Gunnarshús at Skriðuklaustur, a medieval East Iceland cloister, has just unveiled its inaugural virtual reality (VR) room, where guests are invited to step into the past and see the cloister as it was 500 years ago.

Skriðuklaustur, an East Iceland cloister, served as an Augustine monastery from 1493 until 1552. It was the last Catholic cloister founded in Iceland before the Icelandic reformation in the mid-16th century and the nation’s subsequent conversion to Lutheranism. And now it’s tourable in virtual reality. 

“This is the first part of the virtual reality reconstruction of the medieval cloister, and further digital reconstructions will evolve in the next few months,” Skúli Björn Gunnarsson, the curator of the Gunnar Gunnarsson Institute at the cloister, said in an interview with Austurfrétt.

The virtual reality project is carried out in cooperation with CINE, a collaborative digital heritage project between Norway, Iceland, Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland based at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

CINE uses unorthodox methods to “to transform people’s experiences of outdoor heritage sites through technology, building on the idea of ‘museums without walls’.”

The technology may also open up the possibility of virtual, distance tours (an objective CINE calls “digitourism”).

Seeing the World through 3D Glasses

And visitors can walk around the living image.

In order to enter the virtual world of bygone days, guests wear Oculus Rift glasses, which allow them to see the ancient cloister in virtual reality. They’re immediately immersed in the bustling East Iceland cloister, 500 years ago, where monks tended to the sick, cultivated herb gardens, and worshipped, and novices trained to enter the priesthood.

The reconstruction of the ruins and the life that once thrived therein was a direct result of research conducted by archaeologist Steinunn Kristjánsdóttir.

Excavations at the East Iceland cloister began in spring of 2000 and continued until 2012. During that decade, 131 researchers worked on the project, and over 13,000 artefacts and bones were found, which gave new insights into daily life at the monastery—it wasn’t previously known, for example, that the cloister also served as a hospital.

With this technology, Gunnarsson went on, it’s possible to fill in the blanks—to construct entire visualizations of artefacts, buildings that we’ve only found parts of, based on conjecture. 

And the centre has taken on a side initiative to engage kids with the history of the place.

“We’re even developing a little game for smartphones that makes it possible to go on a treasure hunt inside and outside of the building, which you can download from the Gunnar Gunnarsson Centre’s website.”

Three Years at Work, More to Go

It’s been three years since the work began, and the project has grown quickly. 

In the coming years, the centre aims to create a digital version of the entire East Iceland cloister based on archaeological evidence and to bring a holistic experience of medieval life in Iceland to visitors. The project has already received funding from Uppbyggingarsjóður Austurlands.