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Photogrammetry and Virtual Reality (VR) in maritime archaeology

Last week, a discussion started in the media about Historic England announcing not to salvage any wrecks anymore but let visitors explore archaeological sites underwater using VR headsets (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/08/19/no-mary-rose-style-excavation-ships-will-explored-using-vr-instead/). The Rooswijk project is combining VR and excavation, bringing up real stuff, and as this project is well on its way, it may be a good time to look into the use of VR in maritime archaeology.

With especially the introduction of the easy-to-use AgiSoft software to produce stunning 3D-photographic models of about anything, underwater and maritime archaeology gained a marvellous new tool for registration of individual objects as well as whole sites. Fast recording of a site, location of finds and context in general is very important underwater since the time we can spend there as a diver is limited. If done with care and detail we can do investigations of the site over and over again, not just that one time when the excavation took place.

The 3D can help us with something else as well. It shows us what is lying underwater, so with this tool we can start bringing the site to the public as well. Sketchfab, a platform to share and discover 3D and VR content helps us to publish finished models but using VR technology we can even make realistic 1 to 1 scale tours to the wrecksite without having to go into the water and dive.

For the Rooswijk project we use photogrammetry exactly for these things. Objects will be presented through Sketchfab in 3D, large concretions will be documented before being worked at and the site itself will be regularly documented every time a layer of sand has been removed and new features emerge. These last type of animations may (in the end) also be used for a 3D tour people can make with or without  VR headsets. 

The development of new techniques also triggers us to think differently about what to do with the underwater cultural heritage. They help us to better investigate and enjoy them without having to raise whole ships and conserving them for millions of euro’s, dollars or pounds.

However, although blessed with these tools, archaeological excavation still continuous to play part of the archaeological management. They won’t make the archaeologists jobless. On the contrary! Sites have to surface the seabed before even being able to picture them, interpretation has to be done, decisions on what to do with them and reconstructions to be made, all with the aim to reconstruct our past and add something to the understanding of our identity, on who we are. They are aids to be able to perform our job better and to open up new opportunities.

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