Thursday, June 15, 2000

A high-tech window into ancient Greece

You can "fly" over a 3-D version of the landscape at Corinth, and zoom in and out of interactive plans of the excavations. Researchers at Penn developed the Web site.


Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology have been applying some new tools to their study of the ancient Roman colony at Corinth.

For 12 years, the Corinth Computer Project has been using laser-assisted electronic surveying equipment, satellite imagery, geographical-information-system software, and 3-D rendering techniques to develop detailed maps, plans and images of the city that Julius Caesar founded in Corinth, Greece, in 44 B.C.

The project director, David Gilman Romano, realized that applying the latest technology to archaeological research could help scholars learn more about this important site that the American School of Classical Studies at Athens has been excavating since 1896. Technology also has enabled Romano, who has been working under the auspices of the American School, to share his findings with the public through his project's Web site: html

By downloading free plug-in software through links at the site, visitors can "fly" over a 3-D rendering of the landscape, and zoom in and out of interactive plans. By turning "layers" of the plans on and off, they can use a color-coded table to identify when parts of a structure such as the city's Roman forum were built and what material they were made of. They can view a 360-degree panorama of the ruins at Corinth today.

Visitors also can learn how ancient historians described what they observed in Corinth by clicking links to the Perseus Project, a digital library of classical texts maintained by Tufts University in Somerville, Mass.:

"Obviously, this is scholarly and accurate," a research associate, Nicholas L. Stapp, said in the Corinth Computer Project's tiny quarters in the museum. "But we have tried to gear it a lot more toward K-12, college students . . . and the general armchair tourists."

Romano and Stapp know there is widespread interest in the Romans. The project receives e-mail from fifth graders as well as classics scholars. And they suspect that the success of the movie Gladiator will stimulate more curiosity in Rome.

Stapp is adding information to the Web site about a large amphitheater the Romans built on the outskirts of Corinth. He is creating a virtual 3-D model, and adding photographs and a 360-degree panorama of the amphitheater area, which has never been excavated.

"Corinth is one of the only cities in the Roman East that had an amphitheater," Stapp said. "They had gladiators. They had animals. The things you see in the movie, they had here."

The history of Corinth has long fascinated archaeologists and scholars because it played a pivotal role in both ancient Greece and Rome. The city occupies a strategically important spot on the Isthmus of Corinth, the land bridge that connects the mainland of Greece with the Peloponnesos, or peninsula.

"It was a very important Greek city," Romano said. "It was the equal [of] - or, actually, more important than - Athens in the Greek period. . . . It was destroyed by the Romans in 146 B.C. because Corinth led the opposition to the coming of Rome. It was destroyed in the same year that Carthage was destroyed. It lay dormant for 102 years until 44 B.C. when the Romans came back to found a new colony."

Corinth became the capital of Roman Greece. The Apostle Paul lived there for a time. Corinth later became an important Byzantine site.

Romano, an archaeologist, studied at the American School of Classical Studies in Greece in the 1970s. He worked on the excavations at Corinth, and wrote part of his doctoral dissertation on its race courses. In 1988, Charles K. Williams 2d, then the director, asked his former student to return to study one problem: how one of the Roman temples was oriented in relationship to one of the roads, and how that related to the Roman forum.

"This is the way he sort of got my foot in the door," Romano recalled.

But Romano took what was a small question about Roman city planning that involved 1.1 square kilometers, and began to create a map of the ancient city and, later, the surrounding countryside. The project now encompasses nearly 700 square kilometers, or about 266 square miles.

For 10 summers, Romano conducted field work with students in Corinth to map the roads and above-ground structures in the city. To make the maps, he used state-of-the-art surveying equipment called an electronic total station that combines computers and lasers.

During the academic year, he and Penn students built a database to house the information that had been collected over the years from the Corinth excavations, digitized the information, and analyzed it.

Through this process, Romano discovered the grid system the Romans used to lay out the city, and uncovered evidence of a second Roman colony that the Emperor Vespasian had founded in the A.D. 70s.

A graduate of the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, Stapp joined the project five years ago. In addition to training Penn students for work on the project, he has been instrumental in developing the Web site.

"We actually had an initial page up in 1997," Stapp said. "But one of the recent pushes, post-'97, has been to make as much of our published data available on the Internet as possible . . . so people could see what we are doing."

The wealth of detail about Corinth is available because excavation has been going on for a century. "Whenever archaeologists worth their salt excavate a structure, they take photographs of what they have excavated, and then they identify everything they can," Stapp said. "One of the things they usually identify is the chronology of different constructional elements, the materials used, and the function."

He and Romano decided to incorporate that information into their digitized plans of Roman structures using a special browser plug-in that can be downloaded from the site. He said the plug-in allowed visitors to view and manipulate drawings that have been created with AutoCAD - computer-aided-design software used by architects and engineers - without having to install that software on their own desktops.

"Anybody who has this plug-in can go see the forum," Stapp said. "You can zoom in to each individual structure. And you can click on anything, and it will tell you the date, the material and the function.

" That detail is available for buildings in the center of the excavated city now, and will be for the entire study area later.

"Stone-for-stone drawing like this does not exist for any other ancient city," said Romano, who has published papers on the Corinth Computer Project and described it at international archaeology meetings. "This is not only a city, but it is a very important ancient city, so this will be the model for other archaeological sites."

Martha Woodall's e-mail address is