01/30: Visualizing Roman Cities

Professor Tom Morton of Swarthmore College came to the Penn Museum today to give a talk about his efforts to document and digitally reconstruct Roman settlements in North Africa. He spoke on  Timgad and Carthage, in present day Algeria and Tunisia, respectively. Both sites are UNESCO world heritage sites, and he and his students have modeled portions of both sites using SketchUp. His process uses archaeological data, historic documentation, and some creative thinking to help recreate 3D representations from ruins.

image of Rome reborn project

image of Rome reborn project

image from Wikipedia

image from Wikipedia


image from Wikipedia

image from Wikipedia

The process of digitizing and modeling of both Timgad and Carthage allowed for experimentation with how the city was intended to be seen. For Timgad, questions about the location of the Capitolium and the low number of temples in the forum (only one) were investigated by modeling the important buildings of the settlement and moving around within digital model space to see how these landmarks lined up visually. The process raised a number of interesting questions about how we think of cities today with all manner of technology at our disposal, and how the Romans visualized their plans. In Carthage the location of the main baths in particular and the orientation of many avenues suggest an importance placed on how the city was viewed from the water. Given the importance of the harbor and probable maritime traffic, this hypothesis gains credence. All credit to Professor Morton and his students, and given the over 600 Roman settlements in North Africa there is the potential for much more scholarship to come.

I think there is a huge potential in using computer modeling and photo-realistic rendering techniques in the world of both archaeology and historic preservation. I would personally like to see some images of what Philadelphia would look like today if the “gentlemen’s agreement” keeping all buildings below William Penn’s statue on top of City Hall. What would the city look like if 99% of the buildings were 4-5 stories max? Could a compelling argument for such a density be made from renderings?


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