From dirt to pixels

I’m a commercial archaeologist, but as chance would have it I booked the 29th of July off work to spend some time with friends in Bath. It seems fitting then that for this Day of Archaeology post that I discuss not just my professional life but also how archaeology has bled into other parts of my life – I’m never off duty!

I spent most of last week completing a report for some evaluation trenches which were undertaken (in accordance with a planning condition) as phase one works to assess the archaeological potential of a site. In the office and far from the scorching sun, I used Adobe Photoshop to digitise trench plans and section drawings. What had been originally been carved out by mechanical excavator and trowel, then represented as pencil marks, was then rendered into pixels.

Editing a digital trench plan on Adobe Photoshop

As a 21st century archaeologist, I’m continually involved in creating digital records pertaining to archaeological investigations, whether this be in the form of digital photographs, standardised word processed documents or indeed digital technical drawings. All of these combined represent the digital footprint of archaeological works. Just as a trench clearly has a definite, tangible existence at the time its being cut, its subsequent recording through digital means entails that it also exists in a kind of parallel, digital reality.

Even when I leave work, I’m still thinking in archaeological terms. I’ve recently started to play Life is Strange, an episodic adventure game which involves a teenage girl who can rewind time (as an archaeologist I really envy this superpower!). I’ve also started to keep a games journal. Just as dirt became pixels in the process of recording and digitising trenches, conversely pixels became marks on a page through my games journaling which allows me to reflect on immaterial culture.



A sneak peak at my games journal!

The setting in the screenshot below is a junk yard that the protagonist visits with her friend. So often video game environments fail to convey a sense of dirt and decay but in this case you can almost smell the rust and mildew. It would even be possible to analyse the stratigraphical deposition of the detritus.


American Rust junk yard in Life is Strange Episode 2: Out of Time

In contemporary archaeological practise, the analogue and the digital are inextricably intertwined. It’s no surprise that archaeogaming (the study of archaeology in and of video games) seems to be gaining more attention recently. As archaeologists, we are creators of both material and immaterial culture; both paper and digital context sheets, for example, are artefacts in their own right. The digital sprawl of an excavation entails that it needs to be managed long after the last trench has been backfilled.

With archaeological sites leading a digital afterlife, it appears that the commercial archaeologist could benefit from putting down their trowel, picking up a joystick and playing with the idea of studying immaterial culture. I know I have.

PokemonGo For It!

This morning I was out for a walk after an early morning Bootcamp session, to ease my jelly legs, when I stumbled across a jellyfish-type Pokemon. And it got me thinking.

A seaside Pokemon on the beach

A seaside Pokemon on the beach

I wrote a blog post a couple of weeks ago about where you can find Pokestops and Pokemon in local heritage attractions which have free entry and it went down well, on the whole. But some people are still cynical.

So, as my Day Of Archaeology started with some exercise and a Pokemon, here are my Top Five PokemonGo thumbs ups, and why it is brilliant for heritage and for health too.

1.  You don’t have to stare at the screen to use it

Most of us will have seen a video clip of someone walking along, staring at their screen, with no clue as to where they’re walking. This has been happening for much longer than PokemonGo has been around, sadly! The PokemonGo App will actually continue working and still vibrate/give a notification if you pass a Pokestop or a Pokemon etc if you turn it upside down (into sleep mode) and pop it in your pocket, or carry your phone by your side. So it’s unlikely you will walk into a wall/lake/child before noticing them. Unless it’s intentional.

2. You have to physically walk to use it

In the App you can see yourself and your surrounding area. There is a little bit of zoom in and out, but you can’t pan the map. i.e. if you want to see if there is a ‘Gym’ or a Pokestop over about half a mile away, you have to get up off your butt and go for a walk. Cunning plan, and I like it.

