Augmenting Prehistory: Overlee Souterrain

Augmenting Prehistory is an app that uses augmented reality (AR) to embed a virtual depiction within the sensory location of a site. Considering European prehistory, which is largely missing from contemporary landscapes, this project proposed to bridge a gap between intersections and essences that have persisted into the present as tangible or intangible traces of the past. This concept intended to foreground the artist/archaeologist process of constructing the depiction as much as allowing space for different user experiences and interactions.

This depiction focuses on the lost site of Overlee Souterrain, destroyed in the early 1800s, antiquarian written sources claimed there was once a hill that encompassed 41 of these individual souterrains. A souterrain is an underground structure that is typically ascribed as prehistoric Iron Age, yet their lifespan often extends further than this.

I interpreted a temporal ambiguity from these written sources and created a non-linear narrative to express potential experiences or scenarios triggered by the user’s movements within the AR. The presentation of a fire (of which the sources described) initially created a warmth and homely affectual encounter, however, I introduced doubt using the sudden dispersal of smoke – a consequence of little ventilation and one reason why archaeologists have dismissed the idea of a souterrain as a dwelling. This is followed by a modern day light installed in a concrete ceiling, a setup seen in existing souterrains that have been reroofed in recent years and is shining down onto fire-cracked rocks (described in the sources as a method of cooking) in a scientific and inspective, disconnected manner.

In a process of ‘thinking through doing’ (Watterson), constructing the souterrain rock by rock allowed me to devise further scenarios like shifting rock configurations to imply ambiguity in its appearance and a simulation of its destruction by triggering a collapse of the structure. Although these were not included in the final output, my future projects will allow time for these impromptu ideas to manifest.

Using transparent shaders in Unity, I created a portal that conceals the souterrain chamber into the wider landscape and act as the semi hidden structure would have done. The location is therefore integral to the experience and on an implementation of the app, I found myself exploring the modern location of Overlee Playing Fields before deciding where to place the AR. A unique spatio-temporal experience was thus generated due to this perceptual navigation through the senses, along with the virtual depiction and all of the meanings in between.

Augmented reality offers an opportunity for the public to amplify their participation with the past outside of a museum environment, with the ease of their own mobile phones.





Augmenting Prehistory: Overlee Souterrain

This video runs through the AR interactions at the location that the Overlee Souterrains are speculated to have been found (Overlee Playing Fields).