Minecraft for Archaeological Outreach

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The “Real Tools of Minecraft”

We ran a “Virtual Dig” event for Yornight again this year, refined and improved from last year’s effort. The event was wildly popular once again, and utterly wiped out the researchers participating.

I re-structured the event so that there is something for each of our expected demographic–we had kids that had never played Minecraft who participated last year, as well as a few bored parents. We were able to address the former with a papercraft event, but as the papercraft was based around Breary Banks, we decided to eliminate it this year and focus primarily on Star Carr, for consistency across the activities.

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Steal me!

For the younger kids we expanded on our “real tools of Minecraft” event last year. It was very successful for connecting the analog world to the digital world, and gave us a way to talk about the spectrum of archaeological tools. Minecraft has pickaxes, shovels, buckets, a compass, and flint, and we had the kids match up the tools from a print-out. Of particular interest was the flint, as many children did not make the connection from the digital representation to the rocks in their backyard.

I’ve uploaded a printable pdf of the Minecraft tools. I also made a sheet with a few letters that you can have the kids place next to the real tools. Feel free to steal the activity, but pleaaaaase tell me (colleen.morgan@york.ac.uk) if you do so I can show my department how useful it is to muck around with video games.

We also had our usual server running with the Star Carr landscape installed, which I wrote about making last year. I actually had to re-make it this year in a single day, due to the old version accidentally getting wiped out. Ooops!

Once again we also showed Anthony Masinton’s Yorkshire 9000BC on the big screen in back. It’s made in Unity, so we tied it to Minecraft by saying they were both video games AND both of them were based on the same digital elevation model. I’d point at the houses he’d placed on the landscape, talk a bit about how hard it was to reconstruct houses based on postholes, then end with an entreaty:

Can you build a 10,000 year old house in Minecraft?

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Fabrizio, showing off his ADS viewer to Julian Richards & Gareth Beale

For the older kids and adults we had Marie Curie Fellow Fabrizio Galeazzi present Star Carr data on his ADS viewer, to show the detailed visualizations of stratigraphy within a research database. It was a great link for showing the research potential of archaeological visualizations.

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Early in the night!

Overall it was chaotic but fun–we didn’t always have a chance to collar the kids with research before they started bashing through Minecraft. I’ve yet to have a chance to see what kind of carnage they enacted upon the Mesolithic landscape. I look forward to it though, as it’s an archaeology of its own.

Breaking Blocks and Digging Holes: Archaeology & Minecraft

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Archaeologists have been playing with Minecraft to present the past and the play around with reconstruction. Shawn Graham, as always, is at the forefront of developing archaeological landscapes in Minecraft and if you’d like to try it out, I suggest you read up on Electric Archaeology. I used his instructions to import a digital elevation model (DEM) from the famous Mesolithic site of Star Carr, currently being investigated by Nicky Milner at the University of York.

After a few tweaks, I managed to get a fairly nice, smooth landscape–Star Carr, now a lovely undulating field, was once on the edge of Lake Flixton. Organic materials such as wood preserve very well in the waterlogged peat and so they find lots of spear points, platforms and a deer frontlet or two.

Red deer antler head-dress from Star Carr at the British Museum.
Red deer antler head-dress from Star Carr at the British Museum.

Sadly we did not reconstruct the frontlets–building things in Minecraft is a lot like using Lego. Not fancy, specialist Lego like they have these days, but the basic set. So I got a reasonable model of Star Carr up and running for Yornight, which highlights European Union-funded research at York. I had a lot of help from other people in the department affiliated with the Centre for Digital Heritage.

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Outreach!

We had several computers running on our own local server and kids (mostly boys) went pretty crazy for it. Our set up:

Well, archaeologists working at Star Car have found these circular houses with evidence of postholes, and we’ve made reconstructions based on that. But we aren’t actually sure what exactly the houses looked like. Can you help us think of different ways the houses might have looked?

The virtual world of Star Carr!
The virtual world of Star Carr!

That was pretty much it. A few of the kids tried to build round houses, but as you may have guessed from the Lego-ness of Minecraft, they were still pretty blocky. Some built other houses, out of brick, some built giant flaming towers, and a few somehow made guns and started shooting at each other! I’d say it was a success.

The dungeon-like barrel vault added to the atmosphere.
The dungeon-like barrel vault added to the atmosphere.

We also had a papercraft Breary Banks, another University of York excavation site, and kids colored and cut out models of the camp. I found that having a mix of tactile and digital activities was more inclusive–kids didn’t have to feel forced into doing anything they weren’t used to or were uncomfortable with.

Breary Banks in papercraft!
Breary Banks in papercraft!

Finally, we had the “real tools” of Minecraft, and that seemed, oddly, to be the most popular. It made the connection between tools that archaeologists used and the virtual tools in the game. We had a big nodule of flint, which is used in the game but many kids never made the connection to rocks.

We’re running it again for the local Young Archaeologists Club and for the upcoming Yornight, which will also feature some experimental Oculus Rift visualization. Digital shenanigans continue apace!

Punks, Hard Drives & Minecraft Archaeology

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The inimitable Sara Perry and I have been working on the archaeological excavation of a hard drive, for science! We’ve been writing about it on Savage Minds, the Other blog about Savages. Here are the blog posts in order:

I’m also very excited that the Punk Archaeology volume has landed, be sure to download it–there’s a photo of me holding a trowel! A leaf trowel, BUT STILL! Many thanks to Bill Caraher, Andrew Reinhard and Kostis Kourelis for bringing the project together and allowing me to make my small contribution. Download it! Love it! Share it!

Punk Archaeology: the Book

While you read the article, here’s the accompanying playlist:

Punk Archaeology Playlist

Finally, with huge amounts of help from our vibrant community of digital archaeologists here at the University of York, I organized a Minecraft & Archaeology event as part of Yornight. I actively did not promote it much, as it was a pilot scheme and I wasn’t sure how it would play out. It went very well though and we were at capacity during much of the evening. I’ve been asked to write it up in a journal, so more details will be forthcoming. You’ll get a sneak preview if you happen to be in Shawn Graham’s class this evening, as I’m a remote guest in the classroom. If it works. We’ve been trying to remotely collaborate since 2006, so fingers crossed!