3. You have to walk a certain distance to hatch Pokemon Eggs

At a Pokestop you can collect Pokeballs, which you catch Pokemon in, and other items, such a eggs. If you get an egg, you can incubate it and the incubation process will only complete if you walk 2k, 5k, or 10k (with better Pokemon the further you have to walk). How’s that for an incentive to go for a stroll!

4. Many of the Pokestops are at historical landmarks

You don’t necessarily know where a Pokemon might actually appear. That’s part of the fun. But you can visit Pokestops to collect items such as those mentioned above, or medicine for Pokemon, and Lure potions which attract Pokemon to a location. You can see these Pokestops scattered about, marked on your map as you move around. Most of the Pokestops are at historical places and local landmarks, which gives us in the heritage sector a great opportunity. PokemonGo users are likely to visit a place if they know it has a Pokestop or a Gym (where you can battle Pokemon against each other). Once they have collected the items, or played a battle, and possibly caught a Pokemon- which all in all may take about 10 minutes, tops – they’re looking for something else to do. So if you have a museum, heritage site, country park, visitor attraction, PokemonGo is your very own Lure potion. They will come, so welcome them in and you may just have found yourself a market you would normally struggle to reach.

So if you have a museum, heritage site, country park, visitor attraction, PokemonGo is your very own Lure potion.

5. Pokestops are usually accompanied by a short fact about the place it’s in

The developers of PokemonGo have actually utilised the framework and data from another successful App which already exists, and just ‘Pokemonned’ it. So, in effect, the Pokestops and Gyms already existed from the game ‘Ingress’ long before PokemonGo was thought up. (Incidentally, if any of the points/stops are in a place you think is unsuitable, insensitive or dangerous can be reported easily and taken down. Hopefully most of this should already have been sorted through the older App anyway). With the adoption of the Ingress App data came a little information with each stop. So when you reach a location, many tell you a fun fact about the place you’re in. I’ve popped some examples below in the pictures. I learned something new (about a local who was a pioneer of wireless telegraphy and was one of the first people to experiment successfully with the sending of the spoken word through space! A Caernarfon boi!) when I was on the PokemonGo App in Caernarfon, the day after it launched. I’m in Caernarfon a lot, and was confident I knew the history well. So if I can learn something so easily and so soon after starting play, I wonder what else I will find out as I go. My search for Pokemon has resulted in a search for knowledge too.

Some people have told me that the ‘silly fad’ is dangerous. Unfortunately the handful of incidents out of the tens of millions of users (yup, during its first week of availability it had more downloads than any App in history!) have been lapped up by the press, only highlighting some irresponsible users ignoring the HUGE warning every time you open the App to stay fully aware of your surroundings.

Some have commented that children should be playing outdoors anyway, not needing a screen or a game. “They should be catching fish, not pokemon!”. Well, sometimes it just ain’t that easy, buster! Slow clap for you! We are in a digital age, and if this App encourages those who would usually sit in a darkened room playing computer games, only otherwise lured out by the smell of bacon being deliberately wafted up the stairs, to see some sunlight and get some exercise, then how on earth is this a bad thing?!

I’ve been confronted by someone saying that there is no way that anyone playing ‘that game’ will appreciate the place they’re in, so the heritage site will actually be ignored and, in essence, taken completely for granted. I say- if that happens, it happens. They may not read the ‘fun fact’ which accompanies the Pokestop, but if they do, at least they’re going away with something. But it is our job in the heritage sector to open our arms up to this potential new market of people we may otherwise never see and make their transition from catching a Pokemon to catching some culture as easy as possible.

PokemonGo’s tag line is:

Get up and Go!

And I add to that, if you’re a parent, a visitor attraction, and especially if you’re a cynic: “PokemonGo for it!“.

