Digital exhibition reveals buried secrets from Roman times unearthed by Duke archaeologists

This summer, a museum in Italy is exhibiting the results of a six-year archaeological dig conducted by more than 20 Duke faculty and students.

The exhibit, which opened recently at La Sapienza University’s Museo delle Antichita Etrusche e Italiche in Rome, features finds from Vulci, an Etruscan-Roman archaeological site in Viterbo, Italy.

The summer project, a partnership with researchers from Sapienza University, draws heavily on virtual reality and digital toolsand the exhibit includes interactive installations, including two virtual reality exhibits that replicate actual archaeological digs.

The annual summer project is overseen by Maurizio Forte, Duke Professor of Classics and Art Studies, Art History, and Visual Studies. Here, Forte talks to Duke Today about the project.

What exactly do the digital installations show? Are they interactive?

STRONG: In the exhibition, there are four digital installations: Three installations are interactive; two virtual reality installations reproducing the archaeological excavations and an AR (augmented reality) installation dedicated to the visualization of Etruscan and Roman artifacts. However, the most innovative installation is a 3D impression of the archaeological landscape where it is possible to project several historical and digital maps of the site on video.

The 3D impression was produced by high-resolution digital terrain models of the landscape made by multispectral drones and LIDAR. This is the first experience of its kind in archaeology. The technological collaboration with the American Sensefly, which supplied the multispectral drones, made this achievement a success. The AR installation is a Z-Space workstation. In this case, it is possible to manipulate 3D artifacts with a 3D stylus and tracking-VR glasses.

What have you been able to discover that would not have been possible without the technology you use?

STRONG: Only a small part of the archaeological site of Vulci has been excavated. It is estimated that only 5% of the archaeological remains are visible to the public. The rest of the city has been revealed mainly by geophysical surveys, LIDAR and multispectral flights by drone technology. In short, without remote sensing technologies we would have minimal knowledge of the entire site.

In particular, two Duke PhD students in Classical Studies and Visual Studies, Antonio LoPiano and Katie McCusker (now Dr. McCusker) helped create an all-new digital map of the site, in 2D and 3D, also available in GIS and virtual reality. All this scientific data will also be available in a manageable format for the general public, so that visitors to the park will discover the hidden city of Vulci (still in the basement) in different forms of visualization.

How has the digital installation of VR/AR applications changed and challenged the field of archaeology? ? And what is meant by traditional excavation?

STRONG: VR/AR are important tools because they are considered metamedia information in archaeology: they go beyond traditional media and they have a different cognitive impact in the human brain. This is particularly important in the communication process. We have reconstructed in VR all the excavation phases, so we can simulate the entire archaeological excavation from the beginning at scale and through immersive systems. Traditional (and past) excavations suffered from a lack of precise documentation, especially in three dimensions.

How has this excavation changed you as an archaeologist and how do you view this excavation?

STRONG: This excavation changed my research perspectives in classical urban archeology – 1,500 years of urban occupation of the same site with an incredible density of buildings, infrastructures, ritual and public activities. I started to rethink the definition of the city in the pre-Roman and Roman colonial world, its formation process and its cultural identity

How have excavations further shed light on the history of Vulci?

STRONG: The Duke excavation, started in 2016, was the first to dig stratigraphically and with new methods of investigation the urban area of ​​the site. Through this approach, we discovered a series of important Roman public buildings overlapping with earlier Etruscan infrastructures. In particular, we are still studying a very complex network of canals, canals, cunicules and hydraulic infrastructures from the Etruscan period to the Roman period.

Additionally, we reconstruct a highly articulated urban historical sequence from the 6th BCE to the 5th CE. Interestingly, the same area was intended for ritual activities in Etruscan and Roman times.

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