The rise of virtual reality has created portals to some truly far-out, futuristic worlds, but some are also exploring how the technology can allow us to peer into the past. With the help of drones, Australian archaeologists are creating a virtual replica of the Plain of Jars, an ancient site littered with mysterious stone jars in Laos, so that inquisitive minds can strap on headsets and explore from afar.

The Plain of Jars stretches over hundreds of square kilometers of green and hilly countryside around the town of Phonsavan, Laos. It takes its name from the large stone jars scattered throughout the area, and has drawn the interest of archaeologists due to the fact that no one really knows how or why they came about.

Researchers from the Australian National University (ANU) and Monash University were looking for a place to test out their new mapping technology, called Cave2, and settled on the Plain of Jars due to a pending application to have it listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Cave2 is a system that takes purpose-shot drone footage and turns it into virtual replicas of archaeology dig sites, by having the drone snap a set of 3D images every 10 cm (3.93 in) and then pumping the data into a digital mould.

"You put on a headset and the virtual model feels like you're standing and walking around the site," said Dr Dougald O'Reilly from the ANU School of Archaeology and Anthropology. "As you move around the image moves as if you are at the location."

These types of virtual recreations could prove useful in a number of ways. It could serve as a teaching aid to allow kids in classrooms anywhere in the world to get a visual perspective on a particular site, or the virtual maps could be used to print life-sized models for installation in museums. It could also be used by researchers needing to retrace their steps.

"It allows you to revisit the site," says O'Reilly. "Even right now I'm using it to look at the positioning of some of the materials I'm having radio-carbon dated. In terms of heritage preservation it's a useful tool. If you want to monitor the change in heritage sites through time you have that data."

Exploring ancient sites in virtual reality isn't entirely new. VR firm Realities trades in taking people to real-world places that are out of reach, like tourist and lost archaeological sites, while other groups such as the archaeology faculty at the University of Southampton is researching how the technology can bring archaeological sites in Spain and Egypt to life.

But bringing drones into the mix opens up new possibilities, the researchers say, because it will allow them to probe locations that may be hard to reach through conventional archaeological approaches, due to obstacles like land mines.

"Of the over 80 known jar sites in Laos, only seven have been cleared of explosives," says Dr Louise Shewan from Monash University.

You can catch a drone's eye view of the Plain of Jars site below.

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