Have fun, get fit, see nice places and, you never know, you might learn something 😉

De Archeologische Waarde van Pokémon Go

Archeologie is meer dan alleen oude voorwerpen opgraven: het onderzoekt niet alleen de connectie tussen het menselijk heden en het verleden door middel de overblijfselen die oude culturen hebben achtergelaten, maar archeologie gaat ook over de connectie die wij met het verleden hebben. Met deze blog voor de Day of Archaeology willen wij, een groep jonge onderzoekers, graag wat inzicht geven in hoe wij deze connectie – in het heden – voor ons zien.

U bent vast bekend met het “augmented reality” fenomeen Pokémon Go. U heeft er over gehoord of gelezen en het waarschijnlijk in actie gezien bij uw familie of vrienden. U bent misschien letterlijk in aanvaring gekomen met iemand die met een wazige blik op hun telefoon de openbare ruimte blokkeren? Of misschien bent u zelf een van de in Nederland meer dan 2 miljoen mensen die, gewapend met smartphone, Pikachu, Squirtle en andere virtuele wezens probeert te vangen? Kort gezegd de game is een ongelooflijke rage, maar wat is eigenlijk de aantrekkingskracht ervan en is het ook nog van enig nut?

Het zijn dit soort type vragen waar Videogames and Archaeology at Leiden University (VALUE) antwoord op probeert te geven vanuit de optiek van de archeologie en erfgoedbeheer. We horen u denken: “Videogames én archeologie, dat heeft toch niets met elkaar te maken”. Niets is echter minder waar. Het VALUE team, bestaande uit jonge onderzoekers van de Faculteit Archeologie (Universiteit Leiden), wil u er in dit korte blog van overtuigen dat archeologie veel meer is dan de studie van oude voorwerpen en zich ook kan uit strekken naar de studie van hypermoderne fenomenen.

Image courtesy: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Image courtesy: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Een eerste voorbeeld: of u zelf mee doet aan de Pokémon rage of niet, het is u vast opgevallen dat dit spel gespeeld wordt op centrale locaties van een vaak (voor de lokale omgeving) bijzondere culturele waarde. De reden hiervoor is dat  de ontwikkelaar van dit “augmented reality” spel, Niantic, hun ervaring die zij hebben opgedaan tijdens de ontwikkeling van Google Earth combineren met de kracht van de crowd. Iedereen die mee speelde in hun eerdere augmented reality game, Ingress, markeerde daarin namelijk belangrijke punten in hun landschap. Deze door het publiek gebouwde database werd gebruikt voor de lokaties in Pokémon Go. Wat blijkt: erfgoed, waaronder, monumenten, beelden, parken, enzovoort, springen in het oog van velen en daarom vangen nu hele hordes mensen niet bestaande wezen in en om erfgoed hotspots, van het Mauritshuis tot het plaatselijke Tweede Wereldoorlog Monument.

Het mengen van echt erfgoed en gamen heeft zo zijn voor- en nadelen. Een populaire virtuele verzamelplaats voor Pokéjagers kan bijvoorbeeld tot overlast leiden voor de omgeving. In een enkel geval leidt het zelfs tot onwenselijke situaties, waardoor de waarde van het erfgoed aangetast kan worden door acties in het virtuele heden. Hoe gaat men hier mee om? Hier zijn geen pasklare antwoorden voor en daarom kan het juist nuttig en handig zijn om de expertise in te roepen van iemand die zowel verstand heeft van games als erfgoed management.
Van een meer positieve kant bekeken: een spel als Pokémon Go leidt tot ongekend hoge bezoekersaantallen van lokaal erfgoed. Opeens wordt er weer door jong en oud met aandacht gekeken naar dat vergeten beeld in het park. Maar ook hier geldt: we hebben nieuwe initiatieven nodig om deze interesse om te zetten in kennis over (lokaal) erfgoed. Een voorbeeld hiervan kan een audiotour zijn waarin informatie over de virtuele wereld van Pokémon Go gemengd wordt met informatie over de echte erfgoed lokaties die tijdens de game bezocht worden.
Het vangen van wezens die er niet echt zijn… Honderd jaar geleden was dit reden genoeg om linea recta in het gesticht te belanden, maar onze maatschappij in korte tijd toch de sociale en culturele capaciteit bereikt om hiermee om te kunnen gaan. Daarnaast lijkt het voor individuen ook geen probleem om de echte en de virtuele wereld met elkaar af te wisselen. Waarom is dit eigenlijk? Hoe is dit ontstaan? Ook hier heeft de videogamende archeoloog antwoorden.

