Research Applications for 3D Models in Art History

These days, it is difficult to find a television documentary detailing an archaeological site that does not feature a representation in the form of a 3D model. Computer models make good teaching tools. A class of students may not have the opportunity to travel to Rome to view the Colosseum first-hand, and even if they did, they would have great difficulty visualizing what the mostly-ruined structure looked like 1,900 years ago. A model based on the most recent archaeological research, however, can help fill in the gaps left by time and the elements.

One of the more important aspects of a computer model is that it is dynamic. Using software, a model can be adjusted to reflect newer theories of the site’s architectural reconstruction. This is certainly a stark contrast to artists’ sketches and paintings, which, over time, tend to become outdated. Importantly, like other visualization methods used in the humanities (such as GIS), 3D models can help scholars get a fuller picture of a site and formulate research questions that never would have been considered otherwise.  This is the case in my most recent research.

Having never truly given up on the video game design aspirations of my high school days (I specifically remember my father turning the breaker off to the upstairs when I was up until 4 AM designing a Quake map), I have found a niche within my field of academic interest—Roman archaeology and architectural history. While many of my Pompeianist classmates take a more traditional approach to graduate research projects, I chose to develop a 3D model of the House of the Faun, one of the largest and most famous houses in the city. The model was constructed as accurately as possible based on the archaeological plan, a number of artists’ reconstructions, and photographs of the house (many gathered from Flickr).

The intent of the model was to test art historians’ philosophical assertions about Roman atrium houses.  With accurate lighting simulation (i. e., calibrating a simulated sunlight to the latitude and longitude of the house and to any point in time back to antiquity), high resolution images of the model rendered by Mentalray software gave me a glimpse of what the House of the Faun looked like at noon on January 1st, 100 B.C., which is something no artist can replicate.

Coincidentally, lighting simulation may have an impact on how we consider the artwork within the house. For example, when many art historians point to the colors of a mosaic as being proof of its Greek influence, can that assertion bear the burden of the fact that the mosaic was rarely in sunlight?

House of the Faun

Many of us have seen Roman floor mosaics hanging on the walls of American and European museums, but they have been removed from their original context. Even in Pompeii, one of the best-preserved sites of the ancient world, the roofs collapsed long ago, making it difficult to visualize the natural lighting scenario within the House of the Faun and other structures within the city. 3D models allow us to put artworks back in their original context and consider how the ancients viewed them, which is quite different from how we view them now. In this case, the computer model is more than just a teaching tool; it is a scholarly research tool.

Classical archaeology student, Web services developer at American Numismatic Society (@ANSCoins), 3d modeler, former web applications developer in the Scholars' Lab.


  1. Being a 3d animator, I know how important lighting is. Even being just slightly off, I am amazed at how the human mind is able to combine all of its past experiences to instantly tell when something just doesn’t look right. I am glad I live at a period in time when we are able to create models like these to really help us in visualizing our past. It is hard to even imagine what the technology will allow us to do in the next 20 years. I don’t think we will be quite up to a star trek TNG holodeck, but I think we will be getting close.

  2. Just a footnote to say that Ethan, as part of an independent study project undertaken with Professor John Dobbins, has created a beautiful, photorealistic timelapse animation of the patterns of sunlight in the triclinium of the House of the Drinking Contest in Antioch — as it really was (barring clouds) on March 21st, 200AD. He’ll have video to share with Scholars’ Lab blog readers soon!

  3. Ethan, I’ve added one of the beautiful images you sent me! Hope you don’t mind.

  4. Very nice job with your reconstruction. I happen to have discovered your model on another site. Well done.