Recap of the Palmyra (re-)construction

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On the 30th of September, VALUE kicked off its academic year with our first ever In Real Life “Streaming the Past”. We played Minecraft and used it to reconstruct and discuss archaeological and heritage aspects of the Temple of Bel, part of the World Heritage site of Palmyra, Syria. Long story short: the event was a big success and we recommend anyone who is thinking about using games for archaeological outreach or other public engagement to also consider the cooperative building of a virtual version of local, national or global heritage.

Are you still here? That must mean you want the long story? All right, buckle up as VALUE will walk you through some of the decisions and preparations before the event, an overview of what we did during the event as well as our evaluation of it (not necessarily in that order). As a little dessert we will also briefly talk of a similar event we organised for the Dutch National Archaeology Days. This is quite a lengthy piece that provides a “How-to” (and “How-not-to”) for those who may be interested in organizing a similar event. So don’t go giving us “TL;DR” comments. If you just want the major take-aways, we suggest you scroll to the bottom.

The idea

The prime mover of this particular stream was the Graduate School of the Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, who generously provided funding for an upgrade to our streaming equipment (if you are interested in what equipment we use to stream with and what we think of it, check out this page). Of course, VALUE wanted to show its appreciation (and its new gadgets) to the Faculty that sponsored them, so the decision to have a “Streaming the Past” for which both online and offline public could join us was easily made.

The next dilemma was one that all of us gamers have faced before: What game should we play? Fortunately, aided by a caffeine infusion from our faculty coffee counter, we quickly zeroed in on Minecraft. Why Minecraft? For as many reasons as there are players or voxels (Minecraft’s lego-like building blocks) in this game! With which we mean that Minecraft has provided millions of people innumerous ways to be creative. In this case we were thinking of 4 player hot-seats occupied by some of us as well as members of our audience, who could together create a virtual (re-)construction of an archaeological site. After some more caffeine and brainstorming, it turned out that there was one very, tragically obvious candidate: Palmyra. Considering the recent destruction of this site, we thought it would be a pertinent to reconstruct and highly relevant in a discussion about the value of World Heritage. We won’t go into the significance and history of Palmyra here, but you can find out more about the site, along with some images, in an earlier blog post.

Bel

The Temple of Bel prior to its destruction, photo by: Tiberio Frascari.

Of course we were aware that we were not the first ones with the idea to use Minecraft for heritage outreach. You can find some notable examples in that previous blog post as well. What is more, after the stream we were approached by many archaeologists and non-archaeologists who had been faithfully recreating pieces of ancient architecture, often in Survival mode. We tip our hats to all of you who are building Machu Picchu, the Pyramids or other architectural behemoths while you are fighting off creepers and zombies. That is quite an achievement!

It was not the struggle for survival we wished to highlight with this stream, however. We knew we had to be realistic about what the audience, many of which had never played Minecraft, could create in the space of two to three hours, so we decided to focus on pure building instead of surviving. This meant that we did the preparations as well as the event in Minecraft’s Creative Mode.

The realisation

We needed a flat, desert-style area to build the sizeable Temple of Bel on. Minecraft’s voxel is a 1x1x1m unit, the Temple of Bel including its outer perimeter is a 208×208 meter area. We were surprised to find out that this is an area that is actually much bigger than you think and struggled to find a decent desert area in a Minecraft map of sufficient size. In the end we decided to expand on an already existing desert area by adding more sand voxels to it.

A screenshot of the foundations of the Temple of Bel and its perimeter

A screenshot of the foundations of the Temple of Bel and its perimeter

VALUE ended up working very hard for two evenings to create a sufficiently large construction zone, with the wall perimeter demarcated by a red cuboid. In the end even this small part of the Palmyra complex turned out to be so big that we could not see from one end of the perimeter to the other (because of the limited draw distance of PS4 Minecraft). By the way, before you take to our comment section, Twitter or Facebook page: we know now that we could have simply used Minecraft’s own flatworld creation tool… We just like to hang out together and this was not at all a rookie mistake! No, sir/ma’am!

