Virtual Avebury: exploring sense of place in a virtual archaeology simulation


  • Liz Falconer Bournemouth University
  • David Burden Daden Limited
  • Rosamund Cleal National Trust
  • Ralph Hoyte Satsymph LLP
  • Phillip Phelps Satsymph LLP
  • Neil Slawson Bournemouth University
  • Nicola Snashall National Trust
  • Kate Welham Bournemouth University



public engagement in heritage, sense of place, virtual reality (VR), henge monuments


This paper describes and discusses creating and evaluating a virtual reality simulation of Avebury Stone Circle and Henge complex as it might have appeared and sounded circa 2300 BCE. Avebury is a Neolithic heritage site in the UK which is part of the Stonehenge, Avebury and associated sites UNESCO World Heritage Site. The overall aim of the project was to better understand the sense of place and presence that visitors can experience in virtual simulations of heritage sites. We investigated how virtual spaces might become experienced as places by visitors through their exploration, active participation, sensory stimulation and communication with other visitors in the simulation. More than 1200 members of the public experienced the simulation, both at Avebury itself and at three public exhibitions. The specific objectives of the project were to explore if and how the believability of a simulation was associated with feeling a sense of place in the virtual landscape, and if some personal characteristics, viz. age, disability, sex, immersive tendency, familiarity with IT and frequency of playing computer games, were associated with levels of enjoyment in, and learning from, the simulation. We analysed the data from a detailed questionnaire completed by 388 of the 702 visitors to Avebury from June to September 2018 who experienced the simulation, supported by observational data from all participants at all events. We found that believability was associated with a sense of place in the simulation, i.e. that the more believable the simulation appeared, the greater the sense of place experienced by the participants. We also found that personal characteristics had very little influence upon visitor reactions to the simulation, suggesting that such simulations might have wide appeal for heritage and museum visitors, regardless of age, gender or familiarity with technology.


  • More than 1200 members of the public experienced a 3D, fully immersive simulation of Avebury Henge, Wiltshire, UK over a nine-month period.

  • We found patterns of use and familiarity with information technology (IT), and using mobile technologies for gaming, that did not follow age and gender stereotypes.

  • We found little correlation between age, gender and IT familiarity with reactions to Virtual Avebury, suggesting that such simulations might have wide appeal for heritage site visitors.


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Author Biographies

Liz Falconer, Bournemouth University

Emerita Professor of Technology Enhanced Learning at the University of the West of England, Bristol and now practices as a private consultant in virtual heritage, working with creative partners and stakeholders to create virtual reality simulations of ancient and historical places. She is also a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at Bournemouth University. Her research expertise is in learning in immersive virtual environments and virtual worlds, majoring upon situated and contextual learning in immersive virtual environments to enhance our understanding of hidden or obscured heritage. Liz has led and taken part in research and consultancy grants from private industry and public bodies, including AHRC, EPSRC, HEA, HEFCE, Hewlett Packard and Royal Ordnance. She has over 30 years' experience as a lecturer, researcher, professor and manager in Higher Education and an established international publication record in the field of education technology research

David Burden, Daden Limited

Founded and owns Daden Limited. David has been involved in AI, VR and immersive environments since the 1990s and set up Daden Limited in 2004 to help organisations explore and exploit the social and commercial potential of using chatbots, AI and virtual environments. David and his team have delivered over 50 immersive learning and chatbot projects for clients across the globe. David has led collaborative research projects funded by InnovateUK and the MOD, and Daden have won prizes for their work in the UK and USA. David was a finalist in BCS’s Machine Intelligence competition, has authored over a dozen papers on virtual worlds and AI and recently published a book with Taylor & Francis New York on virtual humans.

Rosamund Cleal, National Trust

National Trust Curator for the Alexander Keiller Museum at Avebury. As well as caring for and sharing the internationally significant musuem collections, Ros is a leading expert in Neolithic and Bronze Age pottery. She has published widely on Stonehenge and Avebury, burial and material cultures in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, and on the analysis of prehistoric pottery remains.

Ralph Hoyte, Satsymph LLP

A Bristol-based context-aware media producer, declamatory poet, writer and artist. He is founder of Satsymph, specialists in mobile immersive media experiences incorporating highly innovative coding and spatialised audio, creating dramatized heritage-based audio-plays as well as contemporary music and contemporary poetry soundscapes. Ralph also writes scripts for the Heritage Industry for clients such as English Heritage, e.g. audio and ‘Peppers Ghosts’ scripts for the refurbishment of Dover Castle Great Tower. As a poet, Ralph specializes in large-scale declamatory public poems or epics in which a sense of place is integral to his work. This sense of place and interest in maps and mapping technologies are what ties in his work to immersive media scenarios.

Phillip Phelps, Satsymph LLP

An audio engineer, software developer and electronics engineer from Bristol in the UK. His work with Satsymph developing context-aware audio for smartphones is complementary to his research and lecturing at the University of the West of England. He is also a member of Dorkbot Bristol, promoting public interest in electronics/arts crossover through music and sound. He develops sonic art installations with software and electronics hardware. Phill is active as a sound/video artist with several full-length albums and synaesthetic short films published under the artist name Zenpho.

Neil Slawson, Bournemouth University

A doctoral researcher and former research assistant based in the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at Bournemouth University. His doctoral research investigates the use of technology enhanced learning (TEL) in the teaching of Forensic Anthropology. He holds a first degree in dentistry together with a postgraduate qualification in forensic osteology and master’s degrees in both Computer Science and Human-Computer Interaction (HCI).

Nicola Snashall, National Trust

Archaeologist for the Stonehenge and Avebury UNESCO World Heritage Site. Her principal research interests lie in the Neolithic and Bronze Age of southern Britain. She has a particular interest in landscape inhabitation and residence during the period, monumentality and ritual practice, and the interplay between the two. Nick has a longstanding interest in the use of lithic assemblages (including scatters) to inform our understanding of prehistoric landscape inhabitation.

Kate Welham, Bournemouth University

Professor of Archaeological Sciences in the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at Bournemouth University. Her primary research focus is the application of remote sensing techniques in an archaeological context. She is an experienced archaeological surveyor with expertise in topographical survey, geophysical prospection, GIS, and 3D scanning technology. She has directed a number of recent archaeological surveys on both prehistoric and historic landscapes in the UK and abroad. Recent research projects have included the Rapa Nui: Landscapes of Construction Project, the Songo Mnara: Urban Space, Social memory and Materiality Project, and Kate was a co-director of the AHRC-funded Stonehenge Riverside Project, working with the Universities of Sheffield, Manchester and Bristol, and UCL


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How to Cite

Falconer, L., Burden, D., Cleal, R., Hoyte, R., Phelps, P., Slawson, N., Snashall, N., & Welham, K. (2020). Virtual Avebury: exploring sense of place in a virtual archaeology simulation. Virtual Archaeology Review, 11(23), 50–62.