Allereerst is het belangrijk zich te realiseren dat bijna maar niet echte, virtuele werelden zoals die van Pokémon Go niets nieuws zijn. Denkt u eens aan grottekeningen van onze Paleolithische voorouders: een van de mogelijke interpretaties is dat de jacht- en andere scenes die hierop afgebeeld zijn het werk zijn van shamanen. Deze rituele specialisten, al dan niet zelf in hogere sferen dankzij het gebruik van hallucinogenen, tekenden de wereld zoals hij zich aan hun geestesoog onttrok op de wand van de grot. Met deze tekeningen maakten zij hun virtuele wereldbeeld deelbaar met en inzichtelijk voor anderen.


Gotta Catch ‘Em All? (Image courtesy of

Het moge overigens geen verrassing zijn dat ook wat er afgebeeld is overeenkomsten vertoont. Paleolitische grottekeningen laten de dierenwereld zien en Pokémon Go, op eigen wijze, ook. Dit geeft aan dat ook de drijfveer om ze “allemaal te vangen” — Pokémon’s slogan is Gotta Catch ‘Em All — ook een historisch diepe achtergrond kent. De jacht was voor het grootste gedeelte van de menselijke evolutie van levensbelang. En ondanks dat wij in Nederland niet meer achter ons eten aan hoeven te rennen, wordt ons verleden als jagers en verzamelaars ingezet om ons nu achter virtuele wezens aan te laten rennen. Misschien een leuk idee om uw (paleo)dieet aan te vullen met een echte Pokémon paleo-workout. En als bonus ziet u op uw jacht ook nog wat van het lokale erfgoed!

De Pokémon Go-rage is slechts een voorbeeld van vele nieuwe en interessante gevallen op het snijvlak van archeologie, erfgoed en gaming. VALUE doet niet alleen onderzoek naar dit veld, maar probeert dit werk ook zo goed mogelijk beschikbaar te maken voor het publiek. U kunt dit teruglezen op onze site en terug kijken op Youtube (in het Engels). Een kleine greep uit ons assortiment. We werkten dit jaar in het populaire bouwspel Minecraft samen met specialisten en gamers van alle leeftijden om met elkaar (wereld)erfgoed na te bouwen en te bediscussiëren. Of wat dacht u van een diepgravend gesprek over geweld in videogames en de rol die geweld speelt bij onze voorouders in de steentijd (Far Cry: Primal)? Wat is de rol van grote historische figuren in het bepalen van de loop van de geschiedenis en wat heeft interactiviteit in historische games zoals Assassin’s Creed hiermee te maken? Ook dat kunt u vinden op onze site.

Foto genomen tijdens de Interactive Pasts conferentie.

Foto genomen tijdens de Interactive Pasts conferentie.

Daarnaast publiceren wij met VALUE het eerste archeologieboek waarvan de publicatie betaald is met crowdfunding, waardoor wij dit boek gratis beschikbaar kunnen stellen aan het grote publiek. Dit is een resultaat van werelds eerste archeologie en gaming conferentie op 4-5 April jongstleden, waarin academici en game ontwikkelaars samen kwamen om te spreken over alle ins en outs van dit razendsnel groeiende nieuwe veld. Het boek The Interactive Past komt uit in de lente van volgend jaar, maar voor wie nu al meer wil weten, kijk gauw op onze Youtube pagina. Daar vindt u alle sprekers van deze wervelende workshop.