The technical infrastructure of the event turned out to be another minor pre-stream headache. We were very lucky to have access to a big (and we mean BIG) screen in the main hall of the Faculty of Archaeology. There were still some ICT-related challenges to iron out, however, such as the fact that there was no wired internet connection in that part of the building. In the end we were greatly aided by the ICT department (thank you, ISSC!), who managed to get permission for and do the installation of a new Ethernet-access point in a matter of days. Jaap Hoff, our Faculty secretary, was also kind enough to help us out with the Public Announcement equipment that was already present in the main hall.

We used Dr. Random’s PS4 to play the game, all of VALUE’s PS4 controllers and a laptop for stream recording and broadcasting. We hooked up our new Elgato capture box (more on that below), our Blue Snowball mic and our Logitech webcam. The PA-system in the hall included two microphones and a number of speakers installed on the walls. We ran two test-streams, which was good for highlighting some problems we needed to fix. Once that was then this made us feel quite confident about our technical set-up and the sound quality.

Some of you have asked: “why did you not play Minecraft as most of us do it, on the PC?” We agree there are very good reasons why Minecraft on PC is superior to that on the consoles or other platforms. Reason why we choose the PS4, is that we did not want to make this into a LAN-party, where we had to bring in a bunch of PCs for people to play on. In addition, we did not open the re-construction for online participation, so we had some more control over who was participating and what they were doing. That being said, such a PC Minecraft site re-construction online or offline get-together would be a cool idea for another event.

Our setup on the big screen for four players, photo by: Vincent Vandemeulebroucke

Our setup on the big screen for four players, photo by: Vincent Vandemeulebroucke

 

We were also well-prepared for this stream in terms of content delivery. We had invited a number of Faculty members who were experts on the Roman World or in Heritage Studies: Miguel John Versluys, Amy Strecker and Monique van den Dries. We had also prepared a script in which we detailed what we wanted to make sure we mentioned or discussed during the stream. This is in contrast to our previous streams for which only general topics to be discussed were prepared. Of course, we can get away with some crazy antics or lulls in the action during an online only event (we just have Caeda edit out the worst jokes in post-production), but this was not an option for our real live audience performance. In addition to the preparation of points of discussion, we made sure we had some examples of artist impressions of the temple as well as the actual map of the site that the builders could use as a basis for their re-constructions. If you go the pre-stream page you can find all of this information there.

We identified some key roles and divided them among us. Caeda was in charge of stream, broadcast, recording and chat. Megalithic is our resident Minecraft expert, so we decided he would always be in charge of one of the controllers. Ymir would either occupy one of the three hot-seats or if there were more people that wanted to play, provide guidance for the new players and interact with the public. Dr. Random was the MC, interacting with the public to keep the flow of the discussion going and check-in with the hot-seat builders. Jaromirr was our photographer, expert beer-opener and all-rounder. He made some amazing photos during the event, which you can see featured with this piece.

The event

The event started out with an introduction by VALUE, quickly followed up by a roughly 10 minute talk by Miguel John “MJ” Versluys on the site of Palmyra. MJ focused on the fact that, even if it is widely known as a Roman site, in fact Palmyra is a great example of a centre, which, due to its strategic location, managed to draw in much more influences than just Roman culture alone. Following up on that he pointed out that this makes it a great World Heritage Site, since it it does not only represent one culture from one period, and thus can be symbolic for the multicultural nature of this region.

Miguel John Versluys speaks about the history and significance of Palmyra, photo by: Vincent Vandemeulebroucke]

Miguel John Versluys speaks about the history and significance of Palmyra, photo by: Vincent Vandemeulebroucke

After this insight, the re-construction started of for real, with Krijn and Aris being joined by MJ and Gijs, who was, at 8 years old, our youngest builder that day. Gijs is the son of an alumni of our Faculty and he is a real Minecraft fanatic. He already had some experience building real buildings in his Minecraft reconstruction of the Rotterdam Noordsingel Prison. This quickly showed when he got right to it and started to build one of the pillars on the foundations we had laid out previously. Our specialist MJ struggled a little bit with the controls. After building his own pillar he passed his controller on to other members in the crowd, to instead focus on a discussion with Amy Strecker, our Faculty’s expert on all legal matters that involve heritage.

