Elizabeth Thill, wearing a pair of virtual reality goggles, is in virtual Rome. In front of her are large slabs of virtual marble. They are floating in the air as if pinned to an invisible whiteboard.
She placed them there with her virtual hands.
In the near distance, in front of her, is an image of the wall on which the map originally was displayed.
These virtual pieces of marble wall, which have no weight, have mass in virtual reality. If she looks behind her, she’ll see the contemporary site of the Circus Maximus.
Thill’s actual location, however, is the Guided Virtual and Augmented Reality Lab on the fourth floor of the IUPUI University Library. At the IUPUI School of Liberal Arts, she is assistant professor of classical studies in world languages and cultures and director of the program in classical studies.
The giant wall map that Thill is attempting to reconstruct in virtual space is called the Great Marble Map of Rome.
The Great Marble Map of Rome is just the latest name for the nearly 2,000-year-old ruin. Earlier names included the Forma Urbis Romae and the Severan Marble Plan. This enormous marble map depicting ancient Rome — detailed enough to show nearly every bathhouse and temple in the city — was created around 211 C.E. under the reign of Emperor Septimus Severus. It was located on an interior wall of the Temple of Peace, built by Emperor Vespasian in 71 C.E.
Each piece of wall is a 3D virtual replica of the pieces that lay in storage in the new Musei Capitolini museum facilities on the Caelian Hill in Rome, Italy. Some of these pieces weigh hundreds of pounds. Some are much smaller. There are over 1,100 of them altogether.
That wall, where the Great Marble Map was located, is currently an exterior wall of the Church of Saint Cosmas and Damian.
Starting in the fourth century C.E., pieces of the marble wall on which the map was incised were melted down to make lime, used to make plaster, and became parts of other buildings throughout Rome. But some pieces of the wall map, roughly 10% - 15%, survived. During the 1600s pieces of the original map attracted interest by people interested in preserving its memory. There was enough interest to be mentioned in a Vatican codex.
Thill is using VR not only to get a better sense of how the wall looked in antiquity, but to answer questions about what purposes it served. Her team is doing so in cooperation with the Musei Capitolini in Rome and the Ancient World Mapping Center at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill with funding from the IUPUI Arts & Humanities Institute (IAHI). That funding has allowed Thill — associated with the IAHI Incubator program — to digitally scan the marble wall remains so they can be visualized in virtual reality.
The IAHI Incubator supports other cross-disciplinary efforts including the Africana Repertory Theatre of IUPUI, and the FIRE Project, which works with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals.
This isn’t the first time that researchers have tried to use cutting edge scientific tools in an attempt to decode the Forma Urbis Romae. Earlier in the decade, Stanford University had a project trying to use 3D matching algorithms to make sense of the wall, and to catalogue the map remains. But Thill’s project is the first to 3D scan each segment of wall and project them into virtual space.
IAHI Director Jason Kelly describes Thill’s work as “living in two worlds.”
“On the one hand she’s making pedagogical innovations by creating virtual reality museums and laboratories for students to go in and engage with artwork and sculpture that they would never have access to living here in Indiana,” he says. “Secondly, I think she’s innovative because she’s pushing the study of the classical world in new directions as well. This is the first time that the Great Marble Map of Rome has ever been scanned with all the extant pieces and she’s able to use them to reconstruct Ancient Rome in ways that folks in the period that I study in the 17th Century and the 18th Century could have only ever dreamed of. Frankly people in the 20th century could never dreamt of what Liz Thill’s project is allowing scholars and students to do.”
After Thill takes off her VR goggles, she takes some time to detail the project. First she explains what questions, as a scholar, she has about the Great Marble Map.
“It’s very unclear what it was used for,” Thill says. “The original gut instinct interpretation of the map was that it's a map that you look at and you use it to find where things are.” But, as she explains, most recent scholarship is moving away from this hypothesis.
“Something that you really get a sense of in VR is the massive scale of this map,” she explains. From ground level, most of the time when you look up you can't see any of the individual buildings.”
So if you, as a Roman citizen of antiquity, were looking up at the map to figure out how to get from point A to point B in Ancient Rome, you’d be out of luck.
The lack of utility, a quality most people associate with maps, leads Thill to ask certain questions.
“Why are they illustrating the particular buildings in the particular way that they are given that you can't see it very well?” she asks. “ For example, a lot of buildings have inscriptions labeling them. We have about 70 inscriptions that we can kind of mostly read to more or less degrees of certainty. But you couldn't have read them on the actual map. I was very interested in why they’re labeling particular buildings and why they're not labelling all of them. It turns out it's not the buildings that are the hardest to identify [that are labelled]. So for example, the Coliseum is labeled, even though it's one of the most recognizable buildings in the world.”
