Colloquium on digital visualisation for education and academia – 16th May, University of Reading. All welcome!

Here’s the draft programme for an exciting colloquium event I am running jointly with English Heritage. Speakers include illustrators, researchers into ancient history and VR, and specialist from English Heritage.

Tuesday 16th May, 10-4.30pm, Meadow Suite, Whiteknights Campus, University of Reading.

All welcome; if you’re interested in attending please contact the organisers: Matthew Nicholls (Reading) and Andrew Roberts (English Heritage) –

Supported by the British Academy Rising Star Engagement Awards

Digital Visualisation in Education and Heritage – draft programme

Buy posters of ancient Rome!

At my Etsy shop you can buy a range of colourful posters like this one, showing the ancient city of Rome, and many of its buildings, taken from my digital model of the city.

Printed on good quality paper at A1 and A0 size and shipped in a cardboard tube.

If you’d like a poster of a particular building or region, please feel free to contact me to discuss.

Virtual St Paul’s Cross project

One of the projects I was able to visit as part of my British Academy funded project on digital visualisation was the Virtual St Paul’s Cross project at North Caroline State University. Their work includes a detailed visual reconstruction of the outdoor preaching cross by the medieval cathedral, and an acoustic model of the churchyard as it may have sounded when John Donne preached there in 1622.

Here is Reading’s Dr Mary Morrissey, who helped advise the project, with their poster at our recent Digital Visualisation colloquium.

It’s been a pleasure to make contact with this project and I look forward to seeing their next developments.


Digital Visualisation Colloquium – University of Reading, UK, 31st March 2016

We are hosting a colloquium on digital visualisation in the humanities at the University of Reading, UK on March 31st, funded by the British Academy’s Rising Star Engagement Award scheme.

Final programme here. Speakers include:

… and a range of speakers from the UK, Sweden, Italy, and Cyprus, discussing a variety of academic and commercial reconstruction and visualisation projects.

We will leave time for plenary discussion, and for demonstrations/displays of visualisation projects. If you are a researcher, student, professional, or aficionado of digital visualisation in any humanities context we would love to see you there. Lunch provided.

Please click the link for  the Final programme (and NB that this may be subject to a change or two).

All welcome: please contact Elisabeth Meijer ( if you would like to come.


British Academy Digital Modelling Workshop, Dec. 2015.

Reading recently hosted a digital modelling workshop, run by Matthew Nicholls and funded by the British Academy’s Rising Star Engagement Award (BARSEA) scheme. The aim of the day was to introduce participants to digital modelling in SketchUp, accessible free software that provides an ideal entry into digital visualisation. Dr Nicholls, a Roman historian, has used this software to create his own large digital model of ancient Rome, and teaches undergraduates how to make their own models in a module on Roman Silchester which won the Guardian/HEA’s Teaching Excellence award in 2014.


Dr Matthew Nicholls' BARSEA-funded SketchUp workshop

Dr Matthew Nicholls’ BARSEA-funded SketchUp workshop

Having adopted digital modelling in his own research and teaching work, Dr Nicholls is keen to share its benefits with others. He has spoken about it in many contexts, including talks to fellow academics and schoolteachers, in presentations at SketchUp’s Basecamp conferences in Colorado and London, and in lectures and YouTube videos. The British Academy’s BARSEA scheme offered a chance to share expertise with scholars in other humanities disciplines, through funding for a workshop disseminating practical digital skills.

This workshop ran on 14th December, in a computer lab on the Reading campus. Participants included academics, PhD and post-doctoral researchers, a school teacher, and museum professionals from 11 different institutions; the disciplines represented ranged from classics and ancient history to English literature, medieval history, landscape archaeology, and geomatics. Attendees were contemplating digital visualisation projects including illustrating theses and articles, presenting museum artefacts to the general public, conducting academic research projects, and engaging sixth form classical civilisation school pupils. Graduate student assistants Els Meijer and Philip Smither helped with the planning and smooth running of the day.

