Recreating Catalhoyuk's Historical Excavation in Virtual Reality

Students and researchers are taking tours of the excavation of Catalhoyuk, Turkey—the largest and best-preserved Neolithic site ever discovered—without ever stepping foot off campus.

For the past six years, Maurizio Forte, professor of art, art history and visual studies at Duke, has been the director of the 3D-Digging project at the site. Along with Regis Kopper, assistant research professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at Duke, the digital project has been taking advantage of the rare opportunity provided by Duke’s DiVE facility.

The Duke immersive Virtual Environment (DiVE) is a six-sided, high definition, immersive virtual reality experience. With the help of 22 million pixels and some 3D goggles, users literally feel like they’re stepping into a different world.

Each year, Forte creates a digital blueprint of the archaeological treasure. Using existing laser scanning technology and photogrammetry—the superposition of many photographs to create a 3D point cloud—Forte provides data to Kopper who can create a model, using software built in-house, that can be explored in virtual reality at the DiVE.

The researchers have data stretching back several years, which presents a unique opportunity. Catalhoyuk was a large proto-city that flourished for nearly 2,000 years before being deserted around 5700 BC. During those 2,000 years, many buildings were destroyed and built over once again, creating layer upon layer of artifacts.

As archaeologists excavate the site, they necessarily destroy each of these layers in succession. This can make it difficult to remember what previous layers revealed, and how they might all fit together in the deciphering the story the lives of these ancient peoples left behind. Preserving the progress of the excavation gives researchers the unique opportunity to revisit the site as it was years earlier, putting the entire decades-long project in perspective to reveal new insights.