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The Transition to VR

The Fortress of Buhen, Egypt

page updated February 4, 2015
Image of a distant view of Buhen (image size 10k) - click for a larger view

Archaeology of Buhen and Vicinity
The Computer Techniques Used for the Buhen Virtual World
The Virtual Tour of Buhen
A Summary Statement

Image of the Buhen model from the air (image size 14k) - click for larger viewIn the Fortress of Buhen reconstruction, Bill Riseman pushed the limits of computer technology in the service of education and archaeological research, synthesizing all the techniques he had explored, while producing the models of Giza, Gebel Barkal, Nuri, and Meroe, into a single complex and very large reconstructed ancient environment.  In 1994, in order to appreciate fully the capabilities of advanced computer graphics methods for simulating ancient worlds, the data in the comprehensive model was exported, as a test, into a computer system capable of immersive virtual reality.  The reconstructed virtual archaeological site demonstrated a multilevel enrichment of the sensory experience of ancient monuments.  Extrapolation of the technologies then at our disposal allowed us to envision that virtual travelers may be able to access interactive visual or text databases and even visit other virtual sites all from within the experience of the original location (we now take these promises as given expectations of newly created virtual worlds, such as those now produced by LEARNING SITES).  During 1994, we then began to formulate ways to change dramatically the way cultural information around the world could be used and profoundly change the methods of education. 

For this transitional stage in our testing process (from the use of renderings, animations, and photo-compositing techniques to the implementation of virtual reality), we chose the ancient Fortress of Buhen (fully elaborated during the Middle Kingdom, 12th-Dynasty rule of Sesostris III, c.1878-1843 BCE), located at the head of the Nile River's second cataracts near the ancient Nubian-Egyptian border.  The Fortress of Buhen seemed an attractive site for testing the integration of advanced computer-graphics techniques, virtual reality, and the newly emerging information superhighway because: (1) its remains are extensive and well documented; (2) the structures are no longer available for on-site investigations or first-hand visits; and (3) the site has a long and fascinating ancient multicultural history dependent on economic and social cooperation. 

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The Archaeology of Buhen and Vicinity

The Fortress at Buhen extended along the west bank of the Nile River for over 150m and incorporated the latest defensive technology that even Medieval military engineers would have envied: moats carved 3m deep into bedrock, revetments, drawbridges, bastions, buttresses, ramparts, battlements, embrasures, loopholes, and catapult stations.  The military compound covered about 1.3 hectares and encompassed administration buildings, storehouses, and entire settlements.  The Egyptians seemed to have occupied the inner city in a separate enclave bounded by the walls of the inner fortification, while mercenaries seemed to have lived just within the perimeter of the outer fortification walls.  The military complex probably served as a customs and naval depot.

Buhen was the northernmost outpost in a series of at least eight brick and stone fortifications constructed during the 12th Dynasty along a 60km stretch southward from the second cataract (click here for map).  Each fortress was in visual contact with the immediately adjacent forts, which included the sites of Mirgissa, Shalfak, Uronarti, Askut, Dabenarti, and ending with the paired fortresses of Semna and Kumma, located on opposite sides of the Nile River from each other, marking a gateway into Egypt.  The purpose of this series of forts may have been to protect trade goods coming into Egypt by water from Nubia and southern Africa, safeguard the southern border, and restrict river traffic from the south.  Since the cataracts (rapids) were rendered impassable during the Nile's low water, the vessels had to be off-loaded and their goods protected from attack.

Buhen river view with boat (image size 17k) - click for larger view
Fortress of Buhen
River view with boat, from the virtual model.

Buhen's gateways show evidence of fire dated around 1675 BCE, the period of the Hyksos occupation of Egypt, but the traces of burning and the damage could equally well have been accidental or an indication of attack.  Contemporary with the Hyksos were the (so-called) Pan Grave People, a warrior group probably from Lower Nubia, who were possibly brought into the region as soldiers by the Egyptian Theban rulers of the 17th Dynasty, perhaps as a countermeasure against the Hyksos threat.  It appears that throughout its life, the fortress remained nearly impregnable, despite numerous violent governmental changes.  The basically defensive nature of the complex emphasized the mutual economic interdependence between Egypt and Nubia.  It has been postulated that during periods of political instability, as during the Hyksos period, Egyptians stationed at the border forts had to put in long terms of military duty, to the point where the Egyptians became integrated into local Nubian culture, as indicated by evidence in contemporary graves.

