Excavating a cave without leaving campus

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A new course will give students the opportunity to experience an archaeological dig via virtual reality.

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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – I’m in a cave with three identical waterfalls. The roar of water fills my ears as I look around, a little shakily. This is not what I was expecting when I showed up to Davenport Hall for an interview. But when I said, “Yes, I’d love to try out a virtual reality environment,” two students perched a headset on my head, adjusted the earphones and set me loose in this “cave.”

I can hear anthropology professor Laura Shackelford gently guiding me. I’m aware that I’m in a room with her and the students, but I’m also in a cave, alone.

Students will learn to map a cave, lay out an excavation grid and use ground-penetrating radar to locate potential underground features.

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This virtual environment is part of a test meant to help Shackelford and her colleagues design Virtual Archaeology, a new VR laboratory that next semester will allow 24 lucky students to participate in an archaeological dig without leaving campus. Two standard-reality classroom sessions will bracket the VR lab each week. Over the course of the spring semester, the students will uncover and interpret the history of an actual North American cave, layer by layer.

A virtual trowel.

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The students will get something very close to the full field-school experience, Shackelford says: They’ll learn to map the cave, lay out an excavation grid and use ground-penetrating radar to locate potential underground features. They’ll set up test pits, dig for human and animal artifacts, and record and interpret their data.

The virtual cave is a facsimile of an actual North American cave.

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In the process, they’ll learn about archaeological ethics and standard practices, Shackelford says. They also will learn to collaborate, pooling their data and comparing their findings to arrive at solid scientific conclusions.

My task today, however, is much simpler: Shackelford draws my attention to an archaeological “test pit” at my feet, delineated with an otherworldly 3D grid. Someone hands me a controller. It looks like a robotic hand. Using a button on the side of the controller that opens and closes my virtual thumb, I pick up a trowel and kneel down to explore the test pit, which, I’m told, contains artifacts.

[embedded content]Virtual Archaeology is an experiment in making field school accessible to students who may not have the financial resources, extra time or physical ability to travel to an actual archaeological field site, Shackelford says.

Virtual Archaeology students will also learn to set up test pits, dig for human and animal artifacts, and record and interpret their data.

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“Going to a field school is a great opportunity for archaeology students, but it usually costs a lot of money,” she says. “The burden is greatest for low-income students, minority students, students with families and those with mobility issues. We want to make this opportunity available to more people in school.”

Still crouching, I make scooping gestures with the trowel, and clumps of cave dirt in the test pit magically vanish. A shard appears: an artifact. I can’t tell what it is but I put it on a small virtual box set up near the pit. As I collect more and more scraps, I realize I’m digging up pieces of a broken bottle.

Explanatory materials will help students interpret their finds.

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Suddenly a vast screen appears above me, a slideshow with historical data – drawings and diagrams – about bottle designs in American history. My task is to determine the historical era of my archaeological find. After examining the bottle’s molded features and carefully comparing its neck and lip shape with those displayed on the screen above, I correctly guess the time period. This bottle dates to 1820-60, an era distinguished by widespread tuberculosis infections and deaths.

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Funded by a two-year, $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, Virtual Archaeology could open the door to all kinds of field research and laboratory experiences, U. of I. educational policy, organization and leadership professor David Huang tells me when I meet him later. An expert in game-based learning, Huang is co-lead on the project with Shackelford.

Historical documents and study materials are available inside and outside the virtual reality environment.

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He and his colleagues are incorporating elements of computer gaming to enhance student motivation. Huang also will evaluate student learning in the course.

“My interest is in developing a game-based learning environment that motivates learners,” he says. “To the extent that they feel engaged, then they will come back for more.”