Heeft u vragen of ideeën die u met ons wilt bespreken, u kunt ons bereiken via Twitter en Facebook

Archaeogaming and Podcasting

8bit logo


We specifically timed the release  of this new podcast on the Archaeology Podcast Network (APN) so it would coordinate with the Day of Archaeology. The timing to us, couldn’t be more perfect. The APN had worked to create a channel of sorts for all things podcasting about archaeology. At times that’s made it push the envelope for the use of new media in communicating and sharing of archaeology. It’s fitting then, for this network to be the first to dedicate a podcast to the breakout field of Archaeogaming.

This isn’t to say that blogs on the topic have never existed before. A quick glance at the show notes for episode 1 gives an incomplete but informative look at those pioneering the field. The show’s hosts, Andrew ReinhardMeghan Dennis, and Tara Copplestone, consider themselves to be part of the second wave of archaeologists in archaeogaming. They list several researchers before them, but even those only go as far back as the early 2000’s or late 90′. That makes this quite a new branch of archaeology, and like many such branches, there is, at times, strong discussion over if such a thing is even necessary.

Most people are not sure what to do with archaeogaming exactly, it seems new and weird. For the most part it has been received positively, as many can see the need to study the fastest growing part of the entertainment industry. One that is interactive and creating culture around and inside of itself. Reinhard argues that there is no difference between real and virtual culture, that all culture is man-made, therefore even computer generated culture can be studied archaeologically. This idea has been met with some push-back, but overall, his argument stands. You don’t even have to play games to see “gaming culture” in general and genre specific culture in particular.

Archaeogaming examines the culture inside of games as well, and Dennis focuses specifically on the ethics in and around games. Most famously, for example, is it ethical to loot a tomb? What if that is the only option the game gives you to complete a level? What if, in the game world, you are “saving” artifacts by looting them? What if you need to sell those same artifacts for game world money? Dennis is working on these and other questions for her Ph.D. thesis, and explains a bit more about it in her interview on Not Just a Game Episode 2: Looting Mortuary Spaces with Meghan Dennis, the bi-weekly podcast with Dr. Catherine Flick.

Archaeogaming also examines the game code itself as an artifact. Copplestone looks at this intersection of game and archaeology, and it’s a very interesting concept. How does real life archaeology affect game world archaeology? Why do game designers represent archaeology they way that they do? Can we as archaeologists use games as a way of communicating archaeology better to the public? How? What would that game look like?


At which point all of this brings us to the No Man’s Sky Survey, led by Reinhard. This ambitious real life survey of a huge virtual world is probably not the first of it’s kind, but it is the first to be done on such a detailed and massive scale. Reinhard, Dennis, Copplestone and others have worked hard to create survey and excavation forms, data collection standards, and even a code of ethics for in-game and out of game interaction. Reinhard plans to publish updates on the progress of the survey as well as produce a peer-reviewed paper for presentation and publication. I’m really excited to be part of this and plan to keep track of my own progress over on my own blog (you know, if you want to read it).

In the meantime you can listen to our newest podcast on the APN and learn a lot more about what archaeogaming is and what we hope to accomplish with it.


July 29, 2016

In the first Episode of 8bit Test Pit: Main Campaign we meet our host panel Andrew Reinhard, Meghan Dennis, and Tara Copplestone. We talk about what Archaeogaming is, the history of the field, and what the overall goals of studying the intersection of gaming and archaeology are. We also talk about the upcoming No Man’s Sky Survey and why a survey like this should be done.

No Man’s Sky Archaeological Survey

No Man's Sky Archaeological Survey mission patch

Mission patch design by the author

On 9 August 2016, the No Man’s Sky Archaeological Survey (NMSAS) will mark the first time archaeologists have attempted to record in an archaeological way virtual material culture in a procedurally generated universe. One goal of the 3-year project includes documenting machine-created material culture, or how worlds, cultures, artifacts, built environments, lore/history, and even spoken and written language are created by algorithms created from over 800,000 lines of code. Another goal is to attempt to observe and identify emergent behaviors from the complexity of the code and player interaction with it, documenting game-created “artifacts” (i.e., glitches) and unexpected interactions that are more a part of the deep syntax of the game itself rather than the virtual environments it creates.