Participants working on their digital models in SketchUp

Participants working on their digital models in SketchUp

The workshop covered the principles and methodologies of digital reconstruction, and the practicalities of using SketchUp. The handout for the day is attached here: the workshop covered the basics of navigating the programme’s viewport and interface; principles of ‘tidy’ modelling including disciplined use of layers and groups; modelling functions such as the line and polygon tools, move, push-pull, follow me, and erase; importing and manipulating images and textures; geo-location and terrain modelling; and presentational tools such as shadow settings, viewing styles, scene creation, and various export modes. The aim was to send people away with a good idea of the software’s capabilities and some inspiration about how it might add to their own research and teaching work.

Participants found the day a useful introduction to the software, and a good starting point for thinking about visualisation projects of their own. Although there are plenty of online resources for those experimenting with SketchUp, a concentrated day workshop, in the company of experts and others sharing a common interest and related academic goals, proved to a be a useful and stimulating experience. All involved are grateful to the British Academy for its support.

The next event under Dr Nicholls’ BARSEA grant will be a colloquium at Reading in spring 2016 on digital visualisation in the Humanities; proposals for papers are welcomed.

Handout part 1 – interface and windows; importing and scaling a plan; draw tools.

Handout part 2 – important position textures; scale, follow me, section plane, scenes, shadows, and terrain tools.

Free Digital Modelling Workshop – 14th Dec.

Digital modelling workshop for humanities researchers and educators


Day workshop on digital modelling for beginners.

Monday 14th Dec, University of Reading, 10.00-17.00.



The day will introduce humanities researchers and teachers to the basics of 3D modelling in SketchUp, and show some of the uses to which these techniques can be put.

The day is led by Dr Matthew Nicholls, whose work on digital modelling of Roman sites won the 2014 Guardian/HEA Teaching Excellence Award.

The workshop is generously funded by the British Academy’s ‘Rising Star Engagement Award’ grant scheme.


Free of charge; all welcome. Some financial assistance with travel costs may be available to students wishing to attend.

For booking or further details please contact Elisabeth Meijer:



Apple Photos – good, bad, and ugly.

I recently upgraded my OS on my desktop and iDevices, largely to enable me to shift from iPhoto to Photos.

I have had a distinctly mixed experience.

There’s enough about Photos that I really like to make me want to stick with it, but there have also been some pretty worrying problems and frustrations. I have seen some of these mentioned in user forums and reviews, but not all in one place; so I thought that for what it was worth, I would jot down my thoughts.

I have already sent as much of this to Apple as I could fit into their feedback form. I should probably state that the views here are my personal opinions, not those of my University; this is mostly a blog for my research work but since I use this photo library all the time for those purposes it seemed like a reasonable place to put it.


My iPhoto library has about 22,000 photos, all labelled with titles.

  • There is a mix of personal pictures and work images (for my work as an historian of ancient Rome – mostly archaeological site photos).
  • I used the search box as the main tool for navigating this collection, and grouped photos into Events to organise them at a sort of folder level, mostly in date order but sometimes by theme (all photos of my daughter’s first year, for instance).
  • I wouldn’t set out to organise things this way if starting from scratch, but it’s how my collection evolved over several iterations of iPhoto, and it’s always worked well enough for me.


The ability to have access to all my pictures everywhere via iCloud was the main reason for changing.

  • The good news is that this feature works superbly – it’s brilliant. After a couple of days uploading the pictures to the Cloud (and after signing on the dotted line to pay Apple £2.99 a month, for ever), this works just as it should. It’s fast – instant thumbnails, a second or two for full-res – and really attractive to use. The search tool seems to work well across all devices, though weirdly you can’t actually see titles on iDevices (see below).
  • No more confusing Photostream, either; anything shot on iDevices shows up straightaway everywhere and can be sorted away into albums, etc., at least on my desktop Mac.
  • The edit tools are good; they do all that I need, anyway, and for anything more there’s Photoshop.
  • Familiar pinch/swipe gestures works nicely on my Magic TouchPad or whatever it’s called – nice to have this sort of continuity between devices, as these days I find myself regularly swiping at my laptop screen…


The bad news is that I have had really profound problems with photo titling and the import process, which are making me wonder about giving up on Photos until it’s a more solid and versatile application.

