Thanks to an enterprising archaeologist and his 11-year-old daughter, would-be tourists can now explore the Bryn Celli Ddu henge and burial tomb via “Minecraft,” a popular video game centered on construction, crafting and combat.
Located on the island of Anglesey in northern Wales, the archaeological site normally encourages public engagement by inviting school-age children to observe and even participate in excavations. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, educators have had to get creative. One such researcher, Manchester Metropolitan University archaeologist Ben Edwards, decided to use the extra time at home to tackle an ambitious virtual building project.
“[I]t was always at the back of my mind for a while to do something in ‘Minecraft,’” Edwards tells BBC News’ George Herd. “It was never a massive priority, but then you are in lockdown, it’s the Easter holidays, and you are home schooling. I just said to Bella, ‘Shall we have a crack at this?’”
The “Minecraft” world, released for free last month, is compatible with both commercial and educational versions of the game. Upon loading the file, players find themselves on a dirt path leading toward the barrow hill tomb in one direction and a rock art-covered area in the other. Flowers dot the landscape, and a horse wanders nearby.
The 5,000-year-old tomb acts as the virtual world’s center point. Archaeologists first conducted a detailed excavation of the structure in 1928, according to the Welsh government’s website; its long entrance ends in a polygonal chamber where archaeologists have found arrowheads, quartz, beads, mussel shells, and burnt and unburnt human bones.
Brynn Celli Ddu’s tomb stands at the center of a henge, or ritual enclosure. When the sun rises on the summer solstice, its rays line up with the passageway to illuminate the chamber. In the decades since the tomb was first excavated, several of its rock pillars have been moved to museums and replaced with replicas. The mound overlooking the burial chamber is also a reconstruction, per Atlas Obscura.
Rebuilding the monument in “Minecraft” lent Edwards “the freedom to reconstruct the landscape as it would have looked in the Neolithic [era],” he tells British Archaeological Jobs and Resources’ (BAJR) online news service, “right down to accurate hills, trees and rivers—something we had never done before.”
“Minecraft” allows players to alter their virtual landscape by building with cubes made of different materials. Construction projects can range from a house—like the model of a Neolithic home that appears in the Bryn Celli Ddu model—to a hill or a path. As Edwards tells BBC News, individually placing the world’s trees proved to be the most time-consuming aspect of recreating the site.
Edwards’ “Minecraft” world also features a stone pillar that archaeologists initially found inside of the chamber, four burial cairns—or piles of deliberately stacked rocks—near the tomb, and rock art panels. Informational signs dotting the landscape highlight other historical details: In a forested part of the path, for instance, a marker notes that Neolithic people used stone axes to fell trees.
“We were looking for creative ways of providing people with a digital experience of Bryn Celli Ddu,” archaeologist Ffion Reynolds, who normally leads guided tours of the historical landscape, tells BBC News. “This was a way of continuing our relationship with those schools, and offering them a way of ‘visiting’ the site digitally.”
Speaking with BAJR, Edwards adds, “It was really important to us to continue our connection with the local schools and create digital content to help teachers in this really difficult time, which is why we created a Welsh as well as English version.”