Three-Dimensional Modeling in Mediterranean Archaeology: An Open Invitation

The positive response to my call for blog posts on issues centered on 3D modeling in Mediterranean archaeology has continued. For recent posts on this topic see here, here, and here.

My motivation for doing this came from this a number of sources. The most proximate inspiration came from a recent, fine article: Brandon Olson, Ryan A. Placchetti, Jamie Quartermaine, and Ann E. Killebrew, “The Tel Akko Total Archaeology Project (Akko, Israel): Assessing the suitability of multi scale 3D field recording in archaeology,” Journal of Field Archaeology 38 (2013), 244-262 (check out my brief summary and discussion here)’ I’ve also been amazed and inspired by some of Sebastian Heath’s recent work with the Kenchreai Excavations; Adam Rabinowitz’s interest in new ways to document both ongoing excavations and archives (e.g. here); Eric Poehler’s work at the Pompeii Quadraporticus Project; my wife’s encounters with 3D modeling through Sue Alcock’s, now-completed, Coursera MOOC: Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets; and Joanna Smith’s recent efforts at Polis-Chrysochous where I work. There seems to be enough buzz around the most recent generation of modeling software – particularly Agisoft Photoscan – to warrant some kind of treatment of this technology in print.

The contributions might best reflect the following issues (but I’m open to others!)

1. How do we understand the current crop of 3D modeling technologies in context of the history of archaeological imaging? Are the most optimistic readings of this technology mere echoes of earlier enthusiasm for photography in an archaeological context or is this somehow qualitatively different?

2. Is there an emerging consensus on best practices in 3D imaging of archaeological sites? What are the current limits to this kind of technology and how does this influence the way in which data is collected in the field?

3. How do we understand archival considerations for 3D models and their dependent data? For example, what happens when we begin to prepare archaeological illustrations from 3D models collected in the field and processed using proprietary software? How do we manage the web of interrelated data so that future archaeologists can understand our decision making?

4. What is the future of 3D modeling in archaeology? At present, the 3D image is useful for illustrating artifacts and – in some cases – presenting archaeological and architectural relationships, but it has yet to prove itself as an essential basis for analysis or as a robust medium for communicating robust archaeological description. Will 3D visualization become more than just another method for providing illustrations for archaeological arguments?

My proposal for publication is as follows: This fall we run a series of blog posts on various aspects of the questions posed above (or whatever you want to write on). Let’s set a preliminary deadline of September 1st. I’ll post to my blog articles on Tuesdays and Thursdays (Three-D Tuesdays/Thursdays) for as long as we have content. I’ll create a heading image or something and will need an author/affiliation line from everyone. The main benefit of running this on my blog, rather than a separate blog, is that we have visibility.

Once all the posts are up and comments are made, I can take the posts and edit them with comments into a little pdf book. If we’re all beyond excited, I’m willing to prepare it for circulating in paper as print-on-demand. This is but a small step from preparing a pdf copy).

To make this easier, I ask that you send me your posts as .txt files with hyperlinks in parenthesis and in-text citations. Please send along images as separate files (in a zip folder) include captions where you’d like them to appear in the blog post. Include a works-cited at the conclusion of your contribution. The deadline for all contributions will be September 1 and the posts will start as soon as possible thereafter! I’m imagining contributions of under 2500 words, but since “electrons are free” I can certainly accept longer pieces!

If you’re doing interesting work and want to contribute to this drop me a line: billcaraher (at) gmail (dot) com. This will be a very inclusive project.


  1. To reply:

    “At present, the 3D image is useful for illustrating artifacts and – in some cases – presenting archaeological and architectural relationships, but it has yet to prove itself as an essential basis for analysis or as a robust medium for communicating robust archaeological description.”

    3D modeling has been used for analysis and interpretation in archaeology for decades. Simon Ellis was a pioneer of lighting simulation, publishing a paper in TRAC 1994 about illumination of a 3D reconstruction of a Roman villa and its affect in the dining experience. He has followed up this work with further simulations in other villas. I’ve done some work in this respect more recently with the House of the Faun and two houses near Antioch. There are others engaged in the same methodology.

