Visit Pompeii in 3-D

Visit Pompeii in 3-D


What was life like in an ancient Roman city?

To answer that question, a classicist might refer to Pliny’s histories or Vitruvius’ handbook for Roman architects. An archeologist might pull out field notes documenting the length and breadth of foundations of this apartment block or that villa. With luck, the archeologist may even have been able to recover some pottery not disturbed by looters or brush dust from a fresco not yet faded by the sun. Historians might refer to census and tax records or the laws and proceedings of the Roman senate. And a tourist might offer photos of worn paving stones or the arches of the Coliseum.

Interesting information, but taken bit by bit, all that data does not add up to a sense of what it was like to live in Rome two thousand years ago.

Fred Limp, director of the Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies – better known as CAST – knows the importance both of accurate measurement and of its interpretation. CAST employs advanced technologies and methods to support researchers from a variety of disciplines, including archeology.

“There are all kinds of evidence we can use to learn about the past,” Limp said. “When we just use physical evidence, we can claim accuracy but fall short of authenticity. We may be accurate but have no sense of what life was like for people living there.”

In the past couple of years, CAST has worked with faculty from archeology, architecture and classical studies to create a three-dimensional visualization of Ostia, the ancient port city of Rome, as an interdisciplinary class for undergraduates. Students had information from scans created by CAST using an advanced imaging system that offers direct-to-digital 3-D models of any scene. The students integrated the scans, as well as historical data, to create a 3-D model of an individual residential or commercial structure in Ostia. David Fredrick, a classical studies professor, was part of the team that taught the Ostia visualization class. Another important site that offers priceless details about life in ancient Roman cities is Pompeii. Fredrick is using 3-D gaming technology to virtually reconstruct entire apartment blocks from the city of Pompeii. And undergraduate students are doing much of the reconstruction in an Honors College class called “Digital Pompeii.”

“I don’t know of anyone else working with gaming and measurement technologies in this way,” Limp said. “Dave is using these advanced technological tools to intellectually understand a place, to perceive how people experienced and understood their lives in their city.”

Photograph of an atrium in Pompeii today.

Some years ago, Fredrick started with the goal of getting students more actively thinking about Roman texts and art. He incorporated archeological reconstruction into language classes, beginning with an assignment in a Latin class to build a room based on the writings of Ovid. Then there was the interdisciplinary Ostia class. Applying gaming technology to Pompeii was a logical progression. In addition to meeting pedagogical goals, the Digital Pompeii project also advanced Fredrick’s research interest in the thematics of Roman wall painting.

Research on Pompeii is increasingly difficult. Excavation of the city dates back to the 1600s, but today most of the city is closed under a state of emergency called by the Italian government. Only a few showpiece houses are available for viewing. For the rest of the city, sun, rain and blowing volcanic dust have degraded the painted buildings to the point that many of the famous frescoes have nearly faded away.

While there is a map of Pompeii with a unique designation for every building and apartment, there is no accurate 3-D database of the city; only a handful of the 400 houses have 3-D plans. As Fredrick’s students reconstruct apartment blocks, they are not only fulfilling a class assignment, they are also making an important contribution to research about the city.

Although the decorative wall paintings of Pompeian homes and the graffiti sketched outside may no longer be clearly visible, Fredrick and his students have a rich source of visuals for their reconstruction. An encyclopedia of art from Pompeii known as the PPM – shorthand for Pompei: pitture e mosaici – collects representative depictions of art and decorative elements from Pompeii, including high quality reproductions of 400 years of drawings, etchings, paintings and photographs, in 10 volumes. The university library holds nine out of the 10 volumes of the PPM, a rare resource.

Headquarters for the class is a small but powerful computer lab down the hall from the CAST labs. The students, who are majors in anthropology, English, history, classical studies and pre-med, each adopted an apartment block and scanned the reproductions for each wall of each room in their block. Using a scriptable, codeable game database, the students put the relatively fresh, vivid artwork into place on the walls and attached the text.

Students made decisions, based on research, about lighting and texture of the walls and floors. They could reconstruct gardens based on evidence from writings and even root castings. In addition to wall paintings and mosaics, the rich environment of the gaming application offers the opportunity to map graffiti, something it has been difficult to do up to now.

“In this class, the students are really primary researchers,” Fredrick said. “Students find all the time that published plans are not accurate. Researchers know this may happen, but it is dramatic when a student finds it.”

Fredrick has been using 3-D software since 2003 but only recently developed an efficient workflow for the Pompeii project. He searched for a game application that would have a short learning curve and would offer technical support for his unusual needs. He found it in a company called Unity that was interested in the technical problems that Fredrick’s concept presented.

