‘Sharing Good Practice’ event: Rebuilding the ancient world, digitally

The ancient city of Rome from overhead

One of the speakers at our recent ‘Sharing Good Practice’ event was Dr Matthew Nicholls, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Classics, who has been combining ancient evidence with 21st-century techniques to create a detailed digital reconstruction of the city of Rome as it appeared around AD 315: Virtual Rome. Here is Matthew’s summary:

‘I was glad to find out recently that I’m one of the University’s Digital Heroes. 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 I was very glad to come along to the recent Digitally Ready ‘Sharing Good Practice’ day and explain to colleagues what I’ve been working on.’

The Circus Maximus, Rome’s arena for chariot racing, could hold up to a quarter of a million spectators. Here the reconstruction shows how the imperial palaces on the Palatine Hill loomed over it.

‘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.
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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