Category: Archaeology

On human remains and immersive experiences: A few remarks and concerns

Dr. Agiatis Benardou
Digital Curation Unit, ATHENA Research Center and Department of Informatics, Athens University of Economics and Business

Despite reservations expressed sporadically about the applications of digital methods and immersive technologies (3D modeling, artificial intelligence, augmented and mixed reality) in enhancing, complementing and augmenting human remains for educational or similar purposes in the context of museum exhibitions, historical sites or even television popular culture, it is evident that immersive experiences considerably attract wider audiences, expand potential stakeholder groups and enhance visitor experience (Ynnerman et al. 2016).

The application of digital methods to human remains concerns researchers and specialized practitioners. The ability of 3D modeling to quickly collect high-quality data from anthropological specimens has had wide-reaching implications, from conservation and restoration, to public engagement, to the production of replicas and increased accessibility of digital data (White, Hirst, and Smith 2018).

The latter accelerated the adaptation, adjustment and eventual transformation of these methods in order for digital human remains to be exhibited, often in interactive environments, to the general public.

Some notable examples of immersive technologies for the display of human remains are the interactive visualization and digital anatomy of the Gabelein Man at the British Museum and the immersive experience of the Grauballe Man at the Moesgaard Museum in Denmark, where visitors can activate animations of votive ceremonies (Asingh and Linnerup 2016).

On a more controversial tone, in 2019 BBC1 aired the ”Jack The Ripper – The case reopened” in which a number of experts tried to shed new light on the modus operandi of the famous serial killer by using new technologies and virtual reality. Through a combination of archival records with autopsy simulations, the end result raised concerns about the privacy of the victims and that of their relatives or descendants (Benardou 2019).

While major cultural organizations such as the British Museum regularly review their policy and regulatory framework (Fletcher, Antoine, and Hill 2014), issues still raised by the application of immersive technologies to the public display of human remains remain unresolved; what are the ethical concerns around these practices and in which cases do these concerns revolve just around the remnants themselves rather than around the sensitive narratives that frequently accompany them? Are digital surrogates the answer in cases of unpublished anthropological material and its exhibition to wider audiences? And what are the restrictions (licensing, curation, reuse) of “human remains as data”? The answers will be provided gradually, as the irreversibly ever-evolving immersive technologies are being applied to an increasing number of human bodies of the distant or recent past.


Asingh, Pauline, and Niels Lynnerup. 2016. “Bog Bodies: The Grauballe Man.” Technè. La Science Au Service de l’histoire de l’art et de La Préservation Des Biens Culturels 44: 84–89.

Benardou, Agiatis. 2019. “Πόσες φορές ακόμα πρέπει να «ζωντανέψουν» για χάρη της ψυχαγωγίας τα θύματα του Τζακ του Αντεροβγάλτη;” LiFO, April 6, 2019.

Fletcher, Alexandra, Daniel Antoine, and JD Hill. 2014. “Regarding the Dead: Human Remains in the British Museum.” The British Museum. .

White, Suzanna, Cara Hirst, and Sian E. Smith. 2018. “The Suitability of 3D Data: 3D Digitisation of Human Remains.” Archaeologies 14: 250–71.

Ynnerman, Anders, Thomas Rydell, Daniel Antoine, David Hughes, Anders Perrson, and Patric Ljung. 2016. “Interactive Visualization of 3D Scanned Mummies at Public Venues.” Communications of the ACM 59 (12): 72–81.

Digital artefacts

Michael Neiß, Department of Archaeology & Ancient History, Uppsala University

Data science has brought an exciting new range of methods to humanities research, using computational techniques, such as GIS, 3D-documentation and databases that contain data sets of increasing quantity and complexity. Yet, as digital archaeology is expanding, it is also fragmenting into ever more specialised areas of knowledge. New technologies seem to be superseded with better ones at an accelerating speed. As a result, it becomes increasingly difficult for archaeologists to monitor current technological trends, as well as to integrate the ever increasing amount of ‘big data’ into the theoretical framework of our discipline. Therefore, it seems more than natural to collaborate with digital experts from other disciplines.

My passion for Viking art and crafts has led me into an artefact-oriented line of research, including 3D laser scanning, database development and experimental archaeology. Preliminary results are published continuously, and I participate in various research projects, as well as public outreaches that relate to digital archaeology.

