Having fun with Virtual Reality

This week we had a special teaching lesson – archaeological sites in VR – almost a real field trip to Egypt!

With the help of various digital models and 360-degree videos, the students were able to get a realistic picture of a huge variety of Egyptian sites and antiquities. Studying can be so much fun!

Thanks to recent digital developments, it is finally possible to get a good impression of temples and tombs, even outside of Egypt. In addition to the commitment of many colleagues and various large-scale projects (like the project of the factum foundation in cooperation with Basel University and the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities), this development is a very positive outcome of the digitalization associated with the pandemic. Many 3D models are accessible free online and can be accessed using your own mobile phone, laptop or high-quality VR glasses (via YouTube, Matterport or Sketchfab, etc.).

In our class, we dared to experiment and integrate virtual reality into teaching Egyptology. And the happy faces show that it worked.

Digital models are particularly helpful for introductory courses to Egyptian archaeology. The impressive monuments can be seen in almost their full size, colour and shape. It is also possible to consider specific aspects in more detail based on the student questions. There are no longer any restrictions on the presentation of images.

After initial difficulties getting to grips with the cell phone settings and engaging with the virtual world, it soon became clear how easy it can be. A cardboard box, a mobile phone, an internet link and you’re ready to go. For all those who are unable to enjoy a VR experience due to visual impairment or vertigo, there was the option of viewing the 3D models on a laptop and joining without the 3D simulation in the virtual world. The variety of different models is huge. From the pyramids in Giza – inside or outside, to temples like Karnak or Abu Simbel, the tombs the Valley of the Kings, there is nearly no limit (e.g. Pyramids: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mOuvAJRknXk; https://my.matterport.com/show/?m=o5Ex5Xo7UkE; Karnak: http://www.aktiv-panorama.de/vr-touren/Karnak-Tempel_in_Luxor/; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VtI9debZPGU; Abu Simbel: https://matterport.com/discover/space/VxYAEMXh6dW; Tomb Ramses II https://ramsestheexhibition.com/3d-tomb/; Nefertari reconstruction: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PFAJcMzmMzQ).

By integrating the new technology into the syllabus, we hope to achieve the best teaching and learning results and offer students a fun immersive experience.

We hope to integrate new 3D models of the DiverseNile project in the future to enhance learning, teaching and archaeology.

Digitally Documenting a Fortified Islamic House in Attab East

This past season in Sudan, our drone program took flight (pun-intended) in more ways than one. We dedicated most of our efforts to flying programmed missions over large areas of the landscape mainly in Attab West, to collect data for the generation of Digital Elevation Models (DEMs) and orthophotos. In addition, we found time to make targeted flights of standing architecture for 3D modeling and visualization purposes. Digital recording of archaeological sites using the methods and principles of photogrammetry has immense implications for cultural heritage preservation.

I was able to spend an entire day in Attab East documenting an extremely interesting, and remarkably well-preserved Islamic house, located just south of the Nile. The structure was identified and recorded by André Vila as site 2-S-57, a fortified Islamic house. It was built on a small raised rocky plateau, east of a small drainage channel.  

Image of the Islamic house 3D model in Drone2Map, facing north.

The house is especially interesting in that many of its walls are still very well preserved, along with evidence of a second story, multiple small staircases, and a larger staircase in the northwestern corner of the house, leading to a tower-like structure. Several walls have also collapsed in recent years, and the collapsed building material remains in situ in the southeastern corner of the structure.

The house itself is designed with a large central courtyard surrounded by relatively small interior rooms. These rooms are all roughly rectangular in shape, seem to be similar sizes, and are mostly oriented east to west. Some rooms contain interior sub-divisions, as well as windows and doorways preserved along the northern exterior wall. The rooms form a cellular pattern around the central courtyard, a common architectural pattern in Islamic houses (Abu-Lughod 1987; Petruccioli 2008; Zolfagharkhani and Ostwald 2021). It would certainly be interesting to consider the use of domestic space in this house, as activity areas and movement patterns are surely present.

Current challenges exist to the house’s preservation, including erosion, flooding, and modern use of the house’s rooms as animal pens. It is interesting that there is continuity in the use of this structure for subsistence activities. However, it is extremely important to have the opportunity to digitally document well-preserved, at-risk sites such as this one. I collected approximately 700 images using our Phantom 4 drone of the site and processed a 3D model in Drone2Map.

Given the high-quality model, the site can be virtually “visited” on open-access sites like Sketchfab. This gives diverse publics the opportunity to engage with and experience the site. Furthermore, systematic analyses such as space syntax can be conducted to further understand the use of the site with the data from the model. Digital representations of archaeological sites are especially valuable during periods of political turmoil when cultural heritage may come under threat. Given the on-going conflict and humanitarian crisis in Sudan, and the enduring impact of the Covid 19 pandemic on research disciplines in general, archaeologists must continue to develop innovative solutions to critical problems of cultural heritage management and preservation.

Check out the model of the Islamic house for yourself on MUAFS’s Sketchfab profile:


Here you can play with the model, manipulate the view, zoom in on rooms and features, and experiment with the size of the model. Sketchfab is a completely free educational platform for all users. Be on the lookout for more models from the project in the future!


Abu-Lughod, J.L. (1987). “The Islamic City–Historic Myth, Islamic essence, and Contemporary Relevance”, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 19(2), pp. 155-176.

Petruccioli, A. (2008). “House and Fabric in the Islamic Mediterranean City” in S.K. Jayyusi, R. Holod, A. Petruccioli, and A. Raymond (eds.), The City in the Islamic World: Volume 1. Leiden: Brill: pp. 851-876.  

