Digital Heritage

Ancient Rome – A Digital Reconstruction

The UROP Virtual Rome Project that I am currently seconded to is led by Dr Matthew Nicholls of the Department of Classics at Reading. Dr Nicholls spent the best part of 10 years digitally reconstructing ancient Rome via a digital programme called SketchUp. The model portrays Rome around 315AD, a date chosen for its ability to show off a multitude of splendid architecture. After teaching himself how to create a digital model of this Roman cityscape building by building, Dr Nicholls has now utilised this knowledge to teach others both about the Romans and about digital conservation. In 2016-17 he developed and launched a free online course (MOOC) about ancient Rome, using his digital model to help teach over 13k online learners about the importance of digital heritage and multidisciplinary approaches to research. Through a series of high-quality videos, essays and resources including interactive 3D elements, the Virtual Tour of Ancient Rome MOOC was immensely popular, generating a huge volume of feedback with some 35k comments from a multicultural audience with a variety of interests. The conversations ranged from an interest in digital reconstruction to a desire for biographical knowledge of specific emperors. New emotive responses to heritage conservation were voiced and even gratitude for virtual tours of sites which, for some individuals, were otherwise impossible to visit.

It soon became clear that this data provided an invaluable insight as to how a demographically diverse cohort felt about history, archaeology, digital heritage, 3D modelling and of course, the Romans.

My research project now aims to improve this MOOC before the next run by improving the 3D model with some of the additions most commonly suggested by the 13k subscribers. Some of the suggestions were unexpected and may take some time, such as the surprisingly popular request for a sound filter that could be turned on and off whilst exploring the 3D model at street level.

Thus far, the Virtual Rome project has provided a tool for education, exploration and entertainment across the archaeological, historical and digital disciplines. By creating a free and widely accessible form of outreach, Dr Matthew Nicholls’ Virtual Model of Rome has a huge amount of potential for a variety of future applications; Dr Nicholls is already collaborating with computer game producers, mobile app creators and The British School at Rome, whilst simultaneously promoting a more nuanced approach to historical research and virtual conservation.

I have thoroughly enjoyed being part of the project and am genuinely excited to see it develop from here. From a more personal point of view, alongside some crucial skills in data amalgamation and statistics that have helped me with my dissertation methodology, I have also been able to actively work towards a more multidisciplinary methodology in historical research – a topic very close to my heart. Being part of the UROP scheme has provided some unexpected opportunities both under Dr Nicholl’s guidance and via the activities of the scheme itself and I sincerely hope that I can continue to assist on this project once the placement has ended.

The free MOOC is due to run again in October, so watch this space, sign up and get involved!

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