Tag Archives: Rome

Bringing the Domitilla Catacomb out of the Dark: Photogrammetry in Action

The first presentation at the EAGLE Conference was by Antonio Enrico Felle and Norbert Zimmermann who work on the Domitilla Project in Rome, and it was arguably one of the most impressive projects I’ve ever seen at a conference. The project has been working since 2006 to create a full 3D model of the Domitilla catacomb, 12km of subterranean burials from the 2nd to 5th centuries CE, which showcases one of the largest inventories of catacomb painting from early Christianity in Rome.

The catacomb was founded by Flavia Domitilla, niece of the emperor Domitian in the 2nd c CE. Christian burials were forbidden within the walls of Rome, so these subterranean burials had to be outside the city limits and there are at least 40 outside of Rome that have been discovered to date. Today catacombs provide the best examples of early Christian art; the Domitilla catacomb itself has over 80 painted tombs, and in the 5th century CE an underground basilica was added and became a pilgrimage sanctuary for the graves of martyrs Nereus and Achilleus.

Flavia Domitilla van Terracina, Nereus en Achilleus, Peter Paul Ruebens 1608

Flavia Domitilla van Terracina, Nereus en Achilleus, Peter Paul Ruebens 1608

The project’s goal was to create a 3D scan of the catacomb in order to facilitate research of the paintings and inscriptions found within, but also so that each feature of the site – chamber, painting or inscription – could be properly geotagged with their exact location. This would allow archaeologists to date the chronological development of the catacomb based on the dates of the tombs, paintings and inscriptions with more precision than had previously been possible.

Domitilla Project

Domitilla Project

Beginning in 2006 with three scanning campaigns, the team set out to determine the viability of using 3D laserscanners to create a digital copy of the catacomb.

The scanner orientates itself on temporarily applied reflector points (Fig.1). In 360-degree panorama-scans it generates so-called point clouds, which reproduce the surrounding area of about 1 m distance as a 3D-structure. In order to connect several scans with each other, further scan positions with at least five already known reflector points are selected. At the same time as the scan, a digital camera mounted on the scanner produces photo data that can directly be applied onto the point cloud. The advantage of this method lies in the mobility of these point clouds, which can be viewed from the outside as well as the inside and which can be virtually entered. Depending on the projection and position, a ground plan, cross- and longitudinal sections and 3D views are retrievable.

Once successful tests had been completed, the team moved forward with the scanning – moving the laserscanner eight meters for each set of shots, the scanner would record 2,000 points at each set up. They estimate they did two months of post-processing for every two weeks of fieldwork, and scanning continued through the beginning of their 2009 season when they registered the 1,800 single scans into a comprehensive point cloud. The final point cloud for the entire catacomb model contains 2 billion points, each with digital coordinates. This means anyone searching the model can pinpoint exactly where each feature of interest is located, and brings the epigraphy, topography, archaeology and art history of the catacomb together in a single application. Now that the digital scanning is complete, they are working on bibliographic information on the paintings and the saints buried in the catacomb.

To create photorealistic 3D models of the fresco paintings, meshed models are calculated from the point clouds and high resolution digital photos are applied to the model:

Domitilla fresco of  the so-called Chamber of King David

Domitilla fresco of the so-called Chamber of King David

The future of the project is a joint venture working with Terapoints on creating high quality visualizations of large data sets, such as the Domitilla Catacomb, as well as integrating the 3D photos of frescoes into the model.

In order to use the precise scan data as directly and unaltered as possible, the Domitilla-team was enhanced by new collaboration partners: the Institute of Computer Graphics and Algorithms of the Technical University of Vienna and the company Imagination, which are jointly developing the point-cloud viewer Scanopy. With its help extremely large point-clouds can be viewed in real time; the goal is to further develop this program according to the needs of archaeologists and building researchers.

There are some incredibly exciting developments in archaeological reconstructions happening these days. We’ve come such a long way from Sir Arthur Evan’s controversial reconstructions at Knossos. Digital models can be reconstructed, reinterpreted and manipulated a thousand different ways without ever degrading or damaging the fragile archaeological remains, which affords researchers more opportunity to explore theoretical reconstructions than ever before. And once the initial scans are done, digital sites are accessible to anyone with an internet connection, meaning it would be entirely possible to do a tour of the Domitilla Catacomb in any classroom in the world. There is no replacement for seeing sites like this in person, but for so many of us, travel and access to sites like this are simply out of reach; he Lascaux Caves, for example, have been closed to public viewing since 2008 because of fungus that threatens the paintings and requires careful monitoring so the images are not lost forever. Digital modelling offers a simple solution to problems of accessibility and responsible cultural heritage management.

For those in the Vancouver area with an interest in photogrammetry, the Vancouver AIA and From Stone to Screen are hosting a free workshop this Saturday, October 18th from 1-4 where participants will learn to create their own 3D models – email photogrammetry@gmail.com to reserve your spot! No prior knowledge required, just a camera and laptop.