Thus, over a period of nearly 2000 years, the fortifications seem to have been occupied by a succession of different cultures (Egyptians, Kushites, and the Meroitic peoples) without the need for major reconstruction.  The erection of the Aswan High Dam in 1964 has fully submerged Buhen, and all the other monuments along this stretch of the Nile River, under Lake Nasser.

Fortress of Buhen (image size 18k) - click for larger view
Fortress of Buhen
Overview, from the virtual model.
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The Computer Techniques

Using the techniques tested on evidence from Giza, Gebel Barkal, Meroe, and Nuri, a 3-dimensional vector model and associated texture maps of the fortifications of Buhen were created (including a simulation of the interior decoration of some spaces and the actual size and type of stone blocks and mudbrick coursing).  The individual still images of the Buhen model were generated on an Intel 486-66DX2.

The Buhen data were loaded onto a Kubota-Denali computer via a TCP/IP network.  The Kubota-Denali was a virtual reality-capable computer that competed with high-end Silicon Graphics computers.  Along with the Kubota computer, we utilized Leep's CyberFace 3 (a beam-mounted display used for interactive total immersion) and Sense8's WorldToolKit software to create a real-time VR experience.  Subsequently, the Buhen virtual environment data were transposed from the Kubota system to a comparable Evans & Sutherland Freedom 3000 image accelerator with a Sun SPARCstation serving as host, supplied to us by Evans & Sutherland. The world was widely demonstrated throughout 1994. 

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The Virtual Tour of Buhen

A prepared virtual tour of ancient Buhen began aboard the fully rendered ship of state of the pharaoh docked at quayside.  Visitors could experience the scale and beauty of the Egyptian vessel and accompanying cargo ships.  Visitors were then led from the ship onto the dock toward and onto the outer fortification walls and 'flown' around the exterior walls (covering several kilometers in just a few moments), then led through the main gate to explore various rooms of the inner city, all the while getting a sense of the immensity of the spaces and the detail of the decorations and building techniques.

As we have constructed the tour of Buhen, virtual visitors are led by a tour guide in the guise Guide and Interactive Kiosk (image size 20k) - click for larger viewof an ancient Egyptian scribe, a computer-generated mannequin who moves through the fortification along a preset path.  The virtual visitor always has the ability to look around in all directions, travel along any other pathway, or follow the instructor.  As the mannequin-scribe-instructor moves through the fortress, at predetermined locations, a 3-dimensional reference kiosk was programmed to appear.

The three faces of each kiosk were to contain data corridors providing the inquisitive with additional paths of information or, had the links been fully implemented, portals to other virtual environments, as follows:

  • The Left Panel in the Buhen world contained a plan of the fortress indicating where the visitor is standing and in what direction the visitor is looking (including a 'you are here' locator).  This panel was to become a fully interactive geographic information system (GIS) database of site-specific and regional geographic, topographic, and locational images and data.
  • The Central Panel contained an excavation photograph illustrating the actual conditions of the fortress at the spot at which the visitor is viewing.  The image allows the viewer to compare the reconstruction to the archaeological evidence.  This panel was to become a fully interactive visual database of all archaeological remains relevant to that particular spot in the virtual ancient environment.
  • The Right Panel contained a textual description of subjects of interest in the immediate vicinity.  This panel was to represent the viewscreen of an interactive, hypertext database of information about the site or other relevant data about related sites, with the potential capability of allowing the visitor to portal out to a different virtual environment for comparison or further study.
Eventually, we had planned to link each data panel in the kiosk to each of the others for cross-referencing, as well as to connect to the expanding international network of digital archaeological libraries being developed on World Wide Web sites.  Visitors to the virtual ancient environment would have been able to see Buhen, or other sites, at any time throughout its history, at various moments during its excavation, or be able to move into related virtual worlds via information presented in the kiosks.