(image: Hello Games)

(Image: Hello Games)

For those readers who do not know about No Man’s Sky, this is a video game created by Hello Games (Guildford, UK) for PlayStation 4 and PC, which has, for all intents and purposes, created a universe-sized virtual universe of billions-and-billions of planet-sized planets to explore on a 1:1 scale. Some of these planets have virtual life, and some of those planets will have sentient life paired with non-natural constructions, architecture, and artifacts both large and small, old and new. The reason NMS has received so much attention is that every bit of the game (including audio) is procedurally generated. The developer has created a large set of rules and design elements that will combine to create unique spaces to discover. So how will this look in the game, and how will the game “interpret” those rules to create material culture on-the-fly? Our team of archaeologists wants to know.


(Image: Hello Games)

Because the universe is life-size, it will be impossible to explore all worlds. For this reason, I wanted to conduct an archaeological survey that would planet-hop towards the center of the universe. The team’s survey methods are directly derived from two real-world survey projects, the Pyla-Koutspoetria Archaeological Survey and the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey. Both surveys use modern surveying methods on how/where to survey, what to observe and collect, as well as a new way of thinking about object typologies, “chronotypes.” I scaled these projects’ methodologies to apply them to surveying entire systems, and borrowed (with permission from Bill Caraher) the survey and fieldwalker forms used, converting them for conducting surveys on a planetary scale.

Our surveyors will select promising planets to orbit, and will complete several orbits prior to flying their survey spacecraft over the surface of these worlds, geotagging surface features for further study. Following the completion of several flyovers, the surveyors will touch down and conduct a handful of fieldwalking surveys, noting types/numbers of artifacts within 1 sq. km (or more), repeating a few times on the planet’s surface, again tagging features while taking screenshots and video. We expect that some surveys will yield sites that require proper excavation, and it is our hope to return to these worlds to map and dig. For the time being, the team will only survey.


Regarding data collection, NMSAS has partnered with FAIMS (Field Acquired Information Management System) to create a set of custom/bespoke online forms, which run on Android devices as well as PC and Mac desktop clients. FAIMS has provided tools to several archaeological projects, the NMSAS being the first one to 100% occupy a virtual world. One set of forms pertains to orbital and suborbital transects, and the other set of forms pertains to fieldwalking units conducted post-transect. The two screengrabs below show only a portion of each form.

Portion of the Transect form created for NMSAS by FAIMS

Portion of the Transect form created for NMSAS by FAIMS



Portion of the Unit form created for NMSAS by FAIMS

The data collected by each survey team member is automatically synced with the FAIMS server, which is instantly available to all other surveyors. Ultimately the data and media collected will be ported over to the online Open Access archaeological publication platform, Open Context.

Open Context

The NMSAS team look forward to sharing its findings with anyone who wants to see them. After the first month or so of initial exploration, the team will create and publish a white paper explaining best-practices along with a standardized, working vocabulary and typology for the crowdsourced side of the project. After the first three months, we will publish a preliminary report online and Open Access, followed by a one-year report of the project so far.

Members of the team will blog, tweet, and stream their progress. At the start, the main communication channels for the NMSAS project are @nmsarchaeology on Twitter at NMSArchaeology on Twitch. Email can be sent to the team as well. Comments and suggestions are always welcome.

NEEDS: If you have GIS expertise and an interest in exploring the game archaeologically, please send an email to the above address. Also, if you have modding experience via Steam, we need to discuss the construction of probes and drones for use on planets, and for interstellar survey.

To learn more about the archaeology of No Man’s Sky, click here. To read the NMSAS Code of Ethics for the survey team, click here.