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

Case studies from the portfolio of a long-time practitioner



Montage of projects developed over the years by Learning Sites, Inc., and the Institute for the Visualization of History, Inc., including (clockwise from top right) the: Athenian Acropolis, Greece; temples at Gebel Barkal, Nubia, Sudan; sanctuary at Nemrud Dagi, Turkey; settlement of Til Barsib, Syria; and the mastaba of Ka(i)pura, Saqqara, Egypt. (Images © 1996-2006 Learning Sites, Inc., and the Institute for the Visualization of History, Inc.)

Those of us in the virtual heritage business who create digital surrogates of the ancient world see many benefits of visualizing the past interactively and in 3D. We understand that the past did not happen in 2D and that it cannot be effectively studied or taught as a series of disconnected static images that, for the most part, represent incomplete remains. It seems obvious to us that you need an interactive, 3D approach if you expect others to get excited about ancient cultures or expect them to grasp the implications of the evidence.

But how do we convince archaeologists, who should be embracing our technologies, that it is to their advantage to see the ancient world as the ancients did, rather than as static 2D representations in black and white? Today, when personal digital video and music players, GPS-enabled camera cell phones, wireless high-speed home networks, and laptops for schoolchildren are commonplace, why is it so difficult to convince scholars that interactive 3D environments are instructive not simply eye-catching novelties? We could even state this more forcefully: Archaeologists are doing a disservice to their discipline, colleagues, students, and the public by not using all means available to record sites, test hypotheses, and teach about the past.

I have worked in virtual heritage for more than a decade, and in 1993 was involved in one of the earliest virtual re-creations of ancient sites, Buhen, a 12th Dynasty Egyptian fortress whose remains were inundated by Lake Nasser in the late 1960s. Over the years my two companies have worked on dozens of projects--partnering with many archaeologists, museums, broadcast channels, publishers, and even foreign governments--and covering all types of data and visualization goals, from teaching packages, to research resources, to digital publications, to hypothesis tests. We have found that projects routinely generate unexpected revelations about the excavated record, and that the archaeologists who collaborate with us learn about their sites in ways not possible with traditional analytical tools. New understandings emerge when scholars see the ancient world in context, in 3D, and through the eyes of the ancient inhabitants. With new understandings come a new appreciation for the complexity of ancient cultures; lessons that can provide more relevance for the classroom, for the public, and for ourselves; and new challenges for the way archaeology is done.

Before looking at digital visualization case studies, we need to consider how archaeological data has traditionally been illustrated, and how that affects what we know and how we learn about the past. Since archaeology's eighteenth-century beginnings, we have relied mostly on drawings, photographs, charts, and graphs. But before then--way before then--there was stone. When Gudea, the prince of Lagash in Sumeria around 2125 B.C., wanted a new temple built he depicted his vision as a simple plan etched in stone. In fact, a small statue of Gudea in the Louvre shows him seated on his throne with a slab engraved with a plan, symbolizing the beginning of the construction. But Gudea was depicting future architecture, not history. Similarly, when the Egyptians, Assyrians, Greeks, and Romans depicted architecture (to decorate rooms, record battles, and show foreign lands) they were usually illustrating their present for storytelling, education, or enjoyment, not trying to understand some distant past. Yet, the modes chosen by them to represent their built environment were relatively consistent--2D plans and elevations. Later, when people began documenting the history of architecture (as an aid for contemporary construction or as a chart of past styles), dating at least as far back as the thirteenth-century work of the French traveler Villard de Honnecourt, the use of plans and elevations continued as the chosen means of visualization.

Archaeologists have traditionally recorded architecture using precisely the same formats. This is primarily because the development of archaeology as a discipline in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries coincided with the needs of contemporary architects who were designing buildings in the Classical revival styles then popular. Architects needed accurate renditions of ancient Greek and Roman building details to incorporate into their designs, and they needed those delineations in the same formats they used to submit their work to builders, namely, plans, sections, and elevations.