Intelligent search filters and image-access protocols will be necessary to retrieve data successfully and efficiently as the virtual traveler explores the various levels of information available at any one time.  Much of the research on thesaurus interfaces is already underway; imagebase structuring and navigation procedures are just beginning to be developed.

Since the Buhen world was a prototype, many of the planned features of the environment had not been completed. LEARNING SITES virtual worlds have begun to incorporate these and many other enhancements to provide supplemental educational and research opportunities (for example, interactive Java-enhanced databases and virtual worlds linked to supporting images and explanatory text). As of 2011, LEARNING SITES has come full circle and implemented a virtual tour guide into our Northwest Palace at Nimrud virtual world. The Buhen 3D model has also been updated (and again in 2014--see below).

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In our Company History, we outlined several examples of what is happening to evidence of our cultural heritage--sites are literally disappearing and the visual documentation of those sites is also vanishing.  We believe that through judicious use of current and emerging technologies, we can preserve our past not just in two dimensions but in full and accurate three dimensions, for the enjoyment, evaluation, and education of present and future generations.  When archaeologists were recording their finds they could have had no idea what the future had in store for their photographs, drawings, and field diaries.  Currently, only a small portion of these original excavation documents has ever been published.  In many ways, the ones that have never been published are the most important, because the published evidence represents only the final stages of excavation.  The unpublished material (especially the progress photographs and daily notes that hold the keys to evidence necessary for accurately reconstructing ancient sites) have been sitting in museum storage, university archives, or scholars' basements, sometimes for decades.  The images and texts are deteriorating, taking with them irreplaceable information.

Further, even the evidence from a single location no matter how accessible, is often scattered in many places; often only remnants remain at the site itself.  Partial environments or the display of individual artifacts set out of their original social context prohibits complete understanding or appreciation of any culture.  In addition, the ever-increasing cost of publishing paper excavation reports severely restricts the amount of documentation of excavated material that becomes accessible to fellow scholars, the education community, or general readers.  Our knowledge need no longer be limited by the vagaries of excavation, the traditional parameters of the printed page, or the growing inaccessibility of primary site information.

Computer technology can assist in reuniting the elements from disparate locations into a single model and also recreate the experience of ancient worlds in their original complexity.  That model does not have to be our view, anyone can then have access to the data to reassemble and test any number and kind of hypotheses.  Such capabilities have never been available to so many people.

Archaeologists, teachers, museum professionals, and students can all benefit from exposure and access to the full range of primary excavation data.  We believe that current computer technology can eventually overcome existing impediments to learning and enhance and stimulate the freer and more complete exchange of ideas, facts, and images.  We believe this can all come about following the development of new bi-directional databases into which excavated data could be fed, existing and emerging digital libraries could be linked, and from which new hypotheses could be tested and new computer environments constructed.  All the while these same databases could be continually updated and revised with new incoming data as it becomes available directly from the field or from newly input items from museum storage or university archives.  The virtual-world builders could refine their models as soon as new research became available, electronic texts for the classroom would have the most up-to-date information, and courses at all levels would have access to the latest material and interpretations.

Such are the goals and objectives of LEARNING SITES. 

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Bibliography (for Buhen)

Badawy, A. A History of Egyptian Architecture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.

Edwards, I. E. S., et al. The Cambridge Ancient History. Volume II, 3rd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

Emery, W. B.; H. S. Smith; A. Millard, et al. The Forty-Ninth Excavation Memoir. The Fortress of Buhen: the archaeological report. London: Egypt Exploration Society, 1979.

The Early Projects
Company History Introduction
The Temples at Gebel Barkal -- "inverse photogrammetry"
Aspelata's Tomb -- 3-D hieroglyphics
Mastabas at Giza -- "epigrammetry"
The Gebel Barkal virtual worlds
The Sun Temple, Meroe -- rendering engines
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