    Then, there’s the Forma Urbis project, which I consider to be one of the greatest digitial humanities projects ever conceived: 3D scanning of fragments of the Marble Plan and algorithms for analysis of more than 100 different types of lines to put numerous pieces back together. More matches were made by this algorithm than made manually over the last several centuries–and more difficult matches also, since the easier ones were already made by Roman topographers.

    3D applications in archaeology are routinely covered in the VAST and CAA conferences and journals, and sometimes even SIGGRAPH–not just the technical aspects of data capture, but also archiving and maintenance of the data. The technology isn’t new, but it has improved in recent years in processing efficiency and cost (especially with photogrammetry software, like PhotoScan). It might seem like I’m jumping down your throat about your perception of the novelty of the technology, and I apologize, but I think it illustrates how much CAA and other conferences have improve their profiles in the United States. We should really push for more computational archaeology unconferences and meetups in the U.S. so that this knowledge is more widely disseminated within the archaeology community.


    1. Ethan,

      This is great!!! Can you provide this kind of historical perspective for our little collection of contributions on the 3D modeling in Mediterranean archaeology. I completely agree with you. What we’re probably seeing is the move of these techniques to the mainstream archaeological discourse (not to place the CAA outside of the mainstream!). So it’s a combination of the technology becoming more affordable and accessible and (perhaps as a result) this technology and techniques being more and more accepted part of archaeological fieldwork in even rather conservative circles.

      Correct me if I’m wrong, but more than that, contribute to our conversation in September! Please!



      1. I’m writing my piece right now and the first part overlaps with what Ethan is saying. But I qualify by noting that in the study of the history of technology phases of invention and early development are not more (or less) interesting than phases of rapid adoption. The tool chain of easy creation, easy manipulation, and easy publication seems to be putting us in a phase “rapid adoption”. And it’s worth being self-reflective at this time. In that vein, I’m not a “3d guru” by any means. I’m an archaeologist first (ok, yeah, a technologically confident one). You could say the same for many of the people Bill mentions in the post and has included in the twitter conversation. Again, that’s possibly interesting in relation to the conversation that will come out of this series of blog posts (and mini-book).

  2. Reblogged this on AIA Geospatial Interest Group and commented:
    Bill Caraher “The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World” is in the process of soliciting posts to his blog on the use of 3D imagery in archaeology. Not only is the topic interesting and somewhat timely, but I am looking forward to seeing how the process of gathering and disseminating these posts develops.


    1. Dear Jim,

      Hi. I would like to send you a short piece on our 3D work at Skoteino Cave in Crete.

      Please let me know to whom I should send this.

      Loeta Tyree ASCSA


      1. Loeta,

        Great! I’ve talked to Jon Frey informally about contributing something. I’m looking forward to hearing how the use of 3D scanning can facilitate planning caves and other difficult to map features.


  3. G.Nockemann @ AMD Nockemann August 2, 2013 at 3:43 pm

    Hat dies auf Archäologie 2.0 rebloggt und kommentierte:
    Bill Caraher, ein vom Historiker zum Archäologen “mutierter” Professor an der University of North Dakota at Grand Forks, dokumentiert in seinem Blog “The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World” seine Gedanken und Ideen zur Archäologie im mediteranen Raum. In einigen Beiträgen widmet er sich der Anwendung vom 3D-Techniken in der Archäologie. In dem hier rebloggte Artikel ruft er andere Wissenschaftler auf zu diesem Thema Artikel bei ein einzurechen, die er dann elektronisch publizieren möchte. Als Aufhänger stellt er vier Fragen, auf deren Beantwortung ich schon gespannt bin.


  4. Kai-Christian Bruhn August 2, 2013 at 5:21 pm

    Wouldn’t it be useful for the discussion to ask, what we consider as 3D? And in a subsequent step, what prerequisites we have to take into account when looking at acquisition-techniques and data-models? Let’s start to acknowledge that e.g. terrestrial and airborne LIDAR are two worlds far off the galaxy of object scanning or photogrammetry.
    Your points have vast implications and it would be encouraging to narrow down the scope. I’d be happy to contribute both to the discussion as well as to the blog-posts.


    1. Kai-Christian,

      You make some good observations. Certainly in terms of process LiDAR is very different from photogrammetry. I’d be very interested in something from you that makes clear how narrowing the scope of this discussion will move our understanding of these methods (and their analytical perspectives) forward.



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