Johns Hopkins University

Spring 2008
Vol. 5, No.2


[Those Who Can, Teach] A Conversation with Claude Guillemard

>[Tech Tools] The Bronze Age Goes Digital

[Classroom Encounters] Giving voice to Stories That Matter

Great Books and Great Opera

Great Year for Student Curators

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The Bronze Age Goes Digital

Using field notes gathered over 14 years and software and digital tools similar to those that helped create the imagined worlds of Toy Story and Ratatouille, students from the School of Arts and Sciences and the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) have brought back to life a 3,000-year-old Syrian city.


Ancient history in 3-D; A digital reconstruction of Umm el-Marra
Illustration courtesy of Glenn ScHwartz

Working in teams, the 14 undergraduates enrolled this spring in Ancient City of the Future created a three-dimensional reconstruction of the Bronze Age city of Umm el-Marra, believed to be one of the world's first cities.

The course, created in 2005 by MICA's Peter Chomowicz, was opened to students at both schools this spring, thanks to a university Arts Innovation Grant and support from Glenn Schwartz, Arts and Sciences' Whiting Professor of Archaeology. Schwartz directs the ongoing excavation project at Umm el-Marra, inhabited from roughly 2700 to 1200 BC, with some later reoccupation.

"We are demonstrating here the power of combining unlike disciplines," says Chomowicz, who taught the course together with Schwartz and Adam Maskevich, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Near Eastern Studies. "We have art and design students at MICA, and they are quite fluent in visual language, computer literacy, and all these digital tools; but what they lack is this sort of deeper humanities view of history and material culture that those from Johns Hopkins bring."

The students first created 3-D images of what the archaeologists have uncovered by relying on their field documents—pencil sketches, photographs, architectural plans, and firsthand recollections.

Next, using historical parallels from the region and some educated guesswork, they compiled a complete 3-D reconstruction of the city, right down to windows on structures and the curved pitch of a tomb's roof. In the final step, they animated the 3-D world to allow for real-time walkthroughs and 360-degree views.

The traditional reconstruction of a site produces an architectural plan, a sort of bird's-eye view, notes Schwartz. With this new technology, archaeologists can put "flesh on the bone" of these ancient cities and help answer some important scholarly questions.

"These digital tools allow you to move beyond that restrictive and static two-dimensional view and to start thinking more effectively about what these spaces were used for," he says. "How did people move around in them? What kind of light was available? You are seeing it through different eyes."

The course, with classes held at MICA, included field trips to the Walters Art Museum and the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.