Bringing the ancient history of the Uist to virtual life

Bringing the ancient history of the Uist to virtual life

The exhibition at Stornoway was an opportunity to see the technology in action.
The exhibition at Stornoway was an opportunity to see the technology in action.

The first of its kind in the UK, ‘Uist Unearthed’ allows anyone with a mobile phone to step back in time and discover ancient archaeological sites of Uist from the Bronze Age, placing Uist and the Outer Hebrides at the forefront of archaeological – and technological frontier.

The project is led by coordinator Dr Emily Gal and project manager Dr Rebecca Rennell, both lecturers at UHI Outer Hebrides.

Uist Unearthed has been shortlisted for two Archaeological Achievement Awards from the Council for British Archeology and since its launch in January 2020 it has captured worldwide attention for its pioneering design approach, using augmented reality.

Cladh Hallan, a Bronze Age settlement in South Uist, is the first AR site to launch in 2021. Users can go to the old site, open the Uist Unearthed app, and bring the entire site to life by 3D on their mobile phone and power to explore the colony.

While immersed in the site, there are information points where users can learn the etymology of Norse and Gaelic place names; see finds ranging from pottery to mummified remains; listen to local stories; learn about daily life in the ancient communities of the Uist and step into a mix of AR reconstructions of rotundas, great halls or a longhouse.

During the exhibition at UHI in Stornoway, guests were able to put on a virtual reality headset which was linked to the Uist Unearthed app. The helmet then fully immersed the users and they were able to explore the reconstructions of the ancient colonies.

It should be noted that users must be on the official Hebridean Way in order to explore the AR reconstruction, which aims to promote tourism across Uist. Local businesses are also on the in-app interactive map, which is free to download on any platform and everyone in the Outer Hebrides is encouraged to get it.

Other sites that users can explore are Bornais in South Uist, which is a great hall from the Viking Age, where you can enter its banquet hall and learn about the finds there. Another site is Cill Donnain, South Uist, which is an impressive Iron Age wheelhouse.

Dr Rebecca Rennel said: “The AR reconstruction is the new and innovative part of the project. No one in the UK has done this before. The important thing is that other people use augmented reality; we’re not the first to release AR itself to the world. But it’s about life-size reconstructions and triggered location, it’s the fact that you can walk around the different sites.”

Speaking at the event at UHI in Stornoway, HIE’s Director of External Engagement and Growth, Joe MacPhee, said: “This is a project that has evolved from a partnership very strong that we have thanks to the archeology strategy and the release of our potential. The potential is huge and the Uist Unearthed app demonstrates how great an asset archeology is to the Outer Hebrides and what cutting-edge innovation can do.

“The project has been shortlisted for two awards by the Council for British Archaeology. It clashes with some high profile organisations, no less than the British Museum. So that’s where we want to be. I think being on the same platform as the British Museum speaks volumes about the hard work and professionalism of the team.

He added: “I think it is very significant that it started in Uist, a place where there is so much creative activity in terms of archaeology, music and the whole development of the creative sector. This project seeks to make people realize what a great place it is. The whole island is a great place to learn, and it’s important for us to promote that in everything we do.

Two future sites that will soon be available on the Uist Unearthed app are Dun Torcuill, North Uist, an Iron Age settlement in the middle of Loch an Duin that can only be reached at low tide via a causeway. The second site is Dun an Sticir, North Uist, a medieval settlement in the remains of an Iron Age Broch, with a bloody history tied to its past: the downfall of the famous Hugh ‘The Skulker’ Macdonald.

The Uist Virtual Archeology project is carried out in collaboration with Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and partly funded by the European Regional Development Fund, the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the comhairle and Storas Uist.

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