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Filed under Archaeology, Digital Classics, Digital Cultural Heritage, Photogrammetry

My Interview with Andrei


Andrei Mihailiuk is a 2nd year MA student at UBC and for his digital humanities project this spring, he created an interactive map of the theorized routes of the Roman Triumphal Procession. Take it away, Andrei.


As always, let’s start with a brief description of your project.

My project is a database-in-progress recording the ancient literary references, archaeological traces and modern scholarly reconstructions of the Roman triumphal procession. The website takes the form of an interactive map of ancient Rome, derived from Platner and Ashby’s now-public domain Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome (1929), which allows users to compare the evidence with the various reconstructions.


What lead you to this particular topic? Did you have a prior interest in the subject or did you choose the topic based on what could best be presented digitally?

I knew from the get-go that I wanted to create some sort of digital map for my project.  As for the subject, I was initially attracted to the Roman triumph after reading Diane Favro’s fantastic article “The Street Triumphant”, which discusses the ways in which wealthy Roman patrons implicated themselves with Rome’s military narrative through their building projects along the triumphal route. One problem, alluded to in the article, is that the route of the procession is hazy, broken and contested.

What resources did you use? Did you have prior knowledge of these resources?

In the end, I used the site hosting server Wix, and an interactive mapping program called MapsAlive. While I had some rudimentary previous experience with site hosting servers using WordPress, I had never used either of these programs before.

What was the most challenging aspect of the project?

Perhaps the most challenging part of the project was cementing what exactly I wanted to do, and finding the corresponding toolset through which to accomplish it. My initial plans for the project were far more abstract, and were something to the effect of creating a map that conveyed the geographical and chronological expanse that the Roman triumphal procession condensed and narrativized in its route. This required a toolset that would allow not just hotspots with popup information, but the ability to zoom out and in over incredible resolutions. Simply put, such a program did not exist in my budget range. As my goals became far more modest – and arguably more fruitful – I finally came upon a program that could display exactly the information I wanted to display. The limitations of your presentation medium in effect become the limitations of your project.

What was the most enjoyable aspect of the project?

There is no greater joy in learning how a new toy works and taking the first steps to make it bend to your will. Coding JavaScript for MapsAlive was a unique kind of high, at least after the initial few hours of confusion and frustration.

Would you undertake a similar project again, now that you are familiar with the process?

Now that I have a basic knowledge of coding, and a deep understanding of this particular mapping program, I would absolutely undertake similar mapping projects, though perhaps with different research goals – just to see what other data can be effectively displayed in this medium.

Do you intent to maintain the site you created, or add content in the future?

I most certainly intend to maintain my website, and have even taken steps towards communicating with other scholars who have done work on the triumphal procession. Currently I feel that the archaeological aspects of this topic are underrepresented, and so I want more input from Roman urban archaeologists in particular.


Do you think this project was an effective way to study/teach about your topic?

Given that the top-down perspective of visualizing space has been favoured by humankind for thousands of years, I am confident that my two-dimensional map is an effective first step in highlighting some of scholarly problems surrounding the triumphal route. The ability to see how scant the evidence of the route is in direct comparison with the leaps in logic that scholars take in order to fill in the gaps, I feel, should incite a more careful and critical look at how we reconstruct the past, and should even bring the most fruitful methodologies to light.

Any final thoughts or comments?

Woo questionnaires!

Just for fun:

What is your favorite word?


What is your least favorite word?


What turns you on?

Certain eye movements

What turns you off?

Feet, in all forms

What sound or noise do you love?

That stock foley sound of someone typing on a computer keyboard

What sound or noise do you hate?

Squeaky brakes

What is your favorite curse word?

A close tie between fucknuggets and fuckdoodles

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Foley artist; session musician; career fop

What profession would you not like to do?

Surgeon; real estate agent; chartered accountant; any desk job

If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?

So…what’d you think?

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Get Your Freak On with Chelsea Gardner

Spectacular Antiquity screenshot 1

This is our second interview with one of the graduate students involved in Prof. Siobhán McElduff’s class on Roman Spectacle. Chelsea is  a third-year Ph.D. student in Classical Archaeology at UBC, and is actually responsible for getting the ball rolling on our current efforts to digitize the artifact and squeeze collections  in the Department of Classical, Near Eastern and Religious Studies.

Chelsea Gardner

For her project she created a website, Spectacular Antiquity, to look at how the human body was used “as a spectacle in and of itself and the psychological aspects involved in exploiting individual persons for visual display.”

Spectacular Antiquity screenshot 4

First, can you give a brief description of your project?

My project looked at the exploitation of human beings in antiquity, specifically people who were put on a form of display solely on the basis of their physical anomalies. Basically, I was exploring the idea of an ancient freak show: how, why, and in what circumstances ancient Romans stared at and reacted to the unusual, the deformed, the ‘other’. The questions I was interested in were: how were individual persons made into spectacles, and what is the psychological motivation for visually exploiting a fellow human being on the basis of physical deformity? I applied these questions to the Roman world and used evidence from ancient literature and modern psychological studies. My results were presented in the form of a website – an easily replicable, open-access format available to anyone interested in the topic!

