Rome Reborn – but showing no signs of life…

A University of Virginia-based Virtual Reality project Rome Reborn 1.0, that aims to digitally reconstruct ancient Rome has recently received a lot of media attention. I somehow feel that the story has been heard before. Here is an example of their digital model of the Roman Forum:

Empty space. The western end of Forum Romanum in the Rome Reborn model. Copyright of the Regents of the University of California 2007.

Notice the absence of signs of life – no people, no animals, no junk, no noises, no smells, no decay. Did Rome ever really look like this? The scene is utterly stripped of all the clutter that is what really fascinates us about the past. The burning question is whether this kind of (expensive and technology-heavy) representation really gives us fundamentally new insights into the past? From what I’ve seen so far of this project, I’m not convinced that this is the case.

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  1. Hello Troels,
    I once worked on a project where we digitally reconstructed the Late Antique Roman Baths of Grumentum based on our excavations. I notice that you visited once. Anyways when we did the reconstruction there was never a question of that being the end goal of all our work. Since then I have wrestled with the idea of what it actually means to have it.

    Since it is an exercise in interpreted speculation it’s only as good as the people interpreting it. Moreover it’s a composite construction since the best elements from each period are included (in this case though, the majority of the elements were Late Antique). However it provides a baseline interpretation from which hypothesis can be generated. Without these interpretations there can be no hermenutic cycle.

    Regarding large scale models such as the roman reconstruction, as the past is inevitably destroyed such models become digital repositories of what was. As such it is not so much breaking new ground but an act of preservation in the face of a hostile world.

    Digital models (unless based on new data) will never provide anything new no matter how complex. However they play a key role in the preservation and education of the classical world.

  2. Hi Andrew,

    Thanks for your comment. I agree with you – in part.

    These models can be excellent educational and preservational tools but I think that model-making in itself is an act of interpretation. As you write, what you put into a model is a very particular vision of the past, and not necessarily what others would pick up on. This is not a bad thing per se, but certainly something that presents challenges. How about thinking up ways that actually involve the viewer instead of presenthing something that appears as a complete picture – when in reality, it is anything but.

    I enjoyed Grumentum by the way! I may have seen some of your models in the museum there?

  3. Hello Troels,

    Glad you enjoyed Grumentum. One day I should tell you about the iconclascized (?) statues that we found in the Imperial Baths and how the went from Augustean baths to a 5th century Kitchen to 6th/7th century Lombard Necropolis.

    But back to the matter at hand, I think we expect too much from digital reconstructions of the past. To critique it for lacking elements such as people and smells is to impose an unrealistic expectation on a essentially primitive digital model is unfair. To have little animations moving around would ad an extra element of unreality (and probably bust their server budget). Architecture while sterile, is much less complex to simulate. It’s like saying after you break the world record for pole vaulting, “why didn’t you double it?”.

    As technology drops in price and processor power increases interactivity will be undoubtedly be added. It’s frustrating that such an achievment is greeted by such a round of pseudo marxist post modern sniping.

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