Zolfagharkhani, M. and Ostwald, M.J. (2021). “The Spatial Structure of Yazd Courtyard Houses: A Space Syntax Analysis of the Topological Characteristics of the Courtyard”, Buildings, 11(262), pp. 1-22.

A day on the Nile – new approaches to reconstruct lived experiences

I am very pleased that an article I prepared together with Chloe Ward and Carl Elkins as part of a forthcoming special volume of the journal African Archaeological Review dedicated to “African Archaeology in Support of School Learning” (see Stahl et al. 2023) is now published. This manuscript was shaped over more than one year and was extreme fun to write.

Back in 2022, Ann Stahl asked me whether I would be willing to join this project preparing an unusual publication as a tool for schoolteachers and students rather than a scientific article. I was immediately excited, especially since I had already some experience teaching at schools in Austria and Germany. But this was different – more hands-on, more research-related and a very collaborative process with wonderful colleagues and a fully motivated working group. It was also a real challenge and new experience.

Since some years, I already had the idea to write a children’s book from the perspective of a dog experiencing life in an Egyptian town in Nubia in the Second Millennium BCE. Within the AcrossBorders project, we found in 2015 this cute dog figurine in the New Kingdom town of Sai Island.

We aimed for a different perspective in our article, focusing on object biographies, narratives and story telling. „Wastl“, the dog figurine from Sai Island, was a key figure here.

Well – this was the starting point and inspired me to propose the blending of a fictional narrative with factual archaeological evidence for our contribution to Ann’s volume. Together, we developed and offered an interpretation of what a typical day may have been like living at Sai. We created a small girl letting us have a look into her life and daily routine. Of course, this girl is a proud dog owner – but check out our story for more!

In our contribution, we also offer explanations for how archaeologists work and interpret some of the evidence we discuss, focusing on a range of methods. These include recent advances in virtual 3D reconstruction which offer a unique perspective on our interpretation of the past. Carl created magical photorealistic and interactive 3D models – these are not only a great outcome themselves, but also allowed us to come up with new interpretations and asking new and different questions. The corresponding figures we included in the article were taken directly from within the interactive virtual reconstruction created in real time.

Virtual reconstruction of a house in Sai city from the southern enclosure wall with a serpentine wall shielding the entrance to a narrow lane. Construction material has been added for a hypothetical renovation, which was known to occur regularly in domestic contexts. As research is ongoing, the geometry and texture of the buildings’ façades are simplified. Image: Carl G. Elkins

Although we focus on the past, many of the aspects we discuss in the article are highly relevant today and can be linked to several of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (in particular 9, 11, and 12). We encourage readers to think about some of the things we discuss in relation to their own lives and experiences and have provided a number of call-out questions in speech bubbles throughout the article to get some of these discussions started.

As soon as the complete special issue of AAR 40, 3 will be published, there will be the link to some supplementary material which will allow to explore the reconstruction of Sai city in an interactive mode. We are very much looking forward to any responses – from our fellow academics as well as of course schoolteachers, students and other people interested in archaeology and the relevance of the field for us nowadays (and in the future). In the meantime, we will be busy exploring more scientific questions that arose from the photorealistic virtual reconstructions – and there is quite a number of exciting ones.

Our new article:

Julia Budka, Chloe Ward & Carl G. Elkins, A Day on the Nile: Living in a Town in Nubia. African Archaeological Review (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10437-023-09547-4


Stahl, A.B., Balabuch, A., Sanford, K. et al. African Archaeology in Support of School Learning: an Introduction. African Archaeological Review (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10437-023-09539-4

The Church of Mograkka East

Fig. 1: Location of the Church of Mograkka East (map: C. Geiger).

The well-preserved church of Mograkka East (3-L-2, Fig. 1) is one of the most remarkable monuments datable to Medieval times in the MUAFS concession. This mudbrick church is also an exemplary case to study church architecture south of the Dal cataract. I am delighted that a new study on this important monument has just been published (Budka, Distefano & Geiger 2021), the result of our 2020 field season.

Based on a revised assessment of the ground plan (Fig. 2), the installations and the remaining traces of wall paintings, the church 3-L-2 can be dated to the 10th century CE. The church of Mograkka can be described as Type 3b according to William Adams (2009) due to the lack of a tribune within the apse. Regarding the ground plan, some small details as well as the dimensions and proportions can be specified compared to the preliminary version published by Vila (1976).

Fig. 2: New ground plan of the Church of Mograkka East, based on the orthophoto & digital elevation model (illustration: C. Geiger).

Besides this improved dating, our article presents the current state of preservation and new architectural observations based on a photogrammetric documentation of the church and the created 3D model (Fig. 3). One exciting new feature, not noted by any other scholars before, is the possible existence of intramural graves at 3-L-2. However, this would need to be confirmed by means of excavations.

Fig. 3: View of the Church of Mograkka East (3D model), from southsoutwest (illustration: C. Geiger).

All in all, the well-preserved mudbrick church of Mograkka provides important evidence of local variants of ​​Nubian church building in Nobadia, parallels for which can be found south of the Second Cataract from the 9th century CE onwards. A future task will be to analyse these local forms in more detail and to embed these variants in a larger historical, cultural, social, and religious context.


Adams, W. Y. The churches of Nobadia. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2009.

Budka, J., Distefano, J. & Geiger, C. 2021. Kirchenarchitektur südlich des Dal-Kataraktes: Das Fallbeispiel der Kirche 3-L-2 in Mograkka Ost. MittSAG – Der Antike Sudan 32, 109‒121.

Vila, A. La prospection archéologique de la vallée du Nil, au sud de la cataracte de Dal (Nubie soudanaise). 4. District de Mograkka (est et ouest). District de Kosha (est et ouest). Paris: Centre national de la recherche scientifique, 1976.