Art & Technology

Hollywood technology used to examine new Herculaneum find

Researchers see future applications for this cross-over science

Researchers at the University of Warwick and the University of Southampton are using innovative technology pioneered by the film and automotive industries to recreate a 2,000 year-old Roman sculpture.

The head, believed to represent an Amazon warrior, was found by a team of British and Italian archaeologists from the Packard Humanities Institute Herculaneum Conservation Project in 2006 at the ancient Roman seaside city buried during the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79AD. At the time of its discovery, archaeologists noted the rarity of the statue as much of the painted hair, eyelashes and pupils is preserved.

In September, the local government body for cultural heritage, the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei, allowed researchers to measure, photograph and scan the statue’s surface. The on-site data was taken back to the UK where an exact replica of the sculpture was created.

Mark Williams from the WMG (formerly the Warwick Manufacturing Group), a department of the University of Warwick, said: “This is a relatively new application for this technology.” He added: “We’re using lasers to map the object’s surface geometry so there is no direct contact—it’s non-obtrusive and portable, opening up a new arena. We can produce a highly accurate, digital record of the object’s individual components which can be shared with institutions around the world.”

Mr Williams is currently fielding requests from archaeologists who want his team to scan wall paintings in Africa as well as artefacts recovered from other archaeological digs.

Archaeologist Dr Graeme Earl from the University of Southampton, whose team used advanced photographic technology known as polynomial texture mapping to capture the reflective properties of the statue as well as its texture, said: “I believe that any consideration of space and vision in archaeological research is impoverished without at least considering three dimensional computation…the days of ‘computation’ and ‘theory’ as distinct components to archaeological practice are and should be numbered.” He adds: “What is great is that the computer graphics world seeks visual accuracy through physical simulation and it is exactly this that archaeology and cultural heritage in general has so much to benefit from.”

Dr Earl also notes that this technology allows researchers to digitally manipulate artefacts to simulate various stages of the aging process. “Many people find it difficult to relate a conserved, heavily damaged object to the original. Computers allow this to be made very clear and show different options,” he said.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Roman statue revived by Hollywood techniques'