Then, a radically new technology emerged: photography. By the 1840s and 1850s, soon after its invention, Western travelers used the new medium to document ancient ruins and exotic cultures they enountered. For archaeologists, photography offered archaeologists an efficient and effective means of recording their work and providing duplicate images for mass distribution--benefits similar to those promised for 3D computer modeling. But they resisted accepting it into normal fieldwork and reporting. Only during the last decades of nineteenth and first decades of twentieth centuries, did photography finally become the standard tool for recording excavations and artifacts. Nevertheless, for many decades thereafter photography remained little more than an optional, adjunct means to illustrate monuments, enliven reports, and produce dramatic images for fundraising efforts. It was not until the mid-twentieth century that British archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler, aided by his photographer Maurice B. Cookson, wrote in Archaeology from the Earth (1954) that photographs should be used to document the course of excavations. It was only then that "archaeological photography made the transition from mere snapshots to scientific recording" (Robert B. Wright in Eric Meyers, ed., 1997. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East [1997], volume 4, pages 331-336).

Today, interactive 3D computer graphic formats offer the opportunity to reproduce the ancient built environment as a precise digital replica, yet most archaeologists continue to illustrate their publications, teaching materials, and research with the same 2D plans, sections, and elevations that have depicted architecture for millennia. As with the early use of photographs, when computer graphics are included, they are often merely illustrative asides. And for reasons similar those that slowed the acceptance of photography, interactive 3D graphics have been slow to become widely adopted: the equipment is awkward and expensive and breaks down frequently; the results cannot be trusted (there is a perception with computer graphics that the images can be too easily manipulated; the same was said about early photographs); and too few people know how to use the technique competently.

Happily, increasing numbers of those in archaeology have acknowledged that interactive 3D modeling can help them better understand their data and we are moving beyond the type of static 2D representation that Prince Gudea used. However, very often discussions of their use of the technology are predicated by the comment, "Oh, I have a graduate student who can do this for me." This is an unsatisfactory response both because it suggests a limited knowledge of virtual heritage on the part of the archaeologists and because it is a real speciality, not something a grad student can do on the side. Again there is a parallel in the use of photography for archaeology. Even with the easy-to-use digital cameras, archaeologists need professional photographers. If one looks at a majority of photos published in excavation reports, they still, half a century later, do not even meet the minimum standards codified by Wheeler and others 1940s and 1950s. Creating 3D models is great fun and getting easier, but it still takes trained professionals to get the visualizations correct and to have the results meet the goals of the project or be appropriate to test hypotheses about the dig.

In the following review of some of our projects, my focus is on how we are not merely extending the types of visualizations that can be created, but taking advantage of the digital medium to do what photography, drawings, or other similar methods cannot, that is, produce new insights into the past, which after all is what archaeology is supposed to be all about. The examples are presented in no particular order. For each site, I briefly describe the location and excavation history, the goals of the digital visualizations, and the benefits derived from such an approach.

Project 1

The Tantura Shipwrecks
Project 2

The Kyrenia Shipwreck
Project 3

The Monument at Actium
Project 4

The Northwest Palace at Nimrud
Project 5

The Temple of Athena Polias


One of the circumstances in which the value of interactive visualizations is strongest is in K-12 education. We have developed teaching packages for several curricula standards, classroom situations, and school formats. Using the most up-to-date virtual reconstructions of the ancient world to instill wonder and excitement about the past has become a powerful teaching tool whose benefits do not necessarily affect scholarship as much as it does the young active minds of future scholars. Typically, our packages have included the kinds of interactive site and artifact re-creations discussed in the above examples, sometimes with lesson plans, background text about the site, links to excavation or current photographs, and other resources to help teachers integrate our modules into their classroom routine.

Our experience is best exemplified in the words of one of our collaborating teachers, Neil Goldberg. "Virtual simulations, by enabling students to experience archaeological sites as completed structures rather than as stray fragments, provide an opportunity for students to assume the role of explorer and experimenter. No longer is the student condemned to passively absorb canonized information. Able to observe archaeological sites as they appeared when in use, students can begin to formulate their own models of political, social and economic behavior as well as actively evaluate the explanations provided by the archaeological and historical community. The technology enables teachers to aggressively address the problems inherent in any textbook-bound approach to the study of history by reorienting the direction of learning. The primary text students use in the classroom is thus the actual artifactual evidence as it appeared in its original context."