Gijs building a pillar, photo by: Vincent Vandemeulebroucke

Gijs building a pillar, photo by: Vincent Vandemeulebroucke

MJ and Amy discussed the recent destruction of the Temple of Bel. MJ followed a line of argumentation that may best be described as “local heritage” meets “global ideology”. MJ questioned the West’s right to appropriate this site as part of “our” Roman heritage. Since it was not purely Roman, but a product of local mediterranean and eastern cultures meeting, ‘we’ had little right to judge over what locals happened to do with their heritage, even if it was on the World Heritage List. Amy countered this by pointing out the blatant illegality of recent actions by ISIS under international law as well as the fact that these were not representative local people who were committing these destructions. MJ of course had to agree with her on the last point. However, following this paper by Ömür Harmanşah, he pointed out that it is precisely because of the status of Palmyra and the ideological inception of it by ISIS that the destruction of Bel is such a powerful symbol. Both of our experts agreed on the power of Palmyra as heritage, but continued to differ in their understanding of the recent ISIS actions.

Suffice it to say both of our experts came from two different angles, even if both of them condemned the actions of ISIS. The real world destruction of the temple we were virtually re-constructing loomed large over this event. In fact, during the preparation it had led to a small controversy among the VALUE members.

When we first discussed re-constructing Palmyra, we talked about what we would build: the temple as it was there now, mostly destroyed; the temple as it had been up till recently (ruinous, but not blown up), or the temple as it was in its heyday. We decided that a discussion on what the “real” and “authentic” Palmyra is, would be one of the central issues of our cooperative gaming event and that was also how we should resolve it: through cooperative decision-making in a gaming context. In other words, we did not want to proscribe what we wanted to re-construct, but let the building emerge from the combined actions of our participants.

It was at this point that Ymir came up with the idea that, regardless of the state of the Minecraft reconstruction, we could take the unilateral decision to destroy the temple at the end of the stream. Initially we agreed that this would be a powerful symbolic action at the end of an otherwise positive event. We inherently were fascinated by this idea, although none of us could fully articulate why we were and what this destructive act was meant to engender. We had a gut feeling that the destruction of the Minecraft version of the temple might jolt the audience into an emotional reaction that might highlight the pain of the actual destruction of the real temple. Until very late in the game we were planning to destroy the Temple of Bel at the end of the event. We even went so far as to pre-rig the base of the temple with lots and lots of hidden Minecraft TNT blocks, more than enough to blow a giant crater in the map, wiping the temple and with it the effort of all our builders from virtual existence.

Then, we had a change of heart.

The reason for this change had to do with the unexpectedly large outpouring of support we received in preparing for the event from online and offline colleagues as well as the general public, which made us realize that we needed to carefully consider what we were trying to accomplish. We certainly did not want to seem like we were condoning ISIS and their actions in any way. We realized that it could appear this way, however, especially since we were ourselves not clear on what we actually wanted to bring across by also virtually destroying the temple again. In addition, we thought that even seeing virtual destruction could have been too uncomfortable or offensive for the audience.

This meant Megalithic had to carefully remove all the pre-laid TNT boxes from our temple base, while Caeda was still busy creating the flat foundations of the map, adding quite a bit of work to an already full schedule. Even if we did not go ahead with it, we still wanted to share this aspect of the event with you, even if that means you may think less of us for entertaining such an idea. We share this story because to us it shows quite effectively that virtual worlds, buildings, objects and actions have, what archaeologists like to call, “materiality”. In other words, that what we do while we are playing, especially when we are doing this as social play, has real world impacts. For us, people who are far removed from the atrocities of the Syrian war, the complexities of the destruction of Palmyra were “even more real when they became digital”.

Getting back to the walk-through of our event: while Miguel-John and Amy had been discussing the destruction at Palmyra, our builders were busy re-instating the temple to our interpretation of its former glory. Gijs had handed over the controller to Arne, a son of one of our other Leiden alumni. This teenager was one of our most devoted builders and even managed to teach our Megalithic a trick or two about building in Minecraft.

