3D Worlds – Exploring Archaeology Digitally

I want to make a confession. I found Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood academically useful.

For those who don’t follow video games, Assassin’s Creed is a more-or-less-annual series of big budget games with primarily historical settings. It provides sandbox cities and sometimes wider landscapes in which the player can explore, engage in parcour-style running and jumping, and undertake missions. The first game was set in mediaeval Palestine and if nothing else is worth checking out just because of how unlikely it was that we would ever get a big budget video game set in the former Phoenician city of Akko. Also, if you like jumping around on crusader castles, it’s likely a big win. Other games in the series have focused on settings as diverse as the American war of independence, the French Revolution or the pirate-filled 18th-century Caribbean. So far so good. It’s certainly nice to see such under-explored settings being used for games. Plot-wise, though, the Assassin’s Creed games are not exactly dissertations in historical accuracy. There’s a Dan Brown-esque nonsense plot involving the Knights Templar, modern-day conspiracies, precursor races of superbeings with the names of Roman deities, some silliness about the hypothetical Mayan apocalypse that the internet reckoned was supposed to happen in 2012 (which they had to drop fairly sharpish in more recent releases), and so on. You get the idea.

 

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The first Assassin’s Creed’s rendition of Akko/Acre

So why did I find Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood genuinely useful in my academic life?

To answer that I need to make another confession: despite studying Classics at University level since 2002, and before that since I was about eleven, I didn’t actually make it to Italy until 2011, midway through my PhD. Now that’s not as bad as it may sound – my specialisation is the Aegean and East Mediterranean Bronze Age, which is pretty far removed from all things Roman – but still, I’d studied Rome for a long time without ever actually being there to see it for myself.

Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood is the second of a trilogy of games making up Assassin’s Creed II – the original numbered release and then two subtitled follow-ups featuring the same characters and time period, neither of which is Assassin’s Creed III (this kind of thing is fairly normal in the games industry). It’s generally regarded as the pinnacle of the series for its charming main character, Ezio Auditore, and beautifully realised Renaissance setting. The first game took in Florence, Forlì and Venice; the second was set in Rome, and the third moved to Constantinople. I heartily recommend them to anyone with an interest in Italy or the Renaissance – they can be had pretty cheaply now, and have just been re-released in a single pack with enhanced graphics for modern consoles.

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Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood‘s Rome

Anyway, when I finally made it to Rome in 2011, while taking some time out of my PhD to work on an archaeological survey at Isola Sacra and Ostia, it was after playing through the Assassin’s Creed rendering of Renaissance Rome.

And I found that I knew my way round.

I had learnt the city, its layout and its various landmarks far more clearly and intuitively by running around, climbing and jumping across it in the game than I had from all the plans and maps I saw as an undergraduate. It was 3D, interactive and alive. What’s more, the chance to explore it in the Renaissance – a sort-of midpoint between present day and the ancient Rome of my Classics background, made it impossible not to think about the city diachronically, as a place with a constant and changing relationship with its own history. Now obviously, in Rome, of all places, the past is pretty damn present anyway, and intellectually I knew these things anyway. But having explored it in the game made it all so immediate. I obviously can’t know what the experience would have been like if I’d first visited Rome without being primed by that game, but generally I would say it was a very positive and stimulating experience.

I’m not a Renaissance scholar and I can’t say for sure how accurate Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood’s history is. I’m guessing no more so than your average Hollywood blockbuster. But, to use a favourite expression of Classicists, its 3D cities are good to think with, especially when they’re the smaller, more easily rendered and read cities of the pre-modern era.

That experience has stayed with me, and I’m very interested in the potential of digital, 3D exploration to help us think through the places we as archaeologists and historians are researching. Around 2007, about the same time the first Assassin’s Creed game came out, in one of the occasional bouts of unemployment that are the lot of early-career archaeologists, I began teaching myself to use 3D software to model and animate objects and environments. It’s something I’ve stuck with and still really enjoy when I have time, though I wouldn’t claim to be a particularly skilled artist or master of the technical aspects. Most of the time, I’ve done my 3D art just for fun, but increasingly I’ve been thinking about how I could incorporate it into my academic life as a research tool.

