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Page last updated at 16:57 GMT, Friday, 16 October 2009 17:57 UK

Modern view of ancient archaeology

by David Reid
BBC Click

Computer representation of Portus
Software bringing Ancient Rome alive is usually seen in movie blockbusters

Portus - Ancient Rome's gateway to the sea - is a crucial archaeological site, currently being excavated as the Portus Project by the British School at Rome and both Southampton and Cambridge universities.

"Portus was a huge strategic base and resource," says Professor Simon Keay, of Southampton University and the British School at Rome.

"Without it, the population of Rome literally would starve. When the grain supply would stop due to rain or a poor harvest there would be riots in the city.

"And when there were riots in a city of one to two million people, even the emperor's position was threatened."

But studying such a vast site - it is spread over 30,000 square metres - requires a little more than an archaeologist's trowel.

One of the most important questions archaeologists have to deal with is when and where to dig.

It is a bit of an issue when you think that a structure like this could be buried under metres of earth for centuries.


Now archaeologists have tools to look below the surface, so they can see if there is a structure worth looking at before they even think about picking up a shovel.

Computer analysis of radar results
Computers analyse results and can show walls hidden deep underground

A ground-penetrating radar is giving archaeologists a 21st century mole's-eye-view of what is buried beneath their feet without ever having to dig.

Jessica Ogden, of the British School at Rome, explained how the radar works:

"What it does essentially is send out a series of electromagnetic pulses and sends them into the ground and they bounce off reflectors and then we can calibrate how deep the features are, which is really helpful in archaeology."

The data is then entered into the computer.

"You can't dig everywhere and this gives us a really clear picture of what's going on where we can't excavate."

"One has to think that only 10, 15 years ago excavating on a site like this would be done on a very haphazard basis," says Professor Simon Keay.

We wanted to bring these 3D models to the centre of the discussion about Portus
Gareth Beale, ACRG

"You would say 'that lump over there looks interesting and suspicious' and you might then invest a lot of money and find you are digging a load of rubble deposited there in the 20th century.

"And my funding body certainly wouldn't have been very pleased with that."

Paparazzi treatment

One of the aims of the Portus project is to apply and develop the use of computers and technology in archaeology.

And that includes giving some relics the paparazzi treatment with Polynomial Texture Mapping.

Hembo Pagi, of the Archaeological Computing Research Group (ACRG), says that by using a series of flash photographs the software will work the angles to skim light across a worn surface and tease out details normally invisible to the naked eye.

Technology is helping archaeologists target areas of interest more precisely

"It is very good for very low relief objects like coins or brick stamps," he says.

"Using that technology we really managed to read the text that was written there 2,000 years ago. So it really does do magic."

And what is captured by the other technologies all comes together in the stunning 3D model, created using 3Ds Max, Vue xStream and Maya - software normally associated with blockbuster movies.

Dynamic dig

Graeme Earl, also of the ACRG, said: "We are used to having our pasts reconstructed for us. Once the archaeologist has decided what the 'truth' is, we produce a representation.

"What is very unusual about what we do here is that the computer graphics... involve all of the people participating in the project."

And these models are not just for show but are a living focus for discussions during the dig.

Portus in the present day
A disruption to the port's operations in Ancient Rome could have caused a riot

Gareth Beale, who is another member of the group working on the graphics, said: "We were really keen on the idea, when we made 3D graphics a big part of the Portus Project, that it should be part of the process of discourse.

"We wanted to bring these models to the centre of the discussion and we would be left with this legacy of how our thoughts changed and how ideas at the site and our interpretations changed throughout the project."

This hi-tech dig has not just brought the discipline to life for outsiders looking in, but it has made life on the dig more dynamic and immediate for the archaeologists themselves.

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