Thill is intrigued by the different aspects of the city that are made prominent on the map.
“A lot of entertainment venues are highlighted,” she says. “A lot of baths are highlighted. A lot of connections to the imperial infrastructure are highlighted, which are exactly the same things that you find highlighted in written sources about what makes Rome special.”
Water infrastructure, including baths, are often aspects that get highlighted as well.
“So that appears to be the very broad pattern as opposed to [answering the question] ‘Hey, is that the bath of Camius?’” she says.
But in order to answer the questions that come up in her research, Thill needs to analyze the map remains. In the real world, those remains only exist in one place: Rome.
“One of the difficulties of dealing with the marble map is that it's heavy,” says Thill. “It's a marble map so the pieces can be everything from like a large grapefruit to weighing 100 pounds. Obviously you can't just pick up the hundred pound thing and hold it in the air indefinitely while you fiddle around on the edges. You can do that in VR. You can have an unlimited amount of fragments, and have them float in the air. You can play around with them.”
For scholars who want to perform scholarship without springing, say, for plane tickets to Italy each summer to visit various archeological and historical sites — or whose travel opportunities are limited during COVID-19 — such capabilities will have an enormous appeal. An internet connection and a VR headset will get you where you want to go.
A website is in development for this project as well.
“The website will act as a portal to sort of bring people to the museum and to allow researchers to formulate hypotheses that they can then test with the fragments and Rome itself,” says Thill.
In order to make these scans, Thill leaned on two colleagues from IUPUI University Library. IT Pro/Support Desk Manager Ryan Knapp and 3D Project Coordinator Derek Miller, of the Center for Digital Scholarship, traveled to Rome for a three week period in September and early October, 2019. They went to the new Musei Capitolini facilities — where the marble wall remains are stored — to scan those pieces with their exact coordinates so that they could be manipulated in VR space.
Derek Miller had his work cut out for him.
“When we started thinking about how we were going to scan such a large collection in a limited window of time, we really had to make the scanning processes like a factory assembly line,” says Miller. “Each person was given a specific task that they would repeat over and over. As time went on we improved parts of the process that were slowing things down, and eventually our scanning output went from 30 objects a day to over a 100. There were challenges along the way, but in the end we created a really fast and efficient workflow for scanning the entire collection of inscribed fragments.”
Recent innovations in technology have made such endeavors possible.
‘We had four handheld 3D scanners at our disposal,” says Miller. “Three were the Creaform Go Scanners, and one was the new Creaform Spark which launched this past summer.”
The 3D scanners, which look something like laser guns, were used to input information into the project’s laptops.
“As you wave the scanner around your object it captures the surface and color details by using a combination of projections, and lasers to digitally re-create your object,” says Miller. “It’s pretty amazing to think of all of the applications 3D scanners can provide the world.”
Once all the wall fragments were scanned in, it was up to Ryan Knapp, director of the Guided Virtual and Augmented Reality Lab, to design the virtual reality space that Dr. Elizabeth Thill and her colleagues can step into.
There are numerous tricks in VR that make Thill’s job as a scholar easier.
When she steps into this virtual courtyard adjacent to the Circus Maximus, she sees several dozen pieces of marble wall set on a white marble surface. This is her workspace. If she wants to place one of the marble pieces on the wall in front of her, which towers overhead, she can increase her virtual height, sort of like Alice in Wonderland, as it were, and place the marble piece directly on the wall.
As for now, the Circus Maximus location of the wall is just a placeholder, “just to give it some aesthetic,” says Knapp.
Eventually the goal is to recreate the wall, and the interior of the monastery where it now exists, in its exact dimensions.
“It's a difficult thing to convey the intricate detailed Information of research in a way that it can be well understood by the general public,” Knapp says. “I think VR is a good tool for that. In this particular case, being able to analyze fragments in a realistic way, you could see every contour of the marble fragments along the surface. You just don't get that information as precisely when you're looking at it on a 2D flat screen.”
VR has also come in handy during COVID-19, which has shut down international travel between the U.S. and Europe. That is, thanks to VR, Thill has been able to continue her research on the Great Marble Map of Rome.
“I received a Multidisciplinary Undergraduate Research Institute (MURI) summer grant from the Center for Research and Learning and six students worked with me to process the fragment scans and build the virtual reconstruction of the Temple of Peace (the complex that housed the map),” says Thill, who is both teaching and researching during the fall. She hopes to run a second eight-week course for students to continue working on the project.
“I have also put in an application to continue the MURI project over the academic year,” she adds.
Editor's note: The writer of this article is also a research assistant at the IUPUI Arts and Humanities Institute, which runs the aforementioned "Incubator" program. This piece is also being published on the IAHI blog.