3D Laser Scanning as a Tool for Viking Age Studies

Project partners: Sebastian Wärmländer & Sabrina B. Sholts

3D Models

Publications: #1 #2 #3 #4

Until recently, 3D scanning was a tedious and rather expensive business. But as the digital revolution progresses, the equipment is becoming cheaper and more manageable. It seemed therefore logical to test 3D laser scanning as an everyday tool in archaeology. Within our pilot study, a broad variety of objects has been digitalized with portable laser scanners. As a result, 3D analysis has proven itself an effective tool for Viking Age studies that opens up the road to creative and innovative research.

Fig. 1. 3D based décor reconstruction of a fragmented Viking Age brooch from Vestervang, Denmark.

Multi Material Crafts in the Early Viking Town of Ribe

Project partners: Sarah Croix & Søren Sindbæk


UrbNet is a research centre that aims to grasp of the cross-cultural process of urban evolution through synthetic studies that employ an innovative high-definition perspective. We propose that the organization of crafts may be a key catalyst for Viking Age urbanism. This was argued through a reassessment of finds from an early metal workshop in Ribe. 3D laser scans were used to classify unidentified mould fragments that derived from different contexts, but arguably belonged together. Our findings motivated a total revision of the local stratigraphy. As a result, we realised that the workshop produced a wide range of metal parts during a short period, instead of several decades – as had been proposed by the excavators. These metal products were intended for composite products like wooden chests, belts, or horse harnesses that demanded the combined skills of several craftspeople. This need for collaboration would have been a decisive incentive for the formation of permanent communities that, further on, developed into Scandinavia’s first towns.

Fig. 2. Reconstructed mould and ‘virtual cast’ of the lost ’Odin Mask’ from Ribe, based on a fusion of several 3D laser scans.

Medieval Casting Moulds from Ribe

Project partner: Mette Højmark Søvsø


The Museum of Southwest Jutland’s collection contains fragments of High Medieval casting moulds from Ribe. Five of the moulds were recovered in the vicinity of the Cathedral, suggesting that metal objects were produced and sold nearby. Those artefacts were either used as costume accessories or for religious veneration. The large number of mould fragments reflects Ribe’s international orientation during this era, with a strong network that involved other towns in Northern and Central Europe. We created virtual casts from these moulds, in order to understand the religious use of the lost originals.

Fig. 3. ‘Virtual cast’ of a lost amulet – representing the Universe, as created by God the Geometer.

Capture: An ERC consolidator project

By Professor Isto Huvila, Department of Archives, Museums, and Libraries, Uppsala University

Much of digital humanities research is highly data intensive. Especially in historical research, using and combining legacy data from a broad array of different sources is a key to getting enough data to work with. The importance of knowing what the data is has been acknowledge for some time already and there has been a lot of work done to develop schemes for describing data i.e. producing metadata. As the documentation of data has generally improved — albeit not always and everywhere — it has become increasingly apparent that knowing what data is, is not really enough. It is equally important to know how the data came about.

You can imagine that you are having a data file with height measurements of walls ranging from 1.09 meters to 4.6 meters. Even if the file looks meticulously compiled, without knowing how the measurements were taken, the data is not especially informative. Are the heights average heights or maximum heights, were they measured by a tape or by some other means, were they measured by only one of several individuals, what was the purpose of the measurements and so on. All of this has an impact on what the data is and how it can be used in the future.

A new research project based at the Deparment of ALM, CApturing Paradata for documenTing data creation and Use for the REsearch of the future (CAPTURE) will investigate the particular problem of what researchers need to know about the making and using of data  and how it would be possible to capture enough of that information in order to make the data usable in the future. In contrast to metadata that describes data, the data about the processes relating to data is usually denoted as paradata. The major problem with capturing paradata is in the practical impossibility to document and keep everything and the difficulty to determine how to capture just enough.

The empirical focus of CAPTURE is archaeological and cultural heritage data, which stands out by its extreme heterogeneity and rapid accumulation due to the scale of ongoing development-led archaeological fieldwork. Within and beyond this specific context, CAPTURE develops an in-depth understanding of how paradata is being created and used today, elicits methods for capturing paradata, tests new methods in field trials, and synthesises the findings in a reference model to inform the capturing of paradata and enabling data-intensive research using heterogeneous research data stemming from diverse origins.

The principal investigator of CAPTURE is professor Isto Huvila at the Department of ALM. This project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme grant agreement No 818210.

Read more about CAPTURE  here.

About the author

Isto Huvila is Professor in Information Studies at the Department of Archives, Libraries, and Museums at Uppsala University.  Professor Huvila’s  research interests include information and knowledge management, information work, knowledge organisation, documentation, and social and participatory information practices. The contexts of his research ranges from archaeology and cultural heritage, archives, libraries and museums to health information and e-health, social media, virtual worlds and corporate and public organisations.  For more info, please see here.