Virtual Reality and Neuroarchaeology (2020-2021)


A key research axis in archaeology and anthropology is spatial embodiment. This concept refers to the situation of cognition in context, defined in terms of cultures and societies and explored in connection with architectural models, cities and landscapes.

For example, looking at an architectonic 3D space engenders the embodied simulation of movements we could perform if we were physically present. The visual inspection of a confined space, like an altar, a burial site, a ritual landscape or a temple, also activates a sensorimotor experience through the triggering of embodied simulation in the brains and bodies of the beholders. Embodied simulation is also triggered during the situated experience of physical space and proprioception, and in the contemplation of objects.

Project Description

This project will explore spatial embodiment in virtual simulations of Etruscan and Roman cities and cemeteries as well as in real experiences during archaeological excavations. The project team will compare the perception of space on site (the actual trench) and in the digital cyberspace (the virtual site).

The main goal is to investigate and evaluate the cognitive impact of archaeological data (empirical and digitally reconstructed) in different scales (site and landscape) and through different technologies. The team will use portable EEG devices and eye tracking systems to acquire biometric data. Virtual headsets, holographic screens and digital desktop simulations will be used in the lab to engender embodied simulation.

Team members will employ various means to measure perceptual judgments of scale, distance, symbols, colors, architectural features and particular objects in virtual context. Using Likert scale questionnaires, the team will probe user experiences of the virtual scenarios, focusing on the visual and auditory dimensions of episodic memory and the topography of buildings, the spatial relations among architectural features, the location of key objects, the symbolic imagery embedded in the scenarios and the sounds generated to simulate performative experience of the virtual spaces.

The project will be organized into three research units:

  • Archaeological data capturing and digital reconstruction: This unit will focus on fieldwork archaeology in Italy (Rome, Cerveteri, Tarquinia and Vulci) to record data for spatial analysis, virtual simulations and emotional experiences. Data will be also recorded by rover-robots in order to compare different simulations’ ontologies.
  • Virtual archaeology: This unit will focus on the implementation of archaeological data for immersive VR platforms such as Oculus, Oculus Go, Oculus Rift and Oculus Quest. The Duke team will work on the implementation of archaeological data in Unity 3D; the NC State team will deliver applications aimed at the virtual reconstruction of archaeological excavations.
  • Neuro-archaeology: This unit will start to test the use of different neuro-devices (Epoc+ EEG 14 Channel and Epoc Flex 32 Channel) and eye-tracking systems (Gazepoint GP3) for the analysis of virtual reconstructions of sites and monuments, as well as the study of cognitive, perceptual, proprioceptive and motor aspects of spatial embodiment in lab.

Anticipated Outputs

Applications for Oculus Quest and Oculus Go; augmented reality app for museums and parks; project website; app for smartphones and virtual reality headsets; conference presentations; book chapter


Brain Activity and Eye Tracking in a Virtual Archaeological Excavation


Summer 2020 – Spring 2021

  • Summer 2020 (optional): Collect archaeological data; complete on-site tests in Italy with EEG kits and eye tracking; conduct lab work on campus
  • Fall 2020: Complete introductory seminars and tutorials; develop case studies; test devices
  • Spring 2021: Create 3D models in Unity 3D for real time virtual reality scenarios; conduct psychophysical, biomechanical and electroencephalographic studies; finalize work; complete public presentations on campus; draft paper for peer-reviewed journal

See earlier related team, Smart Archaeology (2019-2020).


Image: Virtual plateau tour of archaeological site at Vulci

Archaeological site.

Team Leaders

  • Todd Berreth, North Carolina State University
  • Maurizio Forte, Arts & Sciences-Classical Studies
  • Leonard White, School of Medicine-Neurology
  • David Zielinski, Arts & Sciences-Art, Art History, and Visual Studies

/graduate Team Members

  • Tyler Johnson, Physics-PHD
  • Antonio LoPiano, Classical Studies-PHD
  • Katherine McCusker, Art and Art History-AM, Art and Art History-PHD

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Ryleigh Byrne, Electrical & Computer Egr(BSE)
  • Surya Cannon
  • Wenyue Gu
  • Mary Jiang
  • Laukik Nagawekar
  • Aaron Paskin, Computer Science (BS), Mathematics (BS2)
  • Thivya Sivarajah, Electrical & Computer Egr(BSE), Computer Science (BSE2)
  • Michelle Tai, Electrical & Computer Egr(BSE), Computer Science (BSE2)
  • Xinyi Tan
  • Lydia Wang
  • Sean Woytowitz
  • Alex Xu, Electrical & Computer Egr(BSE), Computer Science (BSE2)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Lawrence Appelbaum, School of Medicine-Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences
  • Nevio Danelon, Arts & Sciences-Art, Art History, and Visual Studies
  • Michael Zavlanos, Pratt School of Engineering-Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Ludwig Boltzmann Institute
  • Etruscan Museum of Milano