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An example of some just-for-fun 3D art I did several years ago

Which brings me to the present day. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m newly embarked on a postdoc research project looking at the context of writing in the Bronze Age Syrian city of Ugarit. With most projects of this kind, one of the immediate priorities would be to visit the site and familiarise myself as thoroughly as possible with the solid reality of the place, in all its sunny, hot, soil-and-gritty glory. Sadly though – and I’m aware that this is the least of the tragedies that have stemmed from the Syrian civil war – that’s not going to happen. It’s a specific condition of the funding behind my research post that no-one should attempt to visit Syria. I’m not going to get to explore the real Ugarit during the course of my research.

So as I familiarised myself with the details of the site from books, plotting the locations of its many archives and document deposits on a flat 2D map, I decided to have a go at 3D modelling the tell. After failing to find any detailed topographic data online, I eventually ended up working from a fairly low-resolution contour map, so there’s an immediate caveat that this is a low-res and potentially slightly inaccurate rendering – it wasn’t always obvious what the contour lines were doing or what their elevations were. Hopefully I’ll find a better source as I go on with my research and will be able to refine it. Still, in a relatively short time I was able to produce a 3D tell, on to which I could project either an aerial photo of the site any of the maps or plans.

 

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My 3D model of Ugarit’s tell, looking approximately SE. If anyone familiar with the site spots any glaring errors, please tell me!

 

I found this a tremendously useful thing to do. Not only is the end result a tool that allows me to look at the topography of the site from any angle, to consider elevation and slope in a way that is not so immediate on flat plans and drawings, or to place myself at any point on the tell and consider sight-lines etc., but the actual experience of modelling it forced me to study and think about the plans in close detail – akin to the artist sketching anatomical studies from life. It’s impossible to do without close engagement and it left me with a much more vivid sense of how everything fitted together.

And of course, in terms of the use of 3D graphics in archaeology, this is very much the low-end hobbyist-with-a-few-hours-to-spare end of the spectrum. Technology is advancing rapidly and specialised equipment and advanced software are increasingly part of the everyday fieldwork process. I was lucky enough yesterday to attend a lecture by Dr Timmy Gambin of the University of Malta about his work on a well-preserved Phoenician shipwreck in deep water off Gozo. The find is extremely exciting but the depth and challenging sea conditions in the area make study very challenging. Gambin’s team have made extensive use of photogrammetry to construct very high-resolution 3D models of the wreck and its objects, and the examples he showed were nothing short of stunning. Both as a site-recording technique and as a method of investigation and prompt for thinking about archaeological material, this is definitely the future.

 

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One of Gambin’s high-resolution 3D models of the shipwreck

 

This is an area I’m going to continue to explore. My model of Ugarit’s tell is complete, but I still hope to refine it, and eventually I’d like to add structures to it. It ought not to take too long to create basic 3D walls based on the plans, but it would be nice to refine the details a bit so they reflect the realities of elevation and masonry, and that would take both time and detailed drawings and photographs. Even more ambitiously, it would be possible to create reconstructions from these and have my own explorable 3D version of the city’s excavated areas. Like Assassin’s Creed II’s Rome, it wouldn’t be completely accurate, but it could be very good to think with. I’d also like to give photogrammetry a try for myself, but that’s a little more complex and I need to think about what I would want to try it on.

If you’re interested in doing this kind of thing for yourself, the open-source 3D-modelling software Blender is extremely powerful and capable of almost anything you might want to do, with a little practice. It’s also entirely free, well-documented and there are tutorials for pretty much anything you can imagine on YouTube. The community’s also very open and helpful. I urge you to give it a go!

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