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ANU archaeologists using virtual technology in Laos

Archaeologists at the Australian National University can now walk around one of Asia's most mysterious sites without leaving their comfortable offices in Canberra thanks to new virtual reality technology.

Dougald O'Reilly, from the ANU School of  Archaeology and Anthropology, who is researching the Plain of Jars dig project in central Laos, said the new 3D technology, known as CAVE2, provides easy access to remote locations.

"You have to remember, it's virtual re-excavation so you still have to do the dirty work in the field but this technology allows us to revisit the sites from anywhere," Dr O'Reilly said.

The CAVE2 technology is based out of Monash University and uses drone footage to create a virtual replica of archeological dig sites.

"CAVE2 is an immersive visualisation facility which allows data to be presented in a 3D format," Dr O'Reilly says.

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"The facility is used for a lot of different applications and this is really the first time they've been doing close work with archaeology."

He says archeologists, used to dealing with the most ancient of subject matter, are adopting technologies in exciting new ways every day.

"Hopefully we're going to be employing lidar technology at the site for use in the CAVE2," he says.

"Lidar is a system that uses the light from a laser like a radar and it's been used to great effect at Angkor Wat to expose the temples and hydrological networks there underneath the jungle. The beauty of lidar is that it strips away the forest foliage and reveals what's underneath."

The Plain of Jars was chosen as a test site for CAVE2 due to the current application to have the site listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The dig project in central Laos is the first major archaeological dig at the site since the 1930s. The landscape features ancient carved stone jars up to three metres tall, their purpose remains a mystery.

"The site is one of south-east Asia's longest lasting archaeological enigmas," Dr O'Reilly said.

"It hasn't really been researched on this scale since the 1930s and what our project hopes to show is exactly what the jars were for, when they were produced and who made them."

Dr O'Reilly has been at the ANU since 2011 and before that worked out of the University of Sydney. One of his career highlights is working at Angkor Wat in 2010.

In response to the looting of archaeological sites in Cambodia Dr O'Reilly founded Heritage Watch, a non-governmental organisation that highlights the importance of heritage and works in heritage preservation.

"One of the saddest things about archaeology is that we're often only one step ahead, and in many cases two steps behind the looters."