An archaeology PhD student is uncovering a lost civilization in the unlikeliest of places – No Man’s Sky.

Last year Andrew Reinhard and 30 of his colleagues set out to delve into the algorithms that create the universe of No Man’s Sky from an archeological standpoint. Unfortunately, upon release, the game did not have the tools needed to navigate and dig on any of its 18 quintillion worlds. So after a short expedition into the Euclid Galaxy, the team gradually disbanded and moved on to other pursuits.

However, Reinhard remained interested in figuring out how to apply his area of study to a virtual world.

“My whole reason for existence as an archaeologist these days is to find out how to do archaeology in a synthetic world,” he told Kotaku in a Skype interview. His view is that video games by their very nature are much like archeological sites. His goal was to use the same real-words methodology within the virtual environment of No Man’s Sky.

“[Video game are] made by people for other people. Games change over time with different versions just like sites change over time.”

With version 1.3 of NMS, Reinhard is getting a second chance to do what he set out to do and more. The 1.3 update, also known as Atlas Rises, added tools that were needed to perform archeological work such as a compass for field walking and the terraforming gun that can be used to dig.

In addition to the new tools, the Atlas Rises update also completely reformed the entire universe. After the patch, some players found their bases completely gone or altered so much as to be unusable and had to start over. While this development was unfortunate for players, it was a stroke of luck for the budding archeologist. Not only did Reinhard now have tools with which to work, but he also has lost civilizations to uncover.

One well-known No Man’s Sky outpost called the “Galactic Hub” was the center of the galaxy for hundreds of players (maybe even thousands). The leaders of the Hub created a wiki and a subreddit on the project with instructions on getting there.

When the 1.3 patch more or less destroyed their in-game community, they packed up and moved off to find and form a new Galactic Hub. The remains of their civilization still exist, and Reinhard is uncovering it.

He started his expedition on a planet in the Hub called Pr. While some bases were completely obliterated, or reduced to nothing more than the starting module, others were intact but buried beneath the ground of the newly reshaped worlds.

Some of the bases are unrecoverable because they lie beneath fresh bedrock that cannot be penetrated by the terraforming tool. He only knows that they are there because of beacons and communication terminals that were left behind. So nobody will ever know what those players had to say.

All was not lost though. Reinhard has been able to uncover some of the bases and structures, and what he has found is, as he puts it, “eerie.”

One structure he excavated was created and shared by a player named dwshort (picture below).

“I’d never seen [a shared base] in the wild before, so finding dwshort’s base was a revelation,” he said. “It’s beautiful, clean, and stocked with a renewable, sustainable cash-crop. But the lights were on, and no one was home.”

“There used to be a mountain here, but now it is only sand.”

Discoveries were not only found below the ground. Reinhard also found structures seemingly floating in the sky. He concluded that these were buildings that had previously been located on a mountain that was ripped away by the Altas Rises update. In fact, he found communication terminals left by another player confirming that this was the case. The comms talk about the player's trek up the mountain.

“The results of today’s [October 1] initial explorations of planet Pr might mark the first in-game excavation of a human-player settlement buried by a catastrophic event that had consequences unintended by the game’s developer,” he writes in his findings. "Base [sic] on my preliminary investigations of planets Drogradur and Pr, the archaeology of post-v1.3 NMS appears to be very rich indeed."

Reinhard has barely begun excavation of the dozens of worlds that were inhabited by the Galactic Hub. moving forward he has formed a new team and is dividing the work to discover the artifacts left by the original Hub civilization.

You can check out Reinhard's discoveries as he unearths them in his blog Archaeogaming.

All Images courtesy Andrew Reinhard