by Gabe Donofrio
S.C. Department of Natural Resources Archaeology Intern
In September 2021, I had the opportunity to join the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) Archaeology team during their excavation of the Pockoy Island Shell Ring Complex at the Botany Bay Plantation Heritage Preserve / Wildlife Management Area. This fieldwork was part of my second internship term with the SCDNR Archaeology team (fall 2021), an extension of my summer 2021 internship experience with the team.
Throughout my internship, Pockoy Island came up time and time again as a prime example of heritage at risk. I began researching the site in my spare time and was thrilled to hear that I would have the opportunity to work there. This came at a time shortly after I’d discovered another interest – virtual reality.
Virtual reality involves using two digital displays, one for each eye, on a wearable device to make the user feel like they are actually standing inside of a digital space. Months prior to my internship in the summer, I began looking into the potential for this uniquely immersive technology to be used in archaeology. As it turns out, this idea isn’t new. Many companies and institutions have started using this kind of technology for archaeological visualization, interpretation, and outreach. One particularly exciting tie-in with the field of archaeology involves photogrammetry.
Photogrammetry is the process of taking multiple, often hundreds or thousands, of photos of an object or space and using an incredibly clever software to stitch them together. The end result is a digital 3D model, or photoscan, of the object which can be viewed, printed, and if it is detailed enough, even studied in place of the original! Even as I write this article, sitting at my desk at the SCDNR’s Parker Annex Archaeology Center, I have this software working in the background to produce that exact kind of digital object. Viewing these objects in a virtual reality setting is a truly remarkable experience and allows people to get an up-close look at cultural heritage objects without ever taking them off of the shelf.
I decided to try applying these technologies to our heritage at risk sites in South Carolina. In order to recreate the environment, I needed a lot of reference material. During our time at Pockoy Island, I took hundreds of photos for reference. My supervisor, Meg Gaillard, also showed me how to use a directional shotgun condenser microphone and hydrophone to collect natural soundscapes from all around Botany Bay – both on land and in the water.
Some of my time in the field was spent taking notes about the kinds of sounds I heard, the animals I saw scurrying around, and which aspects of the environment tend to catch my attention. Using a popular game development software, I am able to recreate some environments based on all of these observations. I am still in the process of making the environments as authentic as possible, while still keeping them accessible.
In addition, we at Parker Annex are in the process of making 3D photoscans of some of the pottery sherds found around Pockoy Island. These sherds, once fully processed, could be held and interacted with inside of the virtual environment. One of SCDNR archaeologists, Catherine Garcia, had already done much of the hard work by reconstructing larger pottery sections from smaller pieces and by figuring out the actual shape of the vessels they came from. This kind of information is vital for giving context to the 3D objects I plan to place in the digital recreation of Pockoy Island.
Context is an important word there. In archaeology “context” essentially refers to exactly where an artifact was found. It would usually involve information about location, area history, soil type, and much more. An artifact without its context can’t tell us much. For this project, however, context takes a different meaning. The context of these artifacts is the environment around them. Hearing the thunderous sound of the ocean ripping away at the beach changes the experience of holding that piece of pottery. Seeing the palms, birds, and bugs in the island forest helps one fully understand how alive the history of this place really was. The context, here, is everything.
I could wax poetic all day about how powerful this kind of technology can be for the field of archeology. Not just for archaeology, but for general conservation and archaeology public outreach as well. My goal in doing this is to create an experience that allows people to see, firsthand, the kind of natural and cultural resources we are at risk of losing, not just in South Carolina but globally. For some, putting on a virtual reality headset may be the closest they will ever get to experiencing these kinds of environments. For others, feeling close to the rapidly eroding coastline could help them truly understand what is at stake.
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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed on South Carolina Wild are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect official policies, positions, or endorsements of activity or products by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.