Digital Archaeology and Reconstruction

New publications and recent developments in the field.

Matthew Nicholls | Published in 21 Nov 2015

The Temple of Antoninus and FaustinaArchaeologists and historians are making increasing use of exciting developments in digital visualisation. A digital model of a site or building is a versatile tool, which can be easily edited and adapted to research, teaching, online and print publication, museum and documentary use.  

Archaeologist James Packer and architect and illustrator Gil Gorski were early adopters of this technology, in the late 1990s, using it to create reconstructions of the Forum of Trajan in Rome. They have now turned to the Roman Forum itself. Their handsome new book, The Roman Forum: A Reconstruction and Architectural Guide (Cambridge), is grounded in the abundant archaeological and literary source material for this important area.  It is an excellent example of how digital visualisation can enhance (and must draw on) more traditional scholarship.

The foundation of the book is a detailed reconstruction of the main Forum square and its surrounding buildings, set (mostly) just after AD 360. Images generated from the model illustrate a history of the Forum’s development and a topographically-organised architectural guide to each of its monuments, such as the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina (above). A concluding section considers the Forum in different eras, including questions of motion and sightlines. 

The authors revel in the endless adaptability of their digital creation to illustrate their text. We see elevations, overhead views and plans, sections, colourful perspective views, watercolourish scenes evoking the École des Beaux-Arts and plenty of ‘entourage’ – dramatic lighting, human figures, snowfalls, sunsets and even, in the frontispiece, the authors themselves in Roman dress. More seriously, the potential for this sort of reconstruction to show alternative presentations is explored by, for instance, the Basilica Julia with and without a conjectural terrace at first-floor level, or different roofing solutions for the Temple of Vesta: there are also experiments with painted decoration (which the authors tend to avoid for lack of firm evidence). 

The presentation is lavish, with full-page colour illustrations, diagrams, photographs and several fold-out panoramas and maps. This is a beautiful book, like Andrea Carandini’s recent Atlante di Roma Antica (Electa), and can be enjoyed as much for the quality of its pictures as for the clear presentation of the information on which they depend. As with Carandini’s work, there is scope for an online version, but this book is a landmark in the print possibilities of digital archaeological visualisation.

Digital archaeological techniques are also increasingly used to record ruins in vulnerable heritage sites. Recent outrages, including the barbaric murder in Palmyra of 82-year-old Head of Antiquities, Khaled al-Asaad, leave this and many other wonderful sites heavily damaged and inaccessible for the foreseeable future. A 3D digital record of such sites would at least mean that they were in some sense accessible to scholars and virtual ‘visitors’ around the world. 

The Institute for Digital Archaeology (IDA), a joint venture between the universities of Harvard and Oxford, has launched an ambitious attempt to ‘crowdsource’ a Million Image Database of 3D images of threatened sites and objects. It has developed an inexpensive camera for field users – local museum affiliates, embedded military, NGO employees, and volunteers – to take and upload GPS-tagged 3D images, which will eventually reside in an open-source, Wikipedia-style online database. 

The Million Image Database is a great example of a collaborative project harnessing technology to record imperiled sites. Imaginative individuals with the right skills can also make a difference: the Palmyra Photogrammetry project is the brainchild of one UK archaeologist, Conan Parsons, who is seeking photos of Palmyra to feed into photogrammetric software. With enough points of reference, this software can compare photos taken from different angles and locations to build up a ‘point cloud’, which can then be used to generate a navigable 3D model of the site, including buildings now destroyed. 

Links for further exploration: - Matthew Nicholls’ digital model of ancient Rome - the website for the Institute for Digital Archaeology and its Million Image Database - crowdsourcing photogrammetry project that would welcome your photos of Palmyra. 
Digital reconstructions of the ancient cities of Byzantium and Babylon - German digital reconstruction project, also looking at the Roman forum and reconstructing  in in several different historical periods.

Matthew Nicholls is Associate Professor in Classics at the University of Reading.