Closing Gaps with Low-Cost 3D

This is the fifth in a series of posts exploring 3D modeling in Mediterranean and European archaeology. For more on this project click here. We hope these papers will start a discussion either in the comments of the blog or on Twitter using the #3DMedArch hashtag.

Sebastian Heath, Clinical Assistant Professor of Ancient Studies, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University

I start with a personal statement: I use 3D-tools because I want to bridge the gap between my work in the field – which is mainly with Roman objects, particularly ceramics – and anyone who might be interested in my efforts. To put that another way, I am able to experience objects and sites directly and I want to share the best approximation of my own access with others. “Access” is the key word here. For me, that’s what 3D modeling is all about.


Optimism and Context

I’ll also begin by saying I am an optimist and think that the recent drop in the cost of generating models and the current opportunities for free distribution of those models mean that change is in the air. Of course, 3D technologies have been available for many years so it’s important to stress that there are pioneering archaeologists who dove in well before I did. And I note that they’ve done so in ways that have made substantive contributions to our understanding of major issues in Mediterranean archaeology. The Stanford Digital Forma Urbis Romae Project (Levoy and Trimble n.d.) as well as Rome Reborn (Frischer 2013) obviously merit mention here; as does Philip Sapirstein’s (2010-11) ACLS-funded online publication of 3D models from Mons Repos at Corfu. This project is distinguished by making its data available for download under a Creative Commons license. And I also briefly note work in Emerita Augusta, modern Merida in Spain, that has helped confirm and improve the re-assembly of non-joining statue fragments from the so-called “Marble Forum” in the heart of the Roman colony into a convincing Aeneas, Anchises, Ascanius group (Mercan et al. 2011). These models give vivid context to A. Jiménez’s more theoretical discussion of “mimesis” in Roman Hispania, in which that group receives considerable attention (Jiménez 2010).

Longer-term History

But having noted pre-existing work, I think it’s worth recognizing that in the history of technology, origins and early efforts are not inherently more interesting than phases of rapid adoption. As Olson and Placchetti (2013) describe, new tools are making it easier for more archaeologists to use 3D techniques. To offer a personal perspective, my own first attempts at making models using photo-based reconstruction were entirely the result of recognizing in the fall of 2012 that costs had become low, that ease of use had improved, and that distribution was possible using well-known standards (as in, “No Plug-ins!”). These three factors in combination meant there was no longer good reason not to integrate 3d into my own work as an archaeologist. And I should emphasize that it’s been enjoyable to follow colleagues on Twitter who have come to the same conclusion. Again, change is in the air.

Figure1Figure 1

But before showing the current state of my efforts, I would like to establish a long-term historical, or perhaps historiographic, perspective. Figure 1 shows Plate 34 from the report on the 1881 American excavations at Assos (Lawton and Diller 1882), the text of which is available for download from the Hathi Trust Digital Library. The dominant mode of representation of this Roman sarchophagus is linear, but shadow is used to bring out the relatively deep relief of the bucrania and the drooping garlands. Such shadows are a convention that has fallen out of favor in contemporary technical illustration. The same is true for the female figure seated at the right of the sarcophagus. There is much to say about her, and she’s an evocative intermediary between the object being represented and viewers of this image. To the extent that there is tension between the precise metric scale below the sarcophagus and our female guide, the “clinical” won that tug-of-war with the “perceptual.” Meaning that in more modern illustration such human figures are part of recreations and are less welcome in technical and measured drawings.

Figure2Figure 2


Figure 3

This trend from realism to abstraction is particularly apparent in current best practices for the illustration of wheel-made ceramic vessels. Figure 2 shows a drawing by Piet de Jong of a late Roman table vessel (an African Red-Slip Hayes form 97 of the sixth century A.D. to be more specific) as viewable on the website of the Athenian Agora Excavations. It is a representation that emphasises shape, depth, surface treatment and color all in one image. As a recent catalog of de Jong’s Agora illustrations noted of this drawing, “His watercolor is a peek into all aspects of the pot.” (Papadopoulos 2006, no. 129). Now compare it with figure 3, a profile drawing of an ARS form 87 found at Troy (Heath and Tekkok n.d.: P18.0093:1). Such profile drawings are the “gold standard” of modern ceramic publication. When well-executed, they permit a ceramicist to confidently compare an example in-hand to a drawing of a potentially similar piece. That’s an important step in the full analysis of a ceramic assemblage. But it is also important to note that there is nothing “realistic” about profile drawings. They utilize a code of sorts that requires considerable mental processing to move from their abstract representation to a sense of the real vessel.

