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Sandby Borg – difficult heritage brought to life with VR

Sandby Borg, an Iron Age fort on the Swedish island of Öland, retains the traces of one of the darkest chapters in Swedish history, when an entire community was wiped out in a bloody massacre 1,500 years ago. How does one tell such a story? In collaboration with RISE, VR technology was tested.

Nobody knows for certain what unfolded here, although researchers and archaeologists have confirmed that the fort’s inhabitants were slain and left where they fell, unburied. The material uncovered when excavation began in 2011 reveals two moments frozen in time; the bloody massacre with the remains of the inhabitants, and the day-to-day lives represented in furnishings, stored foods and artefacts left behind after the battle – archaeologically, a unique find.

“At the same time, this is what is known as difficult heritage, as it deals with a horrendous event in which many people were murdered. How does one portray this?” asks Madeleine Kusoffsky, interaction designer at RISE.

Makes the inaccessible accessible

The idea of using virtual reality (VR) to bring home the events at Sandby Borg was born when archaeologist Fredrik Gunnarsson, who was deeply engaged in the excavations, sat down to write his thesis on digital technology. With funding from the Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences, a communication research project was established as a collaboration between Museiarkeologi sydost at the Kalmar County Museum, RISE and the Graduate School in Contract Archaeology (GRASCA) and Linnaeus University.

“Our intention was to study how one can make the inaccessible accessible. Can history be brought to life through virtual reality? We wanted to move people without making it too horrific to take in,” explains Madeleine, who believes that our own cultural heritage may be a useful springboard for discussing present-day conflicts.

Interesting to test the technology

The research project has now been concluded, with the results tested in October 2017 on journalists and some 30 test subjects who had the opportunity to evaluate the experience of a ten minute tour of fifth-century Sandy Borg, at the time of the massacre and shortly afterwards, using a VR headset.

“The reactions were mixed; with the visitors previous experience of VR, or lack thereof, making a considerable difference. The experience with the headset and cables is not entirely seamless. VR technology is also expensive and the hardware limited, meaning that as yet it is not suitable for large-scale application. It was however extremely interesting to test the technology in this context and many people felt that they had been afforded a powerful experience of events at Sandy Borg,” says Madeleine Kusoffsky.