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Ashes2Art: Modeling the Past in 3D

An art history project focusing on the ancient Greek site of Delphi has students themselves using three-dimensional modeling software to create exact renderings of ancient structures. The project is part of a collaboration between two universities called Ashes2Art, in which students use computer modeling software to recreate and study ancient ruins.

Using a range of software including Google's SketchUp Pro, which is free to academics, undergraduate art students in Alyson Gill's art history class at Arkansas State University are creating computerized 3D models themselves of the famed Greek sanctuary at Delphi. While it's become more and more common to have professionals create virtual models of ancient sites, Gill said she thinks that having students do the modeling themselves is a rarity.

The Ashes2Art project first was developed at Coastal Carolina University and originally studied Renaissance period architecture in Florence, Italy. The project has since grown to include Arkansas State University and the Digital Delphi project.

Building the Past with Technology
The innovative Ashes2Art project combines art history, archaeology, 3D animation, and digital photography to allow art students to re-create exact renderings of ancient monuments online. Research by faculty and students includes site visits to shoot high-resolution digital panorama-view photos, and extensively research to ensure the end products are accurate. The idea, Gill said, is that "you can learn a lot more by building a building, than by sitting passively in a classroom and having digital images flash in front of you."

The stable of tools used to create the 3D models includes Easypano's Panoweaver, and Tourweaver; Autodesk 3DS Max; Adobe Photoshop, Flash, Dreamweaver, and Director; Google Earth and SketchUp; Maxon Cinema 4D; RealViz Stitcher; and Nemetschek VectorWorks.

Perhaps the most popular tool of all, Gill said, is Google Sketchup Pro. That's because the program has proved to be easy to use--some of the other modeling programs have steep learning curves--and can be put on students' home computers as well as school. Another value to SketchUp, Gill explained, is that models can be created in that program then exported to others for finishing or for other uses.

Funding the Project
The project received fresh funding in 2007 when Gill and an Ashes2Art colleague at Coastal Carolina University, Arne Flaten, who launched the program in 2005 with a colleague at Coastal Carolina, received a Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Ashes2Art project has garnered intense interest through papers and presentations nationally and internationally; Gill said that interest from colleagues has been "incredible."

Coastal Carolina University ran a trial in 2005 to determine the feasibility of a project of this nature, focusing on Renaissance Florence. Following the trial run, CCU's Flaten and co-director Paul Olsen visited Delphi in summer 2006 and were considering it for stage 2. Flaten and ASU's Gill later met at an NEH Institute, according to Flaten, and decided to collaborate and did settle on Delphi for the full project rollout.

Delphi posed a different problem from the ones posed by the Florence project, Gill said. Instead of requiring students to look at still photographs of an existing building and make a three-dimensional model from that, "they [would have] to go to excavation reports and learn how to read site plans ... and then build models that are architecturally accurate." Another challenge was that many of the site plans and excavation notes were in French, requiring students to translate them as part of their research.

While complex 3D computer modeling of ancient sites and buildings has become increasingly common--witness the movie Gladiator--having students do the work, and on the sort of limited budget that Gill faced--is virtually unheard of. Larger, better-known collaborative 3D modeling projects include one between the University of Virginia and UCLA called "Rome Reborn" that creates a fly-through reconstruction of the Roman forum and coliseum.

The difference, Gill said, is that those types of projects used professional modelers and generally relied on copious funding. "What we were doing was to try getting some of the same types of results," she said, "using students and incredibly limited funding."

Historical Accuracy
In general, 3D modeling is replacing the sorts of line drawings that used to be common in presenting conceptual drawings of ancient ruins. One issue with 3D modeling, Gill said, is a concern that the models be accurate. Because modeling can quickly create something that appears to be real, accuracy is sometimes lost in the process.

"One of our concerns is a lot of these buildings go up online, and they're not accurate at all"--something, Gill said, that can happen in computer-generated movie scenes, for example. "What we're trying to do is to ensure that [the models] are accurate" with a heavy focus on research, digital photos, and site visits.

Gill said she wants her class to create 3D renderings that "exactly correspond to the site plan," including where stones lie, basing the creation on intense research, including the many ideas archaeologists have about what the buildings at Delphi looked like.

In an ideal project, Gill said, "we'd eventually have clickable switches to allow somebody to say, 'This person believes that it would have looked like this ... and this person thinks it would look like this.' They could toggle between these different versions, all very well supported [by researchers]."

The NEH grant has allowed Gill to add elements to the course such as actually taking students to Greece to work on-site at Delphi, and to visit other Greek ruins. The project is also being coordinated closely with the Greek government, which is often concerned that computer models are accurate in representing the country's many ancient ruins.
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