Rebuilding the ancient world, digitally by Dr Matthew Nicholls

I was glad to find out recently that I’m a Digital Hero. Though disappointed that the title does not appear to confer any super-powers, I’m glad that the University recognises the innovative work that many of us are doing in our different fields – Reading feels like a place that values digital innovation and encourages its staff to take the lead. Having had a lot of support from CDoTL’s Teaching and Learning Fellowship scheme and the Annual Fund I was very glad to come along to the recent Digitally Ready Day and explain to colleagues what I’ve been working on.

The Campus Martius, the area of flat land in the loop of the River Tiber. Prominent monuments here include the Theatre of Pompey and the Pantheon.

During my time in Reading I’ve been developing a huge digital architectural reconstruction model of ancient Rome. I use this a lot in research, in teaching, and in outreach talks. I’ve also licensed it to commercial broadcasters and am working with Typography and Systems Engineering to turn it into a smartphone app for tourists.

Theatre of Pompey - Julius Caesar's colleague and rival Pompey the Great built this spectacular theatre from the spoils of his campaigns in the east. Julius Caesar eventually met his fate in the meeting hall at the end of the portico.

Students react very well to digital visualisations – they help give a vivid, instant impression of life in the ancient city – and have played a part in its creation through UROP placements. Seeing students enthusiastically contribute digital content of their own encouraged me to build this into the formal curriculum, so I’ve offered optional digital modelling assignments in existing courses, with uniformly high standards in the work submitted so far. From next academic year I’ll be running a new module, ‘Digital Silchester’, in which students will collaborate on a reconstruction of our local Roman town.

The software needed to get started in this sort of work is reasonably easy to pick up (I taught myself to do it) and some of it is available free. Among other things I use a modelling package called SketchUp which you can download for nothing to try out: http://www.sketchup.com/intl/en/index.html. I am sure this sort of work could be used in all sorts of academic disciplines and student projects, and hope that others will be encouraged to give it a go.

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