Digitally Reconstructing the Past: How 3D modelling is being used to share engaging representations of history

Tom Keep, PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, shares his experience working on 3D modelling projects to offer insight into what is involved in their creation.

Have you ever been to an archaeological site and not really known what you were looking at? Have you ever gone through the online catalogues of the British Museum or the Louvre, and felt that the pictures really didn’t get the feeling of the object across to you? Applications of 3D modelling and virtual reality are progressively becoming a means for academics, curators, and archaeologists to better convey the nature of the material they work with and make this information interesting and accessible for audiences across the globe.

The rapid advancement of technology and the easy availability of digitization software has made previously complex and expensive procedures for modelling heritage simpler and more approachable. Whereas, a decade ago, a university lab may have spent tens of thousands of dollars on high-tech 3D scanning equipment to analyze their material collections, today the iPhone 12 has a built-in LiDAR scanner which can produce 3D models on the fly. With a small investment in a decent DSLR camera, some commercial (or even open-source) software packages, and a bit of time tinkering with the systems, photogrammetric modelling can be used to transform photographs into highly accurate 3D models of a comparable standard to those produced by high-cost 3D scanners. The British Museum was quick to take advantage of this development, and today has almost 300 models freely available for viewing and download on their SketchFab page. Smaller institutions have been jumping on board too, such as the Hellenic Museum of Melbourne, where I recently completed modelling much of their material collection and uploading them online for the Hellenic Museum Digitization Project.

Classical Apulian Spherical Pyxis ca. 320 BCE Modelled for the Hellenic Museum of Melbourne Available at https://skfb.ly/ooW8V

3D modelling offers opportunities to better represent material heritage, giving a much more engaging sense of the object than can be offered by a still photograph. Many initiatives take the method further, using it to create highly realistic speculative reconstructions of the ancient world, and display these reconstructions in engaging interactive experiences. The Melbourne-based Lithodomos VR has been producing reconstructions of the ancient world for museums, schools, tour groups, and home viewing, including a reconstruction of the ancient theatre of Nea Paphos in Cyprus, produced in collaboration with the University of Sydney and The Paphos Theatre Archaeological Project [Editor’s note: the AAIA is a sponsor of the Paphos Theatre Archaeological Project]. Their reconstructions are carefully researched, lifelike, and engaging and can provide visitors a much clearer understanding of how an archaeological site would have looked and felt than a visit to the remains alone.

University of Sydney and Lithodomos – An incredible reconstruction of Nea Paphos Ancient Theatre

The potential for 3D modelling of heritage is tremendous, and it is being realised on a grand scale. On SketchFab alone, one can see the interior of the paleolithic Chauvet Cave in France, usually closed to the public in the interest of conservation. You can explore the interior of the Tomb of Nefertari, or see a reconstructed Roman room in Londinium. Beyond SketchFab, the Rome Reborn project has, since 1997, been reconstructing Imperial Rome building by building, and the SensiLab of Monash University is developing a simulation of movement around Angkor. Other projects are working to incorporate the immersive appeal of video games into their reconstructions, with Virtual Songlines creating interactive cultural heritage survival games, and the Tesseract Studio of the University of Arkansas creating explorative experiences of Pompeii. My own research at the University of Melbourne is exploring how these kinds of reconstructions can foster engagement with smaller rural archaeological sites, too often buried soon after excavation or not made accessible and communicated to the public.

A practice render in preparation of a reconstructed Australian archaeological site, created by the author.

Creating these models is an interdisciplinary effort between archaeologists, historians, developers and designers. Digital assets can be created from real world objects using 3D scanning or photogrammetry, but where remains are incomplete or fragmentary they have to be created from scratch, making inferences from archaeological evidence and comparable extant materials. The best projects put research at the heart of their reconstructions, following on from the longstanding tradition of speculative reconstructions in lithographs and physical models produced for major excavations, such as those at Olympia. The popularity of Roman and classical Greek architecture and history has led some enthusiasts to build their own reconstructions of questionable legitimacy, pulling elements from historical fantasy video games and placing them without providing justification for their decisions. The Assassin’s Creed video games series presents a particularly interesting example of this, creating well researched and highly detailed worlds, but without providing their research to the public to scrutinize their decision making, and at times taking creative licence and deviating from reconstructions supported by evidence – as discussed by Kathleen Lynch from the University of Cincinnati. This raises a problem of authority, with the average player of the games unlikely to be able to distinguish reconstruction from fantasy. The majority of professional and academic projects, however, are taking their research seriously, and are openly and meticulously incorporating it into their design.

19th Century Speculative lithograph of Olympia. Source: Wikicommons

In the coming years, partly spurred on by restricted access to heritage resulting from the COVID pandemic and the capacity of technology to produce more lifelike renderings of the past, 3D and virtual reconstructions are likely to become integral components of museum displays and heritage outreach, which I believe may provide general audiences with a greater desire and ability to engage with the past.

Tom Keep is an archaeologist, photogrammetrist, and PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne. He is researching the use of digital representations of heritage materials and the possibility of virtual reality to engage audiences with rural archaeological sites. He has worked as a research assistant with Lithodomos VR, a photogrammetrist at the Hellenic Museum of Melbourne, and has excavated in Italy, Israel, and across Victoria.

Contacts

Dr Stavros Paspalas – Director
Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens, Room 480, Madsen Building (F09), University of Sydney NSW 2006 Australia
+61 2 9351 4759 +61 (0)2 9351 7693 arts.aaia@sydney.edu.au