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Virtual Reality, the Ancient Maya, and Astronomy

The Five College Digital Humanities Program is pleased to announce that Dr. Jeffrey R Vadala, one of our Postdoctoral Fellows in Blended Learning and Digital Humanities, will be continuing our Five College Digital Humanities speaker series.

Dr. Jeffrey R. Vadala’s talk, “Virtual Reality, the Ancient Maya, and Astronomy” will be given on February 1, 5:30 PM at Hampshire College in Franklin Patterson Hall in the Staff Lounge (upstairs). This event is open to the public. 

Among New and Old World ancient societies, the ancient Maya are known to have one of the most complex and precise systems of understanding, tracking, and observing the flow of time. Using maps and mathematical calculations, archaeologists, art historians, and epigraphers have found that these temporal systems were developed through the use of architectural calendars. Over time, these constructions developed into monumental observatories that were used to track celestial phenomena and host political ritual events.

Primarily focused on functional elements of architecture, previous studies produced highly generalized interpretations without considering how ancient Maya people experienced and interacted with both the natural and built landscape’s that contextualized the locations of these observatories. Focusing on the human experience of both the built and natural landscape, this study uses computer modeled virtual reality (VR) 3D interactive simulations to explore how the Maya interacted with their local environment and produced local astronomical knowledge at the Preclassic site of Cerro Maya (formerly known as Cerros). Researchers used fully interactive virtual reality simulations of Cerro Maya to identify two previously unknown early Maya architectural solar alignments. Additionally, by considering how these architectural alignments were transformed as Cerro Maya grew from a small seaside village into a monumental trading center, VR simulations made it possible to explore how local history and astronomical knowledge were produced and experienced differently by the various competing social orders at the time. As astronomical knowledge developed alongside society at Cerro Maya, it would come to play an important role in the development of hierarchy and social organization. Beyond archaeology, this research demonstrates that virtual reality simulations can be a powerful analytical tool for digital humanities scholars that study or explore human landscapes both built and natural.


Extra info: Beyond Analyses 

Jeffrey Vadala’s virtual reality tools can also be used for teaching exercises. While conducting research, Jeffrey Vadala also found that virtual reality environments could be powerful teaching tools. After creating an interactive application containing a virtual reality reconstruction of the Maya site of Cerro Maya (formerly known as Cerros), he began using it in an introductory anthropology class taught at the University of Florida (UF).  Students were required to explore the virtual reality reconstruction of Cerro Maya while characterizing the social capacities of the ancient architecture in terms of the ritual practices that were important to the rise of the social hierarchy at Cerro Maya. In surveys of the class responses, Vadala found that this virtual reality application increased student interest, engagement, comprehension, and retention of core concepts. See video of this below:

The following video is a fly-by of the Cerro Maya VR environments. Used in an exhibit at the Florida Museum of Natural History, it demonstrates the massive changes of the landscape that occurred during Cerro Maya’s development.


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