The above was a very long way of saying that we are catching up with – and going beyond – where we’ve always wanted to be. That is another “gap” potentially closed.

Models at Kenchreai

As for my own work, three models will show that I’m in the early stages of closing gaps between what I’m doing in the field and my stated goal of sharing as much as I can. Figures 4, 5, 6 are screen captures that link to the site “”, one of a few options for sharing 3D models that are currently available. All of them come from my work as part of the American Excavations at Kenchreai, which operates with a permit from the Greek Ministry of Culture and under the auspices of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. I am very grateful to the project director Joseph Rife of Vanderbilt University for the opportunity to include these models in this discussion.

Figure4Figure 4

The first model (figure 4) is of a Late Roman lamp (KE 235). A brief description of creating it is online via a guest post I contributed to John Wallrodt’s Paperless Archaeology blog (Heath 2013). Its original inventory information is available as part of the Kenchreai Archaeological Archive here.

Figure5Figure 5

My second model (figure 5) is a statue base with figure preserved only to just above the ankles (KE 1221). It is a beautiful piece and I hope that even this preliminary model captures some its interest. Its preliminary documentation is also available online here.

Figure6Figure 6

The third model (figure 6) is of a stretch of marble stylobate from the so-called “Aphrodiseion” at Kenchreai (Scranton et al. 1978, p. 79).

As noted, the three images above are screen captures from the model sharing website and readers can click on the associated links to go directly to the relevant page there. Assuming you are using a compatible browser – Safari, Chrome, or FireFox, but not Internet Explorer – it should be possible to rotate and zoom in on the models.

That access is the illustration of my opening point and the current fulfillment of the title of this post. By which I mean that even within the context of a relatively small project that needs to be careful with its resources, the creation of 3D models is possible. And not just creation, but sharing as well. That is “gap” closing.

Figure7Figure 7

A next step is re-use. I illustrate that by way of a fanciful combination of scaled versions of my three example models (figure 7). The dataset is too big to load usefully into so the image is static, but I hope that it hints at a future in which ready availability of 3D data closes gaps between categories of object, their original contexts and the archaeological (or other) sub-disciplines that study them.

One final point: it should be clear that this is all work in progress. The models are far from perfect and my colleagues at Kenchreai and I are in the early stages of thinking about how new opportunities can contribute to our research design. One sign that the project considers these models “final” will be that end users can download them and do their own mixing, or to put that differently, their own research. That won’t be quite the same as being on site or handling the lamp and statue in-person. But it should be clear that I am optimistic that this access will be close enough to enable new “peeks” at aspects of the material that were previously available only to a very few.

Works Cited

Clarke, J. T., Lawton, W. C., and Diller, J. S. (1882). Report on the investigations at Assos, 1881. Boston: A. Williams.

Frischer, B. (2013). Rome Reborn. <>.

Heath, S. (2013-08-14). Two Kenchreai 3D models. Paperless Archaeology. <>.

Heath, S. and Tekkök B. (n.d.). African Red Slip. In Greek, Roman and Byzantine Pottery at Ilion. <>.

Jiménez, A. (2010). Reproducing Difference: Mimesis and Colonialism in Roman Hispania. In B. Knapp and P. van Dommelen (Eds.), Material Connections: Mobility, Materiality and Mediterranean Identities (pp. 38-63). Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Levoy, M. and Trimble, J. (n.d.). Stanford Digital Forma Urbis Romae Project. <>.

Merchán, P., S. Salamanca, and A. Adán (2011). Restitution of Sculptural Groups Using 3D Scanners. Sensors 11 (9), 8497-8518.

Olson, B. and R. Placchetti (2013-09-13). A Discussion of the Analytical Benefits of Image-Based 3D Modeling in Archaeology. The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World. <>.

Papadopoulos, J. K., Camp, J. M. K., & De, J. P. (2007). The art of antiquity: Piet de Jong and the Athenian Agora. Princeton, NJ: American School of Classical Studies at Athens.

Sapirstein, P. (2010-11). The Archaic Sanctuary of Mons Repos at Corfu. <>.

Scranton, R. L., Shaw, J. W., and Ibrahim, L. (1978). Kenchreai Eastern Port of Corinth: I, Topography and Architecture. Leiden: Brill.

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