’. Now, I know that’s a bit cynical, but on a related note see for instance Troels Myrup Kristensen on the Rome Reborn 1.0 project website.

Notice the absence of signs of life – no people, no animals, no junk, no noises, no smells, no decay. The scene is utterly stripped of all the clutter that is what really fascinates us about the past. The burning question is whether this kind of (expensive and technology-heavy) representation really gives us fundamentally new insights into the past? From what I’ve seen so far of this project, I’m not convinced that this is the case.

Which brings up another important point about archaeological VR – Troel’s point about the clutter. Second Life is a very tidy place. It cleans up after itself. Every time I’m in there, and I discard something, my email fills up with notes from Second Life telling me that everything has been returned to my inventory. Pretty hard to do some digital archaeology if the digital material culture follows its owners home. Digital archaeology, or archaeology of the metaverse (I argue in my Brock paper that this should properly be called ‘xenoarchaeology’) at the moment might be classified best as a subcategory of landscape archaeology… maybe I should ask Linden Labs to allow litter and decay…

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