I don’t want to do that – I already love having all my pictures instantly everywhere. But at the moment I am nervous that Photos has chewed holes in my precious photo library that I might not discover until I want a particular picture a few months or years from now, and find it’s gone or untraceable.

There are also half a dozen things about the interface across different devices that I find really frustrating – not least because all the data needed to do a better job is already there inside the programme.

Photos just doesn’t want to give me enough control over how I view and organise my pictures – it wants me to views things in the latest Apple combination of ‘moments’ linked to places, which might work for friends and family snaps but is no good for my needs. I doubt I am alone in this.


Import problems


Events have disappeared, but this didn’t matter as much as I had feared: all events appear as albums in a special folder, from which they can be dragged and rearranged. So this was fine.

However, titles have also mostly disappeared, and this is a disaster.

  • Some are still there, apparently more or less at random (I am starting to suspect that this might have something to do with whether I originally used iPhoto’s batch edit command to title the photos, but that is just a hunch).
  • Sometimes what was the title in iPhoto has become a filename with a .jpg suffix
  • Sometimes both the title and the filename field are blank in the Info window, but the missing title must still be somewhere in the metadata because the picture shows up in a search for a word I know to be in the title. What’s going on there?
Screen Shot 2015-04-27 at 13.59.42

No title or meaningful file name, but the picture still shows up in a search for ‘Granny’…


At the moment I am manually cutting and pasting filenames into the title field for hundreds of pictures – and then manually deleting the filename extension.

And even this manual labelling is harder than it should be, as there is no easy way to advance to the next picture: I have to copy and paste in the new name in the Info pane, then click back into the photos and then click again on the next photo for labelling … that’s two clicks, and if I do them too quickly the programme reads it as a double click and zooms up the photo to full size … then back across the screen to the Info pane to do the next title … and there’s no batch edit … and sometimes all the titles disappear again in Album view, until I click out of the album and then back in again … gah!

If this can’t be sorted out properly, then as a workaround why can’t Photos default to (or have an option to) replace a blank title with the filename?

  • Leonie has posted a nice Automator script for making the filename into the title, but it only works (for me) in the All Photos level, and I can’t use it there because…


… the top levels of viewing pictures seem to be just hopelessly tangled up, as far as I can tell.

  • Albums –> All photos seems to be stuck in ‘View by date of import’, not by date of photo – there seems to be no option to organise by date of picture or some other criterion.
  • The main problem is that while albums of pictures (the old iPhoto events) look fine, apart from missing titles as above, in any other view (Albums –> All photos, or just Photos) the pictures appear out of order, duplicated, displaying or not displaying their title at random, and so on. And…
  • … pictures I deleted ages ago in iPhoto have reappeared in Photos! This is part of the problem in the All Photos level of view, but also crops up in really old albums where the deleted photos now appear without captions. This gives me a quick method of identifying and deleting them, but of course I am worried about deleting pictures that I just forgot to caption first time round,or where the titles have been lost in the upgrade (as above).
  • Organisation by date added rather than date shot is particularly useless when shooting, as I often do, with a mix of iOS devices which upload constantly, and ‘proper’ cameras which I might only upload at the end of a trip.
  • On my most recent trip, for example, I really confused things by periodically downloading batches of photos from my camera onto my laptop, titling them in iPhoto there, then re-exporting the whole collection (about 600 images in total) at the end of the trip to my main desktop iPhotos library via a portable hard drive. Sure, that’s a complex chain of transmission, but the bottom line is, it all looked fine on my main desktop iPhoto library, and it is now a complete mess in Photos.

