Ancient cities rise again: Introducing virtual archaeology

Technology developed by a California-based firm has made it possible to walk through vanished sites.


Imagine walking through the streets of the Roman forum, not through the crumbling remains that still survive, but through a reconstructed, full-scale model of the ancient seat of imperial power, complete with its basilicas, temples, and triumphal arches. This vision of the future is closer than you think.

Technology developed by SGI (Silicon Graphics International), a firm based in California and the same company that brought us 64-bit Nintendo, has made it possible to do just that.

Although virtual exhibitions and computer-based museums have been a promising possibility since the first works of art were scanned and stored, technology has only just caught up with the expectations placed upon it. Expanding bandwidth, which determines the amount of information that can be used within an operating system, has now made it possible to resurrect ancient cities, this time in pixelated surround sound.

Like CD players, microwave ovens and the internet, virtual reality has its roots in military technology, where the ability to move in real-time through realistic environments is essential for the training of pilots.

Real-time motion means that instead of a single path, or single set of paths, through an animated field, the database which makes up a scene is mapped as fixed points among which a user may travel, which makes each journey open-ended and allows users to examine virtual objects as though they were real.

Visual information is projected in a specially constructed display called a Reality Center, a series of large darkened rooms with curved screens or domes for large displays and benches and desks for smaller ones. Viewers are required to wear special glasses in order to fully resolve the images into three dimensions, though not every application features this, and the smaller displays can incorporate special gloves so that researchers can interact with the data in real time. The experience is like a combination of documentary film and non-violent video game, all in three ghostly dimensions.

There are at present about 400 such systems in operation around the world, and most of these are used in the automotive and oil exploration industries. But the potential applications for archaeologists, conservators, and museums are striking.

At the Foundation of the Hellenic World, the Athens-based organisation founded in 1996 to promote the understanding of Hellenic culture, archaeologists have collaborated with computer scientists to resurrect the ancient city of Miletus.

Completed at the end of 1999, the city is shown in a room on each wall of which real-time images of the city are projected, allowing visitors wearing special glasses to travel through the city and experience everything in detail, and at their own pace.

According to Maria Roussou, Virtual Reality Team Coordinator for the Foundation of the Hellenic World, “The development of virtual experiences must be coupled with the creation of sound and informed educational content, if we want to take the technology to the next level. As the technology progresses and virtual reality enters the home, the novelty will quickly wear off. It is up to the researchers and educators to ensure that this tremendous tool is explored to its full potential, so that we can provide the coming generations with truly engaging and educational learning resources.”

The Hayden Planetarium in New York uses similar technology to take audiences of over 400 people on a tour of some 200,000 known stars. Beyond this, the stars included in the display are “statistically likely stars” generated by computer.

Because so much of what the simulators depict is unknown or unrecorded, statistical probability becomes as much a part of the data as that which has been studied and examined with more traditional means. This technique of extrapolation is also used at the University of California, Los Angeles, where a team of researchers and students are rebuilding the Roman Forum as it appeared in imperial times.

It is impossible to underestimate the potential benefits to scholars of using such models. Unlike traditional, low-bandwidth virtual exhibitions already used by museums such as the Walker Art Center and the Guggenheim, these virtual reality environments allow users to explore information in ways that the designers need not have predicted. It is the open-ended nature of the experience that is of such appeal to researchers and visitors alike.

Think of the audience-grabbing possibilities of these applications for museums. In an ever competitive marketplace the potential returns of such “edutainment” are huge. The Reality Center at the Foundation for the Hellenic World receives 500 visitors a day and the Hayden planetarium has been seen by a million people since it opened.

Further applications include the recreation of private collections or private houses, or sites that are too fragile or inaccessible for researchers or the public to visit. Any site conceivable could be visited by thousands a day without fear of damage to the site and perhaps more importantly, without necessitating the removal of objects from the locations in which they are discovered. Sites that cannot be visited, such as submerged wrecks or mountaintop temples, could be brought to audiences through this technology.

Similarly, in smaller virtual reality environments where the user can interact with the objects, delicate artefacts could be handled and examined by researchers around the world and as many times over as is necessary without risk to the original objects themselves.

For now the cost of developing such systems may prove prohibitive for most museums. According to a spokesperson for SGI, “Prices range from $250,000 to $5 million, but, in our experience, clients can expect a return on investment within three to six months.”

There will, of course, never be anything quite like the real thing. Limitations of time and money may compromise detail, and nothing will ever replace the experience of actually visiting a site. But this new technology could take us pretty close.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Ancient cities rise again'