Did you have a prior interest in the subject or did you choose the topic based on what could best be presented digitally?

I had my topic in mind before I chose a digital means for the presentation of the research: I read a passage from Lucian’s ‘Literary Prometheus’ in which a man and a camel are put on display in front of a crowd of people in a theatre because of their unusual appearances; the audience reacts with horror and the spectacle is a complete failure. This passage provided the impetus to research the notion of ‘freaks’ in antiquity…that, and the fact that I’ve had a slight fascination/obsession with sideshows and all things circus-related since I was little kid. I mean…who doesn’t love a good freak show?

What resources did you use? Did you have prior knowledge of these resources?

Having just admitted inclination towards freak-shows, I (not-surprisingly) knew where to find a good amount of material related to the early modern sideshow. And, like so many other starry-eyed teenagers, I began my academic career as a psychology major, so I knew exactly where to look for recent studies on the topic of psychological motivation. The ancient Latin sources proved a bit more challenging, as I am staunchly a Greek archaeologist, but I had lots of helpful advice and direction finding relevant sources to analyze.

What was the most challenging aspect of the project?

Definitely deciding how to present this very traditional academic research in a way that was visually appealing and accessible to a wide audience. I still have very little concept of whether I was successful in this aspect, but I like to think that the website isn’t a terrible eyesore and is somewhat fun to click around!

What was the most enjoyable aspect of the project?

Is it cliché to say that the most challenging aspect was also the most enjoyable? Because I was dealing with literary sources, I had a serious lack of visual resources to use on the website – as someone who deals primarily with material culture elsewhere in my research, this was an unfamiliar problem for me to have to face. One of the best parts of this project for me was sifting through open-access images and selecting the most appropriate photos and drawings to illustrate various aspects of the research. I even went so far as to contact a friend of mine who is an artist and commissioned drawings of some of the ‘freaks’ described in the literature – the piebald man, the ostrich-headed man, and one of the unfortunate prisoners from the monster-market. Visualizing these images and then having them become reality was an awesome and extremely satisfying experience.


Commissioned artwork

Would you undertake a similar project again, now that you are familiar with the process?

Unless I find a topic that would, indisputably, ideally be presented in this format, I think my answer would have to be probably not – the reason isn’t because the project was unfulfilling or unsuccessful (at least, I hope it was successful!), but because I think that creating this website as a digital venue for presenting information will function as a stepping stone for me into the larger world of the Digital Humanities. I loved this project, but now that it is complete it’s time for me to move on, to keep pushing myself to confront new challenges and to learn new skills. I look at the creation of this website as a baby step over the threshold of digital information sharing and am eager to see what lies ahead.

Do you intent to maintain the site you created, or add content in the future?

Absolutely. I feel strongly about the responsibility we all have to our digital projects – far too often websites and other digital media are created and subsequently neglected, resulting in irrelevant and out-of-date information that is still very much in existence on the web. I created this website so that it would require minimal maintenance, but I plan to add information and links to it as appropriate. I am very aware that this website will be attached to my name for as long as it exists on the internet, and therefore I have a vested interest and responsibility not only to maintain it, but to ensure that it remains something that I am proud of!

Do you think this project was an effective way to study/teach about your topic?

I hope so! The primary motivating goal of this project was to create something that would be accessible to everyone who might be interested, rather than restricting academic research to an academic audience. I was also focused on encouraging others to brave the world of Digital Humanities and as part of the website I included a How-To Guide, so that anyone interested in replicating the presentation of my website would be able to do so in its entirety. The acquisition of knowledge shouldn’t be competitive – through honest information sharing we do not put ourselves at a disadvantage, but we create invaluable networks and make ourselves open to infinite possibilities.

Any final thoughts or comments?

I love quotes so much (almost as much as freak shows and the circus!) that I’ll end with a quote pulled from a study on why the human brain becomes fixated on things that are ‘different’ – it just so happens to double as what I think is perfect advice to anyone hesitant to try something new:

“You may not always like novelty, but your brain does.” – G. Berns, 2006


What is your favorite word? Conglomerate. Just say it, it’s the best.

What is your least favorite word? Let’s just say it is NOT appropriate to type here…so my least favourite ‘PC’ word would have to be ‘nice’. Or ‘interesting’. My fourth-grade teacher Mr. Lyons once taught me that only lazy people use the descriptors ‘nice’ and ‘interesting’. I hope I’m never described as either.

What turns you on? The Ocean. Water. Novelty. Adventure. Singing. Dancing. Being Outside. Everything?

What turns you off? Monotony.

What sound or noise do you love? The ocean! Double points for using this answer twice?

What sound or noise do you hate? Any two sounds at once. Wait, that makes me sound crazy! Two different music sources playing at the same time.

What is your favorite curse word? Can I type this? Fuck, of course I can!

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? Movie star. I’d be such a good famous person. But, realistically, I probably should have been a lawyer.

What profession would you not like to do? Anything in a cubicle without a window.

And finally, 

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