Image from our experiment in minecraft. Bricks are from biomes o' plenty. Thatch from Botania. Background structures from completely unrelated experiments.

More on the Minecraft Pedagogy

Why Minecraft and Archaeology?

Some discussion on my plans for minecraft

What I’m not planning on doing, and some other awesome projects

I think, in many ways, this post needs to start out with what I’m not planning. Much of what has kept this intention to develop a minecraft archaeology pedagogy in the back of my mind are the posts and tweets by Colleen Morgan where Dr. Morgan has (with sufficient regularity) tweeted events like:

And they’re fantastic – and limited. Minecraft has a wonderful history of mimesis:

This “recreation” provides a wonderful visualisation platform. This recreation also provides a great 3-4 hour event for rapid public engagement.

What nagged at me, however, was the fact that archaeology wasn’t being done inside minecraft. As a philosopher and an IT person and completely not an archaeologist – I would have wanted to learn some of the reasons for techniques and language via a “sandpit” like minecraft, rather than endless discussions around a whiteboard about form implementation.

The Yogscast

The other half of my inspiration came from YOGSCAST Kim’s modded minecraft videos. A few years ago, she and her frequent partner in crime Duncan did a series featuring two mods: Ancient Warfare 2 and a dino-fossils mod (here). Duncan also explored the Enviromine mod to somewhat hilarious effect in a different channel.

And seeing the machines from ancient warfare, the attempts at dinosaurs from their archaeology mod, and more-realistic physics from environmine gave me an idea: What if we built and destroyed settlements on top of each other, and then used that as a well documented sandpit for survey archaeology and excavations. With these mods as a basis for 10-30 mods (something which I haven’t see any other pedagogic approach take), we have a far more immersive experience.

My proposal (from a non-archaeology perspective):

  1. Get a group of students to build an “early” village on a site in survival mode. Creepers, Zombies, and Skellies are sufficient environmental threats to represent legitimate dangers in the world, as well as introducing a sort of randomness to destruction that makes it rather more organic. Because it’s survival mode (with enviromine), materials will have to be quarried out of the surrounding landscapes: leaving scars. The village will be built following visual guides and inventories (buildings at this time and place looked like this, and a community of this many people had this many houses, storage areas, temples, etc.)
  2. Have the building well documented with screenshots.
  3. This building, alone, would be the work of a quarter for a group of high school students, would make an absolutely wonderful class project.
  4. Their final presentation would discuss their historical references, screenshots of the process, and a discussion of why they placed things the way they did.
  5. Repeat this process in two other “nearby” valleys with different groups.
  6. This gives us three villages of roughly the same type and era, with landscapes inhabited by their builders.
  7. Destroy everything, but not very well.
    1. We will then allow students to carefully destroy their creations in various ways. Fire, explosion, knocking out key supports, etc. As an act of catharsis it’s delightful. As a pedagogic act, it’s also delightful – for they will have to provide historical justification of why they destroyed things the way they did.
    2. We then document the destruction. Evil laughter, at this point, is mandatory.
    3. Using worldedit, we then cover the entire surface of the landscape with a distinct layer of dirt. Biomes o’ plenty has many types of dirt for this purpose. We then replant trees (using the /naturalize command) and generally return the world to a less lived-in state.
  8. We then tell the groups to switch sites.
  9. The groups, being experienced “minecrafters” are then given plans and materials and inventories of later settlements and told to build. We expect a fair amount of team rotation, which both allows us to bring more people in on each stage of the project and prevents an unrealistic building monoculture.
  10. We repeat the build, destroy, rotate, a total of two times. Clearly, more nuance will be needed at this step to explore how different occupations preserved historic structures, but I imagine that these needs or expressions will come out after later iterations.
  11. With these (at least three) layers made, we can then enter into the “university” side of the experiment.
    1. We have complex, natural, layers in our “sandpits.” We can therefore run surface surveys to find where to excavate (though some translation will be needed to figure out how to “surface” archaeologically significant elements and evidence of habitation.)
    2. After the teams identify where to excavate through their own methods, they can run excavations, recording using traditional recording sheets in a variety of methods.
    3. As part of their report, they will be asked to recreate (in creative mode), the villages that they have run excavations in.
    4. Using screenshots from all phases of the project, before and after images will be compared, providing evidence of what the archaeological explorations of the environment through time and space found and didn’t find.

Conclusion

Thus, this project is significantly more entailed than the typical and far more accessible mimesis of other archaeological outreach projects. However, I feel that it can be a wonderful tool in its own right. One of the groups can be formed of “Let’s Players” on youtube, as part of a historical education initiative. The other two groups can be formed from interested volunteers in high schools and university students (and faculty). By building, destroying, surveying, and excavating, we can run a proper “experimental archaeology” project inside of minecraft. We can show off buildings and reasons for buildings at different periods throughout history. We can show what we can know and what is missed by typical archaeological methods.

With the prior post showing that historical mimesis is possible, I now have to finalise the mod pack and get archaeologists to provide the necessary visual illustrations and inventories for step one above. Tweet me (@denubisx) with comments or ideas!

Other, better, archaeogaming

@clmorgan has noted some other resources for minecraft and archaeogaming: