Unlocking the past

Unlocking the past

There is always a lot of hyperbole when it comes to the impact of technology on the future. But how is technology helping us understand the past?

From the rise in popularity of genealogy and the digital preservation of ancient manuscripts and texts, to the increased use of augmented and virtual reality to recreate historical events and places, technology is constantly improving our understanding of previous civilisations.


A whole ‘New World’

Writing in Nature, a group of scientists have shared how they used a new radiocarbon dating technique analysing tree rings to make a revelatory discovery – that Vikings occupied what is now known as the United States of America almost 400 years before Christopher Columbus and his crew arrived!

After analysing the tree rings of wood cut for the Norse settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows, researchers confirmed the trees were in fact felled in 1021 CE – much earlier than academics had previously thought.

The incredibly precise dating of the wood was achieved by using high-precision accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) in combination with distinct features in the atmospheric record. The scientists examined growth rings for evidence of a rare cosmic-ray event that showered Earth with high energy particles in 993 CE. Finding that spike in the tree rings allowed them to count additional rings outside that mark to pinpoint the exact year the Vikings cut down the trees to create their settlement in Newfoundland.

Going virtual

On this side of the Atlantic technology is helping us experience Viking era-Britain too. Not far from XL HQ in the heart of Hampshire is Winchester – an ancient city with ties to King Alfred the Great of Wessex (who famously had his own issues with our Norse friends). Using historical documents and data, French gaming company Ubisoft was able to accurately recreate the city from scratch for its Assassins Creed: Valhalla video game; enabling people all over the world to walk the streets as their ancestors may have done.

And now Ubisoft has partnered with local organisations, including the University of Winchester and Hampshire Cultural Trust, to create Discovery Tour: Viking Age: an immersive experience opening in 2022 that will give visitors an insight into life in Anglo-Saxon Winchester through interactive storytelling, 360- degree projections and the use of contemporary objects, alongside assets from the award-winning video game.

With so much desire to improve our understanding of ancient civilisations (the Grand Pyramids at Giza, for instance, continue to attract almost 15 million visitors a year), technology can – and should – continue to play an integral role in helping us experience the lives and motives of those who came before.

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