With a library of 22,000 pictures I can’t go through and check every picture or album against its original counterpart in iPhoto.

This leaves me with an uneasy feeling: are there other problems that I haven’t spotted yet? If I stick with Photos, am I jeopardising several years’ work and a seriously important part of my professional resources? Even if I get the albums sorted out, is there a big bloated dead weight of deleted or untitled images hanging around in the All Photos view, swelling my iCloud drive?


And there are some annoying interface problems:

Perhaps I am missing something with these – I would love to find I am wrong, but:


Batch titling has disappeared.

This was really useful in iPhoto. Now I have to copy and paste titles for each individual photo!


Map view:

This full screen map, with Standard/Hybrid/Satellite options, is accessible from Photos level for a given group of pictures, bunched together by date/location, by clicking on the name that Apple has assigned to that location.

Screen Shot 2015-04-27 at 15.05.44

Map view – of limited use, pretty as it is

This is a lovely feature, visually. It locates your pictures beautifully as you zoom in or out.

  • Sadly, though, it is virtually useless as a tool for navigating my photos in any way that I would find helpful because you can only access it – as far as I can tell – from the Photos level of organisation.
  • It would be far more useful to be able to have this map view accessible at any level of organisation, from All Photos to individual Albums – or simply a map view big picture of the world to fly round looking for pictures.
  • Then I could make proper use of the geotags on my pictures to go and find all the pictures I have ever taken in, say, Rome: I have several thousand of these and would like to be able to go and find the best shots of a particular monument from the map, no matter when they were shot or what album they are now in.
  • Failing that, why can’t we access the full screen map view for albums or other groupings of pictures? For that there seems to be only the little map in the Info window, which can’t be enlarged and doesn’t seem to show satellite imagery.
  • Essentially, then, the geotag metadata in my photo library is now useless to me – it can’t really be used for searching for pictures. I can’t view all the photos I have taken in a particular place, or navigate from a map view, except in the tiny, unenlargeable Info pane at the Photos level – where clicking on the photo pins doesn’t seem to do anything at all.
  • Overall, I can only select a batch of photos already organised (by Photos, without my control) by place, albeit displayed in a chronologically-ordered list, and then look at this small subset on a map.

So near and yet so far – the data’s there, the visual implementation is there and works beautifully for the particular, limited, not very useful part of Photos it’s attached to. I just can’t use it the way I want to.


iOS devices don’t show filenames! Or map views!

It’s baffling that there isn’t an option to do this. I can search for photos by title on my iPhone; why not give me the option to display that title?

  • All this metadata is already in Photos! Why can’t we (choose to) see it?


I can’t make any changes to the structure of my Photos library on my iDevices.

I have to wait until I am at my desktop to add pictures to Albums. I can’t do that on my iPhone or iPad, or change/add photo titles (because I can’t even see them!).

  • So if I am scrolling around through my photo collections at the weekend on my iPad and want to caption some pictures, or add them to an album – I can’t. I have to remember to do it when I get to work on Monday morning. Bizarre.


The Info window can’t be resized – so photo titles longer than 37 characters can’t be displayed. Given the need to cut and paste hundreds of filenames into titles, above, this is a bore.


I would like to love Photos. It’s nearly wonderful. If I’m using it wrong – I’ve only had it for a few days – I would love someone to tell me what I’ve missed.

It’s only just out of beta, I know – but the problems are so obvious, and so frustrating, that I think a company with a $178bn cash pile could have done better. I do hope some upgrades are in the pipeline. You might well say that Photos is a simple consumer app, and that users with any more ambitious photo needs should use something else. Well, maybe, but the potential for seamless integration across all my devices is too attractive at the moment to tempt me away to other apps – and as Apple are selling terabyte storage plans, and have killed Aperture, they are obviously aiming at users with more than a collection of family snapshots to organise.

