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The (VR) Oracle will see you now

Net Gains? Living Well With Technology
Professor Hugh Bowden

Professor of Ancient History

16 February 2023

What did it feel like to take part in an ancient religious ritual?

As part of our series, Net Gains? how we live well with technology, Professor Hugh Bowden talks us through his time reconstructing the Temple of Mithras in the City of London, and the Virtual Reality Oracle, which recreates the experience of visiting the sanctuary of Zeus in Dodona in northern Ancient Greece. 

Hugh Bowden

In Classics research, recent history can be centuries or even millennia and inherent in that is the challenge not of what existed but the experience of those who existed. Mithras was a god worshipped mainly or entirely by men of the Roman empire, who met together to feast and engage in ritual activities, including – probably painful - initiation ceremonies. His temple in London, which was built sometime after 300 CE, was originally excavated in the 1950s just north of Cannon Street Station and was redisplayed in an unsatisfactory restoration a short distance away. When the site was acquired by Bloomberg, the decision was taken to reconstruct the remains as close as possible to their original findspot. I, along with several archaeologists and {link here to site} designers, was a member of the team advising on how to redisplay it. No mean feat, given it meant relocating it below the modern street level. A visitor to the temple today will see the remains looking more or less as they did when it was first excavated, but the visitor is then taken back in time, as lighting effects are used to recreate the walls of the temple, and they hear the sound of a group of worshippers of Mithras gathering: a trumpet is heard (based on surviving examples of Roman trumpets) and chanting words taken from inscriptions found in other Mithraic temples follows as you walk around.

But finding out about and experiencing what life may have been like in the Ancient World doesn’t always require a pilgrimage to London.

I have been using Virtual Reality to explore what a visit to the Oracle of Zeus at Dodona could have felt like – showcasing this at an event at King’s.

The Virtual Reality Oracle Exhibition at the Strand
Inside the VR Oracle experience

Ancient Greek men and women travelled long distances to the Oracle of Zeus at Dodona, where they would ask for advice about their future plans. We know this because thousands of questions have survived, inscribed on strips of lead: however we don’t know much about the process by which they asked the questions, and learned the god’s responses. As part of a team from the Universities of Bristol and Bath alongside King’s, made up of ancient historians, computer scientists, neuroscientists and psychologists, and funded by the AHRC, I have been using VR headsets to transport people to walk around the site of Dodona as it might have looked in 450 BCE., meeting and hearing from other visitors to the sanctuary, and putting their question to the Oracle.

This brings a new virtual dimension to experiencing what these ancient worlds may have been like. Though, despite how fun and interesting these experiences have been - I have found there is only so much that can be achieved using lighting effects or this scale of VR. But it is striking how little is required to create an immersive experience that draws the participant in, this is of course a truth that theatre has been demonstrating for thousands of years – that with sight and sound alone it is possible to be transported to another reality. There are important sensory experiences that neither the London Mithraeum nor the VR Oracle recreate – the role of smell. My proposal to include the smells of the London Mithraeum – mainly fried chicken and river mud – was rapidly vetoed by Bloomberg. Though, as smell plays a key role in emotional responses to experiences, maybe the next technological innovation will enable our experiential research to include odours, and then our experience of the ancient world will be even more enriched.  

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Hugh Bowden

Hugh Bowden

Professor of Ancient History

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