The first work concentrated on the many pillars of the temple. They are one of the most iconic aspects of the temple buildings and we have to admit that we were not sure how these smooth and round stone pillars were going to look in the “blocky” Minecraft. Fortunately, the ingenuity and hard work of our builders meant that the end result was an impressive looking, monumental row. They used sandstone to mimic the colour of the Palmyra in the present and used sandstone stairs to create the stepped elements of a classic pillar. After this the roof and inner temple building were constructed. To our delight, this was very much a process that was steered by cooperative actions and discussions. It also included emergent gameplay, i.e. individuals toying with the best forms and shapes to represent what they considered lifelike representations, as well as copy-catting what others had done before. As far as we are aware all of it was done in a spirit of creativity that lacked any major arguments.

Cooperative gameplay, photo by: Vincent Vandemeulebroucke

Cooperative gameplay, photo by: Vincent Vandemeulebroucke

There were a lot of discussions going on during the building, but they concerned issues such as what is the “authentic” Palmyra, what does reconstruction mean in archaeology, what are the benefits of Minecraft reconstructions over laser scan models, is the temple lost forever or does it live on through heritage representations and what is the value of this (type of) gaming for archaeologists? These questions were discussed offline but also online as the whole event was streamed on Twitch. On Twitch there were quite a few people from Leiden who had not been able to visit the event IRL along with an international audience. In the crowd we were joined by undergrads from within and outside the Faculty of Archaeology, alumni, their kids, graduate students and post-docs. Aside from our staff specialists, professor Ian Lilley, also attended the event and ended up partaking in the discussion as well as having a go at the re-construction.

As a side note, we want to highlight what we think is an important part of cooperative, archaeology-focused gaming: having an experience that is about content rather than technology. We did our best to create an informal setup with only a big screen (did we mention the screen was BIG), controllers, couches, beers, sodas and snacks. We really feel that this helped enormously in the appreciation of and fun that was had during this event. If you are interested in referencing us on this aspect of the stream, look for an upcoming publication about the strengths and threats of using technology-focused means of outreach, which also includes a discussion of our Palmyra-stream.

The original appearance of the Temple of Bel, drawing by: Louis-François Cassas

The original appearance of the Temple of Bel, drawing by: Louis-François Cassas

Just a little over the halfway mark of the event, we were joined by Monique van den Dries, who discussed with us the opportunities  and some of the pitfalls that this type of gaming holds for heritage outreach. When Monique joined us, we already had a building that was recognizable as the Temple of Bel. However, it turned out that our crowd were quite the bunch of perfectionists. The remainder of the event was used to add details. In the end the temple closely resembled the 18th century drawing of Louis-François Cassas, although it definitely had its own unique characteristics. One of these is the roof, on which an inordinate amount of time was spent, and the addition of torches and glowstones. Another small point was the fact that, in our pre-work, we had neglected to put the base on a little pedestal, which meant that the temple was already at ground level and we had to dig out some sand to be able to place the stairs. All in all, we are very proud of what we managed to achieve with some Minecraft veterans, a bunch of newbies, and a bit of information from print-outs and specialists.

A screenshot of the Temple of Bel as completed during the event

A screenshot of the Temple of Bel as completed during the event

At the end of the event (19:30) we said goodbye to our online audience, together with our offline audience, some of whom stayed around a bit longer to chat with us. After they had left, we did not have time to relax, since the building was about to close in half an hour. Still, even if we were tired (running a show like this can be quite exhausting if you’re new at it, like us), we were also on a high and congratulated ourselves on a job well-done. It is always at moments like these that technology decides to make your life just a bit more complicated. In this case, our brand-new Elgato capture box and Dr. Random’s shiny, new laptop conspired to rain on our parade. To be short: there was a bug in the software and we lost the recorded footage of the event.