“I was probably the only classicist at the game developers conference,” Fredrick said. “Gaming development is at the nexus of visual art and narrative. Since the developers have light at their command within the game, they spend a lot of effort working with light and texture to create a mood. If Bernini were alive today, he’d be a game designer.”

Navigating a house via a game engine makes it possible to see the space in a new way. Rather than swooping around in the typical 3-D fly-over mode, a gamer – or in this case, a scholar or student researching art in Pompeii – sees the rooms from the height of the average adult gaze, around four feet high. Moving through the rooms, the gamer can see how art on a wall relates to sculpture in the garden that may be visible through a doorway or how the art within a room interrelates. Because the game can be searched, a gamer could find every instance of Apollo appearing on Roman walls, for instance, and see who or what is on the opposite wall. Who is Apollo looking at and who is looking back?

There is no accurate 3-D database of Pompeii. As Fredrick’s students reconstruct apartment blocks, they are not only fulfilling a class assignment, they are also making an important contribution to research about the city.

Fredrick is interested in understanding the decor of various spaces in the Pompeiian houses. The atrium is a space that people are expected to pass through; thus, it has fewer mythological scenes, which could slow people down. Of particular interest to Fredrick is the tablinum, the main room used by the owner for business and the room in which he receives clients. Often the decor of the tablinum has erotic themes, and Fredrick is looking at that unexpected content in relation to social status and power.

Digital Pompeii “makes it vivid what is lost in our understanding of Pompeii, including the commercial structures,” Fredrick said. As the game develops, he sees potential to fill in some of the lost social history.

Digital Pompeii will offer several modes of navigating through the game space. The social mode will guide movement based on the social class chosen, challenging entrance into some rooms based on status.

“This will be tricky but interesting, since slaves were themselves sorted into high and low status jobs. And this mode presumes something that’s almost always missing from Pompeii: the doors,” Fredrick said.

The scholar mode will offer unrestricted movement, including flying. It will allow searching and teleporting to a requested location to get the most out of the links with the database. At this time, the database is focused on the wall paintings and mosaics found in the encyclopedia of art from Pompeii. Later, it will be expanded with information about artifact finds and graffiti.

The engineering mode will turn on access to Roman construction techniques, water control and fresco and mosaic techniques.

“Once we get to the stage of inserting Roman characters that the user can interact with, the experience will become that much richer,” Fredrick said. “Certainly we have action and educational games in mind, as well as scholarly and informational use. All these can be combined in interesting ways.”

High-Tech History

The scientists at the Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies bring something especially useful to measurement of archeological sites.

Since 2003, CAST staff has been using an Optech ILRIS-3-D long-range scanner, one of the few in use anywhere in the world, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. With it, researchers can travel to sites such as the ancient Roman port city of Ostia and scan a typical scene in 10-15 minutes, capturing 1.2 to 1.8 million points. In 2006, they added a Minolta VIVID-9i camera for close-range, 3-D work.

CAST can produce three-dimensional scans with a combination of computer and manual resolution to match survey photogrammetry. In another year they expect to have written an algorithm that will enable the computer to make its own matches reliably.

Jackson Cothren, a geoscientist with CAST, explained that in the past, archeologists recorded measurements in field books but didn’t necessarily get everything they would need later.

“New technology offers ways of getting a lot more without more effort,” Cothren said. “Therefore, archeologists can ask questions throughout the year.”

The reconstruction of Nodena is an example of how 3-D visualizations can stimulate research. Nodena, a pre-Columbian village located in northeast Arkansas, was occupied between A.D. 1400-1600. CAST researcher Angelia Payne explained that the team started with a map drawn during the site’s original excavation.

“We also did quite a bit of historical and scientific research, looking at archeological excavation reports as well as historic accounts to back up the material that is being presented in the 3-D visualizations,” Payne said.

The visualizations are a research tool, not simply a best-guess, static picture. CAST’s computer application allows users to click on a structure for a record of the data and thinking that went into each reconstruction and to consider alternative decisions.

In addition to the work at Ostia, CAST researchers will be taking their advanced equipment – and expertise – to archeological sites in Bolivia, Peru and Egypt. CAST is partnering with the University of California, Los Angeles, to offer technical training at UCLA’s archeological field schools in summer 2009.

All images submitted by David Fredrick

About The Author

University Relations Science and Research Team

University Relations Science and Research Team

Matt McGowan
science and research writer

Robert Whitby
science and research writer

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