Modelling the Past

Advancements in technology are revolutionizing not only the way that we study science and technology, but also the arts and humanities. History is no exception to this, and in this article, Dr Matthew Nicholls explains how his work developing digital 3D models is helping us understand the past in new and unexpected ways.

link different resources together and make them available to a global audience (and to a global network of collaborators) has produced databases of ancient texts and artefacts, inscriptions, coins, and artworks, together with online translations, dictionaries, and grammar tools help us to interpret them and follow links between them. Ambitious ‘digital humanities’ projects like Pelagios enable us to make new connections between these texts and artefacts, and places in the ancient world. At their best these new tools help us see things in a new way, posing new questions about the ancient world, building new connections between sources of evidence, and (we hope) helping us to address the ancient past in new ways.

My own work uses digital modelling to create 3D reconstructions of Roman buildings. This too brings a new digital technique to an old discipline. People have been proposing reconstructions based on the ruins of ancient Rome for centuries, long before the present-day academic disciplines of archaeology and Classics existed. Renaissance artists and architects sketched Roman remains as a source of inspiration for their own works; the antiquarians, collectors, painters and model makers of the Enlightenment created their own visions of the temples, baths, theatres, and forum spaces of Rome to feed a growing interest in the ancient past of the city.

Digital reconstruction is a new tool to put alongside painting, drawing, and model making. Like these older techniques it can address different audiences, and different questions. You can explore a few of my digital models of Roman buildings online here (together with some museum artefacts).

As you do so, you could think about the advantages (and disadvantages) of this technique. Often ancient buildings survive only as ruins, with their upper storeys, roofs, and architectural decoration long gone. Making 3D models of ancient buildings inside a computer allows us to restore missing elements and also to change the viewpoint from which we look at the structure. We can alter other factors too – the level of zoom, the lighting, the nature of the colour in the model; if we wish, we can turn elements on and off, add captions, create flythroughs, and so on. Experiment with moving around these models – use the left and right mouse buttons and scroll to move in and out. How does this differ from looking at reconstructions presented as plans or paintings?

This sort of dynamic, explorable reconstruction can give a more intuitive impression of an ancient structure than some other techniques, such as the 2D black and white grounds plans often used to illustrate ancient sites. In my experience a 3D reconstruction which one can fly around or walk through can be more accessible to students, and also members of the public at archaeological sites and museums. I used my model of ancient Rome as the basis for a free online course, which around 60,000 people have taken so far; learners tend to agree that the digital models allow them to make sense of ruins that they might have seen in books, or on trips to Rome.

What else could we add to such digital models? Advances in computer software and hardware, driven by the computer games industry with its appetite for creating immersive worlds for players to explore, make it relatively easy to add visual effects. Could we animate the effect of daylight or torchlight, and experiment with the sound of water falling into a basin, or the murmur of crowds in a theatre or forum? What about adding people, animals, vegetation; traffic in the roads, or the dirt and graffiti of urban life? What would the advantages and disadvantages?

You will see that my own models are relatively empty of this sort of ‘entourage’; there is no doubt that it can add life and a sense of ‘realism’, but we should also remember that any reconstruction of a ruin necessarily involves filling in some blanks. We can use the best evidence that we have; you might like to think about what sources we could turn to (the first paragraph of this short article contains some hints!). But in an academic reconstruction (as opposed to, say, a dramatic backdrop for a film or TV programme), there are limits are how far we can and should go to create an immersive, visually convincing and complete looking reconstruction. Where should the boundary lie between presenting information that we know about from evidence, and speculative reconstruction?

Dr Matthew Nicholls is Senior Tutor at St John’s College, Oxford

Images from Prof Matthew Nicholls’ Digital Model of Rome, as seen in his FutureLearn course. © Matthew Nicholls/University of Reading

Challenge 1

Take a look at these reconstructions of ancient Roman buildings:

Forum of Trajan, Rome

Baths of Caracalla, Rome

Library at Timgad – ruins and reconstruction

Library of Celsus at Ephesus

See whether you can find other examples online, or think about reconstructions you may have seen in books or TV documentaries or at museums.

Then think about these questions:

  • What sources of evidence do you think I used to create these models?
  • What kind of impression of the buildings do they give?
  • What advantages and disadvantages do you think three models have compared to other sorts of reconstruction (drawing, painting, physical model)?
  • What would you add, or take away?
  • Where would you set the balance of priorities between giving a museum visitor or student a visually appealing, engaging experience, and only showing them things which we know to be grounded in fact?
  • What sort of sources of evidence would you use, and how might you use the potential of digital models to educate and inform?

Challenge 2

The modelling software I used to build my model of ancient Rome is available free online. It’s called SketchUp and you can access a free version here, which allows you to model directly in your web browser (you’ll need a laptop or computer with a separate keyboard and mouse to get the most out of it). You can see a short guide to the software here.

  • Open up the software (you will need a login; you can use a Google account if you have one).
  • See if you can work out how to draw some simple shapes using the tools from the toolbar on the left-hand side (labelled ‘4’ on the annotated screenshot).
  • Over on the right-hand side are various other tools and settings.
  • Open the 3D warehouse (labelled ‘6’ on the annotated screenshot) and see what ready-made models you can find. Search for some Roman buildings under the ‘Models’ tab: you could try looking for the Colosseum, a Roman temple, and a Roman bathhouse by typing those terms into the search bar. Clicking the thumbnail of any of the models you find should allow you to open and explore it within the modelling software. Which ones seem well made and useful to you? Why?
  • If you are feeling particularly adventurous you could try making your own digital model – a reconstruction of an ancient building, like I do, or perhaps your own house or part of your school. Experiment with the drawing tools on the left (‘4’ on the annotated screenshot). Drawing simple shapes with the rectangle, draw, and push pull tools will get you quite a long way. You can add colours and textures with the paint bucket tool.

Hint: you can import an image from Google maps or as a starting point, and use Streetview to get views of your chosen building from different angles.

If you enjoyed this article…

You might want to explore our courses in:

Classical Archaeology & Ancient History | St John’s College, Oxford

History and Joint Schools | St John’s College, Oxford

Classics and Joint Schools | St John’s College, Oxford

Archaeology & Anthropology | St John’s College, Oxford