At the moment, even leaving aside the deeply problematical bugs with the import function, it limits user choice in favour of a standard route into the photo library, badly undermining its potential usefulness. A pity.

Digital modelling – technical notes

When I give a talk or lecture using my digital model of Rome, I am usually asked about the technicalities of how I made it. Time and differing levels of interest in the audience tend to preclude a really detailed answer, so here are some facts and figures. I think this is going to be quite a geeky post, and I am an ancient historian, not a computer specialist, so please bear with me.

A lot of my initial modelling work is done in SketchUp. This is the first piece of digital modelling software I taught myself to use, and it has many virtues (and several limitations). It’s free in its basic version and relatively easy to pick up. When you reach the limits of the built-in feature set there are thousands of plug-ins that expand its capacity enormously. My favourites include a dome-maker, a tool for extruding a shape along edges (more easily than SU’s own FollowMe tool for some uses), and Chuck Vali’s terrific set of instant roof and wall tools.

SketchUp has such a nice working environment that I am reluctant to abandon it for smarter modelling software. I teach it now to my Classics students at the University of Reading, where I have a module in digital reconstruction working on our local town of Silchester. I find students can pick it up relatively easily – as I did – and create some very nice models with it.

It does have limitations, though. It’s not 64-bit software and gets unstable when I’m working on large models. It can throw shadows but it has no render capability. It can’t really deal with organic shapes and all its curves are really groups of straight lines.

So when I have finished a building or an area of the city, or for some specialist tasks, I take it over as a .3ds export into Cinema 4D, which is an extremely powerful and versatile piece of software. People use it for making movies and all sorts of commercial projects. I taught myself to use it and really only scratch the surface of what it can do – I ought to use its modelling tools more, for instance – but it works well for me.

It can hold the entire model at once (though it’s slow to open and work on), and I can turn elements of it on and off in the viewer to try to lessen the load on the graphics card. It allows me to create multiple render instances of iterated items like columns or trees to reduce the memory demands of the model, and can apply various sorts of sophisticated treatment to the textures which give the model its colour. It has a nice 3D painting module called BodyPaint that I use with a graphics tablet to paint on the backdrop map of the city (the roads and all the farmland). Here’s the city without its buildings, in a C4D editor window:

Screen Shot 2013-08-19 at 15.42.36

The gaps are where large buildings, mostly on terraces, have intersected and cut the terrain

Early versions of the model relied on this ground texturing for suggesting vegetation, which left the model looking rather stark and bare. In reality Rome, like most European cities, is actually very green when seen from the air or from many vantage points on the ground; its stands of pine trees in particular are a hallmark of the city. So after some experimentation I bought suitable libraries of trees from XFrog and VBVisual and have put an appropriate mix of Mediterranean species into the model, using a handy plugin called PaintOnSurface which allows you to scatter render instances of an object or group of objects (in this case, trees) across a surface (in this case, the terrain), with adjustable parameters of variation for rotation, scale, selection, and so on, which stop the trees from looking too uniform. I can also use it to plant rows of vines and olives. I particularly like adding the large stone pines which are so much a feature of the city today. The vital feature of this plugin is its ability automatically to adjust trees down to the local height of the terrain; doing this by hand for the c.50-60,000 trees in the model would take too long and be far too boring. After discussion with an expert PhD student in our department I have started adding quincunx planting formations of crop trees and at some point will try to add some commercial flower fields too, as we know ancient Rome had some of these close to the city.

Screen Shot 2013-08-19 at 19.57.08


Trees and agricultural planting amid the tombs on the Via Latina. The density of tree cover in the finished model is higher than this. 

These trees add a lot of visual realism to the model, but come at a price: even professionally made low-polygon trees deployed as render instances will, when used in sufficient numbers, eat up a lot of computing power and take a very long time to render, since each has thousands of leaves and branches which all reflect light and cast shadows.

