This week: Augmented reality

Cladh Hallan. Anne Burgess / Triangulation Pillar at Cladh Halainn / CC BY-SA 2.0.

Throughout history, writers and artists have used their imaginations to tell stories from former times. From The Iliad to A Tale of Two Cities, and from The Last Supper to the Sistine ceiling, the results have inspired countless millions down the centuries, opening a window that can never be shut.

For historians and archaeologists, however, the question of how to bring the past to life for future generations is often fraught with complexity – as in this context, storytelling must always be balanced with rigour, and imagination tempered with fidelity to what we know to be true.

In recent years, digital advances have made such issues ever more acute: witness, for instance, the rise of ‘deep fake’ technology, which allows us to bring the dead back to life, to put words into the mouths of those who never spoke them, and even to restage historical events with new endings of our choice.

But if the dangers brought by new technology to the study of history and archaeology seem obvious, the advantages are equally clear – in particular, as new and scholarly produced forms of virtual and augmented reality allow us to feel connected to the past in ways that previously seemed impossible.

This week on The Past, we travel to the Outer Hebrides, to see how such digital tools are helping to illuminate and communicate the rich heritage of the island of South Uist, home to hundreds of archaeological sites, from Bronze Age settlements to Viking longhouses.

In the new issue of Current Archaeology magazine, Dr Rebecca Rennell and Dr Emily Gal from the University of the Highlands and Islands outline some of the research and community co-production that went into creating Uist Unearthed, their new augmented-reality app and multimedia exhibition.

Elsewhere this week on The Past, we have also been searching the archives for more about archaeology in the Outer Hebrides: we looked at how a boom in demand for kelp in the 18th and 19th centuries affected life on Scotland’s western fringes; we returned to South Uist to explore the roundhouse way of life at Cladh Hallan, best known for its prehistoric mummies; and we ventured further west to examine new evidence of the Iron Age inhabitation of St Kilda.

And finally, if all that simply whets your appetite for more, don’t forget to have a go at our latest Quiz, which this week is also themed around Scottish archaeology. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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