By giving students a near firsthand experience of visiting ancient sites, we can both excite and educate. The interactive re-creations we produce provide a new generation of visual aids and documents that brings history alive in ways no other media can, while also engaging the viewer in participatory learning.


Words describing, and diagrams, photographs, and a rendering from our virtual reality model of the West House showing various ways to depict the evidence of the building. The wording only explains a small portion of the remains. The plan and photograph do not tell the whole story and cannot give a sense of three-dimensionality of the spaces. (Text, plan, and photograph © 1999 Nemea Valley Archaeological Project; rendering © 2005 Learning Sites, Inc.)

These case studies show that the benefits of virtual heritage go far beyond the capabilities of conventional illustration techniques, especially the traditional 2D drawing types that have been used to represent architecture since the time of Prince Gudea of Lagash. Moreover, virtual heritage can act as a surrogate past--alive with lighting, scale, movement, people, multiple viewpoints, global access--not merely a momentary still snapshot of it or its remaining fragments. For that reason, it can be used to test bold new hypotheses about the past in ways impossible without interactive 3D models. Finally, even the processes of building and using interactive 3D re-creations of archaeological evidence can suggest new insights about the past.

The path toward acceptance and use of virtual heritage techniques is akin to the slow way photography became introduced and integrated into archaeology. Even 13 years after the introduction of the first virtual ancient worlds, we still find ourselves needing to convince archaeologists that it is in the field's best interest to adopt this now not-so-new technology. Building detailed, precise, and accurate 3D models based on excavated evidence calls for intellectual judgments and a software learning curve, which makes applying it to fieldwork and publishing akin to hiring a skilled photographer before creating adequate recording of excavations for research and dissemination. In order to do the job correctly, professionals must be involved.

A few years ago, historian David Staley, executive director of the American Association for History and Computing, wrote in Computers, Visualization, and History (2002) that computer visualization can do what "prose cannot capture." His argument is that the real impact of the computer has been as a graphics tool more than as a processor of words. Thus, computer graphics can present a deeper and more richly rewarding history by giving a 3D solidity to past places and events, and at the same time act as a repository for the images, words, and objects that together define who we are and how we got here.

And that's why we must do virtual heritage. Because there is no better way to

  • test the accuracy of past interpretations and evidence;
  • test complex spatial, behavioral, or temporal hypotheses;
  • assemble globally dispersed artifacts back into a simulation of their original contexts;
  • teach about cultural change and intrasite development;
  • engage students to visualize and become excited about all those broken rocks and old dusty artifacts;
  • absorb complex information sets about the past visually, interactively, and in 3D, just as in real life. Words are good; words and diagrams are better; linked databases and interactive 3D worlds are better still.

Just as photography became an integral part of archaeological process, so now must 3D modeling become the basic method used by archaeologists for their research, teaching, and publications. By not doing so, they will not be bringing all the means available to the task of collecting, analyzing, interpreting, and disseminating the data about their excavations. In the future, anyone not using interactive 3D computer graphics could be seen as one now views anyone who has not published their excavation material--they deprive the profession, students, and the general public of vital information necessary to the understanding the past.

For more about these and other projects see the websites of Learning Sites, Inc., and The Institute for the Visualization of History, Inc. Questions about this article and the case studies described here can be sent to Donald H. Sanders at


Donald H. Sanders is president of Learning Sites, Inc. and The Institute for the Visualization of History, Inc. His 1984 dissertation at Columbia University, "Behavior and the Built Environment," focused on Myrtos, a Bronze Age site on Crete. Parts of this article were given as short talks at the Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology annual meetings (Fargo, April 2006) and at the Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities annual meetings (Toronto, May 2006), in the "The Computer: the once and future medium for the social sciences and humanities" symposium. Several archaeologists collaborating with us contributed assessments of their projects to this work; so, my thanks for their assistance go to Neil Goldberg, Susan Katzev, William Murray, Samuel Paley, Gloria Pinney, and Shelley Wachsmann.