Revealing Nottingham’s secret history through augmented reality
You probably know of Robin Hood, the heroic outlaw who stole from the rich and gave to the poor of Nottingham. What you probably didn’t know was that he had to evade two sheriffs because, in the late middle ages, Nottingham city was split into two boroughs, each with its own laws and ways of life.
History is sometimes selective and important facts can easily be forgotten. This is the case in the history of Nottingham city. Few people are likely to be aware that for 700 years after the Norman colonisation in 1068, the town was split into two boroughs: one populated by Normans, the other by Anglo-Saxons.
Fascinated by this lesser-known history, last year, I decided to make this hidden secret of Nottingham, and its intangible heritage as the “city of the towns”, more known using augmented reality (AR) technology. Using historical maps and archaeological data, I led a research team at Nottingham Trent University to recreate in 3D the original shape and position of the Market Wall that separated the Norman borough from the Anglo-Saxon borough in Nottingham.
A divided Market Square
The large market square, which is still there and is the second largest market square in the UK, was shared by the two boroughs but was divided by a wall around 1.6 metres high. The wall was to separate livestock from other goods and to define different administration and laws. People were, however, allowed to move freely from one side to the other, as is clearly shown in historical maps of Nottingham and archival documentation.
The purpose of the Nottingham Market Wall was as an administrative boundary between the two boroughs and was very different from many other segregation walls, like the Berlin Wall. In medieval Nottingham, both sides could “cross the border” any time they wanted, living together in peace, sharing their culture, and creating a “melting pot” that is probably the secret behind the character of this unique town.
My interest in the wall started when I noticed in the old Market Square a long water drain with a grill that had a strange shape. I later discovered that it was inspired by an old map of Nottingham depicting the Market Wall. I immediately thought that this important yet unknown aspect of Nottingham’s heritage should be visually revealed. The best way, I believed was by using augmented reality technology, not just for the possibility to have a realistic view of the historical wall blended right into the user’s view of the real world, but also because AR is a technology available on our smartphones so that anyone can easily discover and interact with the deep roots of the city.
Creating the Market Wall AR app
The project aimed to invite Nottingham’s citizens and tourists to experience and interact with the historical roots of the city through virtual archaeology, using their smartphones or tablets. After downloading and installing the free AR app from www.themarketwall.com users can go into the Old Market square and visualise through their smartphone where the Market Wall was and interact with it, getting closer and around, walking along its length.
The app also includes two other historical elements, the Malt Cross, a pillar on a pile of ten steps where public announcements and punishments (whipping) were made that were located at the crossing between Long Row and Market Street. The other element is the ducking stool, a tool to punish mainly women for scolding or backbiting (talking behind someone’s back) by bonding them to a chair fixed on a pole so that they could be immersed in a pond that was originally located where the fountain in the Old Market square now is.
These landmarks of public announcements and punishments can help users immerse themselves in medieval Nottingham, experiencing the role of the historical Saturday Market, the old name of the square, in the social and political life of Nottingham, beyond trade and commerce.
Using the AR app in the Old Market square, visitors can see how the Market Wall, Malt Cross and ducking stool once looked and virtually interact with them. AR technology can contribute in an easy, enjoyable way to reveal the identity of places and the intangible attributes of heritage that are not physically visible anymore.
The app created interest in the local and national press, but it also generated curiosity in the citizens. Over 100 users to date have downloaded the app.
With smartphones becoming more powerful, AR technology is developing and creating more possibilities to integrate virtual reality with our real world. Digitally enhancing natural environments, the built environment and heritage sites, AR on smartphones and tablets are extending museums and exhibition beyond their traditional parameters and possibly also audiences.
Connecting reality with the “metaverse”, a collective virtual open space that is believed to be the next evolution of the internet, could make each city a museum that is ready to be experienced across the past, present and future.