02 November 2007

Travel diaries: vos es hic

Yesterday I attended a way-cool lecture at the Field Museum in Chicago which blended high-tech electronic visualization with one of my favorite subjects, Ancient Roman history. Forma Urbis: Mapping Ancient Rome concerned a collection of map fragments from the Capitolini Museum of Rome, which had been digitally scanned over a period of 25 labor intensive days - working around the clock - by some admirable Stanford uber-geeks.

For the uninitiated (and the project management oriented) the project charter was thus: put together an 1800 year old puzzle. The puzzle portrayed a ground plan of the central urban area of Rome as of about 203-211 A.D. and was inititally not a puzzle at all; it was 150 beautiful marble slabs affixed to a wall of the Templum Pacis of Ancient Rome. (Sadly, the fragment reading voc es hic - you are here - has not been found.) the ancient temple wall, serendipitously survived to modern times via its inclusion as a wall in the structure of the Church of Saints Cosma e Damian which was founded approximately 530 A.D. How did it turn from slabs into a puzzle? It fell off the wall, and shattered. Oh, and like many of my sons' puzzles, a few pieces are missing. Actually more than a few - only 15% of the pieces are collected which provides slightly over 1100 pieces with which to work. Some sketches of missing pieces exist, drawn by scholars and others who handled and preserved the piece over the years. For scholarship, the value of the map is immense - it provides archeologists and historians with detailed info about where certain structures existed , how big they were and what features they had.

The lectors included Dr. Laura Ferrea, Dr. Robert Meneghini and Dr. David Koller. Dr. Ferrea was an evocative speaker in detailing the context of the map and the museum's role in preservation; unfortunately, her translator did not seem to do her justice. For example, he rendered what I heard as "the equestrian statue of marcus Aurelius would have been encountered by visitors to the plaza as they ascended the staircase shown here," as "Here are some pictures of the plaza." I'm not sure why the translator worked in this manner. The next speaker, Dr. Meneghini, offered detailed descriptions of some of the buildings portrayed in the map. One very interesting detail he offered was graphic renderings of the view of the buildings and temples of Ancient Rome as they were used during medieval times, showing, for example, 2 room thatched homes made from marble harvested from the temples and ruins, pleasantly situated in the open spaces of the temples, allowing free roam for livestock through the colonnaded walkways of the ruins during the 10th century. aside from this presentation, I can't recall having seen any such renderings anywhere else.

My favorite part of the presentation was the last speaker's portion, who reviewed the project he had been part of to scan and digitally manipulate the images of the map fragments in an attempt to situate some of the pieces whose location within the overall map was unknown. The images of the pieces are hosted at Stanford's Digital Forma Urbis Project Site, available for users of any skill level to twiddle with the puzzle and try to identify new matches. Dr. Koller reviewed the techniques he and the team used to find matches, including 1) using the map design on the front of the pieces, 2) using the marble veining and coloration and 3) using the edge fracture patterns. Using these methods and statistical analysis of hand coded topographical features of the images, the team was able to match an additional 1% of the pieces which had for past centuries had their position in the overall puzzle unknown. Very impressive! Not so impressive - a lack of support by the image viewer for Mac users. Boo, hiss! I do wonder also if the Stanford team was able to confirm the placement of any of the previously assessed pieces, though he didn't cover that in the lecture.

I did identify one interesting book which I may add to my stack for later reading: Rome: Profile of a city by Richard Krautheimer.

(Photograph courtesy of Prof. Rodriguez-Almeida.)