Three dimensional recreations of historical buildings, streets and cities are not anything new or exciting. Often the reconstructions are blocky, pixelated, and tend to represent a cleaned up and idealistic version of the past. Was Byzantine in 1200 CE really full of gleaming bricks and clean swept streets framed by the perfect blue sky? Probably not. Are these reconstructions valuable for historical learning, is there any benefit to a digital reconstruction, and are these projects actually worthwhile?

Rome Reborn is a project being undertaken by the Virtual World Heritage Lab at University of Virginia with international collaboration. The project’s reported goal is “the creation of 3D digital models illustrating the urban development of ancient Rome from the first settlement in the late Bronze Age (ca. 1000 B.C.) to the depopulation of the city in the early Middle Ages (ca. A.D. 550)”. The project involves dozens of archaeologists from Italy, USA, UK, France and Germany who are directly applying their expertise to the model. The digital model is based around Rome during the time of Emperor Constantine, 320 CE. The model includes natural topography of hills, valleys, and water features. The city itself includes over 7,000 buildings within the time period. The buildings are divided into a number of classes. Class I monuments have in depth information on the layout, use, construction and other information. only 250 buildings fall into this category. Class II monuments include all other buildings, and are subject to more artistic interpretation. Google Earth was used for georeferencing and creating the spatial layout of the city.

Unlike other 3D models of historic landscapes, the goal is not just reconstruction, but to open up dialogue about the architecture, spatial layout, and interaction of people with the Rome during the height of its occupation. The secondary goal is that the model can be frequently updated to match new archaeological and historical information. By creating a digital model, the spatial information is directly tied to the source information, i.e. the archaeological or historical sources which led to this current conceptualization of reconstruction. By having this background information available, users not only get to see what Rome potentially looked like, but also how the researchers arrived at this conclusion. The 3D model also allows for unique experimental arguments to be tested. One example was how the statues inside Trajan’s Forum were place. There was debate as to how the statues would have been centered as to allow for maximum effect but not block other important features in the forum. The 3D model allowed the research team to literally feel what it would be like for a visitor to enter the forum. Frischer argues that “[3D] models not only illustrate what we knew when we started creating them, they also have the potential of revealing new knowledge that was always lurking below the surface of the fact but which, to emerge and be grasped, needed to be visualized in 3D”.

It is this fact which is the most important to the project: the openness of the process by which evidence is turned into interpretation. However there is one major problem: the project itself isn’t actually open. Users cannot explore the model of Rome Reborn online, nor can they access the archaeological information. The project is only being used at the moment for museum exhibits and digital tours. A secondary problem, brought up by Shawn Graham in his blog about the Rome Reborn project is the lack of “shit”. Models like this are great for exploring spatial relationships, understanding layout and reconstructing architecture. It doesn’t however bring us any closer to understanding the true experience of place. Perhaps what visualization requires is more simulation. Add in the trash, the horses, the rats, the birds, the rich and the poor. Visualizations are important for spatial learning, but they cannot simulate or truly reconstruct the past. Is Rome reborn through this model, perhaps not… but its a great first step.