Virtual Archaeologists Bring a Roman Villa Back to Life

Historically accurate recreation of Hadrian’s Villa lets visitors explore as avatars of real residents.

Supercomputers, virtual reality and 3D modeling are supposed to be part of the technological wizardry creating the future, but scientists in the present are using those tools to recreate the past, as well.

British researchers announced in October that a 320 gigaflop/second SGI HPC cluster allowed them to model the skeleton and simulate the walking movement of a 95-million-year old, 80-ton Argentinosaurus, the largest animal ever to walk the Earth.

Three-dimensional printers helped German researchers create accurate 3D copies of fossilized dinosaur bones using computed tomography (CT) scans that create 3-D images by piling up hundreds or thousands of razor-thin cross-sectional X-rays to build a complete picture of an object and its insides.

They used the combination first to identify one of many fossils discovered in the basement of Berlin’s Museum für Naturkunde natural-history museum, protectively embedded in a protective coat of plaster but buried in a basement under rubble from a World War II bombing raid.

Now another group of scientists are about to take another big leap backward: on Nov. 22, an “archaeo-informaticist” will unveil a three-dimensional simulation that will allow visitors to take a virtual tour of 250 acres and more than 30 buildings digitally reconstructed as part of an accurate 3D representation of the imperial villa built for the Roman emperor Hadrian, who ruled from 117 A.D. to 138 A.D.

Hadrian’s Villa is already one of the best-preserved Roman imperial sites, but real life doesn’t hold a candle to the virtual version created by Indiana University Professor of Informatics Bernie Frischer, who trained as a classical philologist and archaeologist before being seduced by computers into what evolved into the academic discipline of digital analysis and reproduction of archaeological and historical works.

Frischer, who describes himself as a “virtual archaeologist,” previously recreated a long list of Roman sites in addition to founding the journal Digital Applications in Archaeology and Cultural Heritage.

The five-year effort to recreate Hadrian’s Villa is based on information from academic studies of the buildings and grounds, as well as analyses of how the buildings, grounds and artifacts were used. The interactive exhibit allows visitors to take on the likeness of avatars and play the historically accurate role of members of the imperial court, such as servants or soldiers.

The virtual world was built on the the multi-user, virtual-world gaming platform Unity 3D, with programming and design help from the Institute for Intermedia Arts at Ball State University.

“The simulation shows how the site looked during the reign of Hadrian,” Frischer said in a statement announcing the Nov. 22 debut. “It can be freely explored and used to support teaching and research.”

3D recreations of fossils – and the distribution of CT scans and designs for more – have the same potential to educate consumers, and to make scientific study more efficient by putting delicate, irreplaceable materials into the hands of scientists wanting to study them, according to Ahi Sema Issever of the Dept. of Radiology at Charité Campus Mitte in Berlin, lead author on the 3D fossil study published in the online version of the journal Radiology.

The level of detail provided by CT scans, and resolution possible from high-resolution laser sintering machine, is good enough to be considered even by paleontologists to be an accurate representation of the unprepared fossil, the paper concluded.

The combination of detailed knowledge and detailed, accurate reproduction – whether physical or digital – can make reproductions so precise that virtual examination is all but as good as the real thing, Issever said.

“Just like Gutenberg’s printing press opened the world of books to the public,” Issever added, “digital datasets and 3-D prints of fossils may now be distributed more broadly, while protecting the original intact fossil.”


Image: Virtual World Heritage Laboratory and the Institute for Digital Intermedia Arts