The current instantiation of the Rome model is 3.96Gb and it causes my computer to run very slowly when it is open. I’ve always aimed at making the model slightly overstretch my current hardware, on the grounds that Moore’s law and generous University funding would allow me to buy a new computer by the time I reached that point.

So far this has worked, though my current machine, a 2010 twelve core Mac Pro with 64Gb of RAM, cannot now render the model. I think the trees are responsible and that the bottleneck is insufficient RAM; I have ordered an upgrade to 96Gb (thanks, Reading’s Digitally Ready project). The graphics card also struggles to refresh the screen when modelling anything with a high polygon count, so I am eyeing up the new Mac Pro’s twin cards with some excitement.

Backup became a problem as the model grew. I use ChronoSync to keep my various machines in sync with each other but my MacBookAir hard drive is now far too small to hold the model data I need, which meant buying an external hard drive. For a while this was my only backup, and it rode around with me on my bicycle between home and office. The University’s IT people didn’t like this, so they kindly set me up with a nice large secure local backup accessible over our University ethernet. I also have a 2Tb Time Machine drive, a 2Tb portable hard disk, some DropBox storage, and a backup backup hard drive at home. I tend to try not to have more than one or two of these data stores in the same place at the same time.

Render times for the model now extend into several days for a flyin animation of the city (of around 300 frames at 24ish frames a second), which makes it annoying when one discovers a mistake at the end of the render. I have on occasion used commercial cloud rendering, from Rebus, to help meet BBC deadlines for some work they commissioned from me, and this worked well. But over the medium to long term I’d rather spend the money on a fast computer that can sit in my office and be used for other tasks too.

When OS X Mavericks and the new Mac Pro comes out I will upgrade to a model with 128Gb of RAM, using the imminent Cinema 4D Release 15’s ‘team rendering’ feature to add my existing machine (and a new 27″ iMac that our department owns) into a little rendering network. By then the model should be largely complete and unlikely to grow much in size – at least in this version – so I hope this will take care of the rendering needs of my book and e-publications based on this modelling project.

So, to summarise:


SketchUp, with various plugins

Cinema 4D, with RebusFarm and PaintonSurface plugins

XFrog and VBVisual vegetation libraries


Various Macs, chiefly a 2010 12-core Mac Pro, 64Gb of memory, with a 30″ Cinema Display, 3-button mouse, 3D mouse, and Wacom graphics tablet.





Ancient Libraries

My interest in digital reconstruction started with making models of Roman public libraries to illustrate my DPhil thesis. Since then I have used these models and others like them to illustrate various talks and papers, and some of them have found their way into print in academic and popular publications. I use them in my Classics research and teaching at Reading and in my classes at the London Rare Book School.

One of the best preserved libraries of the Classical world is the handsome library of Celsus at Ephesus. Its ebullient baroque facade fell down in an earthquake and was painstakingly re-erected by Austrian archaeologists in the twentieth century, but the facade statues are missing, the doors are gone, and the remains of the book room behind are less well preserved.

A digital reconstruction seemed like a good way of filling in some of these elements. Here is a still image and fly-in movie:


Celsus library facade

Celsus library flyin – movie

Other libraries in the Roman world that I have reconstructed include the charming little library at Timgad, with its forecourt and hemicyclical book room. I have published on this and the Ephesus library, suggesting that their prominent locations and elaborate architectural address to the passing public are part of their designed function.

Timgad library from front 

I’ve also made a model of the ruins at Timgad and it’s possible to fade between this and the reconstructed model to show how one informs the other. This, I hope, is a good illustration of the potential of architectural modelling for showing the current and reconstructed states of a building, and for allowing virtual access to a site (in Algeria) that can be difficult and sometimes dangerous to get to.


Timgad ruins from front

These models proved useful to me and led to my current large-scale project to reconstruct the whole of the city of Rome – a city which included, by the age of Constantine, 28 libraries.