So, yeah…that was “a bit of a bummer” [Add in your own rage-gif here]. We have since re-covered some of the files and found the cause of the error (Windows 10 compatibility and some obtuse recording software), but unfortunately we will not be able to put the whole event on our Youtube. We apologize to all of you who were looking forward to this, so we decided to provide you with an extra in-depth walkthrough of the event (the one you’re reading now) to soften the blow. In addition, feel free to hook up to our memories, if you still have any memories. No, not with one of those Assassin’s Creed Anima thingamajigs: you can simply ask us via e-mail or other social media.

Reconstructing Matilo

We have been asked whether we would do this more often. In fact, we already did: at the Nationale Archeologie Dagen (National Archaeology Days), again at our faculty. The set-up was a bit different this time. No stream, no big screen (only 2,5 meters across this time), no specialists, no larger debates planned. Yes Minecraft, yes couches, yes general audience, yes site reconstruction. This time we would not reconstruct Palmyra, but, to keep with the theme of Dutch archaeology, we were going to build (a part of) the Matilo Roman Fort. Matilo is a local site in Leiden, which can be visited in the Matilo park where you can see the outlines of buildings and the wall as earth demarcations. The fort was excavated in the 90s and we had access to the report by the excavators, which we once again made available to our hot-seat buddy builders.
Because this was for a more general public-oriented event, at which other archaeology activities were also present (flint tool fire-making, mammoth bone identification, and other very cool stuff), the dynamics and atmosphere was very different from our previous Palmyra event.

Reconstructing Matilo during the Dutch National Archaeology Days. Photo copyright: Monique van den Dries.

Reconstructing Matilo during the Dutch National Archaeology Days. Photo by: Monique van den Dries.

For one, the adult/kids ratio was decidedly slanted towards the junior human beings. We were positioned directly at the entrance of the event and almost all of the children attending instantly recognized the game we were playing. Many parents had the same recognition and let their kids hang out with us for some time while they independently explored the other activities there were on offer. The kids really liked gaming with us and we enjoyed ourselves explaining about Roman forts and how they were constructed. Still, we feel that, in contrast to the Palmyra event, the Matilo reconstruction was not as good at achieving its aim: mixing content and fun. The focus was much more on the fun and challenges of Minecraft than it was on providing knowledge and discussing our local heritage. However, even if the event was less content heavy, we hope that for this younger target audience it was a nice introductory activity into archaeology that may inspire them in some way to appreciate local heritage.

So, would we do it again? Matilo-style, perhaps. Palmyra-style: most certainly! This does not mean that we will necessarily do another Minecraft event, although we do believe that it is a great outreach tool. Still, VALUE does not want to become a one-trick pony. There are so many opportunities on the interfaces of archaeology and video games that our next offline/online, cooperative gaming meets archaeological content event will likely feature a different game and another set of discussions.

Conclusion

In sum, the Palmyra re-construction was a big success. These are the factors that contributed to that:

  • Minecraft, a wildly popular and creativity-stimulating game;
  • Cooperation, which relates to the non-competitive nature of how we played the game (no PvE or PvP), as well as the cooperative re-construction of our world’s ancient heritage;
  • Palmyra: an iconic site, the recent destruction of which provides a complex and poignant global societal issue;
  • Publicity: offline, online and as a special event (it’s a lot of work, which needs special preparations);
  • Involvement of specialists, both on the game as well as its subject matter;
  • Open debate, all opinions and questions were welcome;
  • Offline game, online interaction, in which the hot-seat console approach provided us with control over who participated, while the Twitch streaming of the event allowed for a discussion between offline and online audiences;
  • Loosely scaffolded participation: we had a foundation for construction, a loose script and a set amount of time, but within those wide boundaries, everything could happen.
  • Content first, technology a distant second: even if we wanted to show what gaming can bring to archaeology and vice versa, it was not about gaming as a technology but as a medium for a specific message;
  • Crowds are smart: allow yourself to be surprised by how the skills of a collectivity of young and old, specialist and non-specialist, offline and online people can give rise to a delightfully positive and impressive process of re-construction.

Thanks to all of those people who participated and thank you all for reading. If you have any comments, questions or ululations of admiration, please get in touch with us!

 

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