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Why do Virtual Heritage? March 13, 2008
by Donald H. Sanders

The Monument at Actium


Rendering of the monument at Actium showing a reconstruction of the main features, including the row of bronze rams protruding from the main wall of the complex (© 2003 Institute for the Visualization of History, Inc.)

In 31 B.C., Mark Antony and Cleopatra fought Octavian (later Augustus) in the crucial naval battle during their war for control of the Roman world. The two fleets clashed along the western coast of Greece, just outside the Ambracian Gulf. A nearby cape, Actium, gave the battle its name, and two years after the victory, Augustus built a monument in thanksgiving on the heights overlooking the waters where the battle had been waged. The monument has a stone wall into one side of which were set bronze rams cut off the bows of Antony and Cleopatra's ships.


Screen grabs from the virtual reality model of the Athlit ram, showing the ram shape and the rear outline of the ram (which matches the negative shapes cut into the wall at Actium) (© 2003 Institute for the Visualization of History, Inc.)

[image]Virtual reality model of the Athlit ram

(© 2003 Institute for the Visualization of History, Inc.)

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The oddly shaped cuttings in the Actium monument's wall are large and deep and seem to represent the negative shape of the backs of the rams. Each "socket" is unique in its size and shape, reflecting the dimensions of the actual rams at the point of contact with the wall. One goal of the project was to develop a virtual reality model that would give visitors to the planned site museum an appreciation for the massiveness of the bronze rams and an understanding of the general design of the monument.

We began by modeling the only surviving ancient bronze ram, from a medium-sized Hellenistic warship, discovered in 1980 off the coast of Athlit, Israel. We then modeled the monument at Actium and its wall of sockets. The Athlit ram computer model was then warped in 3D modeling software, while keeping its proportions intact, until it fit into socket number 4, one of the largest at Actium. The depictions of the battle spoils carved on a Roman triumphal arch at Orange, France, set up by Tiberius (dedicated ca. A.D. 26-27 include rams carved in high relief and almost a meter in length were used to refine the shape of the socket number 4 ram.


Rendering from the virtual reality model of the Actium monument showing the socket wall, original Athlit ram, and the much larger warped Athlit ram scaled up to fit socket number 4 (© 2002 Institute for the Visualization of History, Inc.)

This process allowed us to evaluate specific problems that were faced and solved by the builders of the monument in fitting the rams to the sockets, and problems faced by the artisans who designed the rams and by the founders who cast them. We were also able to calculate from the 3D models that emerged the weight of the original rams in order to consider the additional burdens added to ancient warships.

Information gained from this study will allow us to refine our knowledge of the performance capabilities of classical warships. That can be paired with ancient historical accounts so that we may understand more accurately the battles in which these big ships took part. We will also be able, for the first time, to examine the degree of accuracy in the claims made by various ancient writers regarding the size and composition of the warring fleets, since here we will have a large sample of the range of weapons and thus the size of the ships actually used in battle. Here, using virtual reality, we have been able to work backward from a single artifact to build a large historical picture and educate archaeologists about the nature of naval warfare.

Introduction & Conclusion Project 1

The Tantura Shipwrecks
Project 2

The Kyrenia Shipwreck
Project 4

The Northwest Palace at Nimrud
Project 5

The Temple of Athena Polias
© 2008 by the Archaeological Institute of America