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The University of Southampton

Making the past a virtual reality

Using cutting-edge technology to bring ancient civilisations to life.

13 April 2016

Researchers at the University of Southampton are using cutting-edge technology such as satellite imaging, computer simulations, X-ray imaging and the latest geophysical analysis to uncover our cultural heritage.

The harbour city of Portus, 30km west of Rome, lay at the heart of an empire that extended from Scotland to Iraq. It was a crucial trade gateway from the first century AD until the city’s decline around 500 years later.

As both a major maritime hub in the Mediterranean and an ideological statement designed to underline Roman supremacy, Portus is key to understanding Rome and its relationship to its Empire. However, until recently little was known about this well-preserved important site.

A groundbreaking collaborative project led by Southampton has been exploring Portus in detail and continues to make exciting discoveries. “We use cutting-edge geophysical analysis, combined with traditional archaeological excavation techniques to uncover quays, a large Roman palace, shipyard, an amphitheatre and the biological profile of people who worked at and passed through the port,” says Professor Simon Keay, project lead and Associate Dean, Research and Enterprise for Humanities, at Southampton.

The team is bringing this new information to life with computer graphic simulations that give an impression of how the port looked and functioned when it was in use, as well as providing a means to analyse the arrangement and use of the port and the design of its buildings. The simulations also inform policymakers about the importance of the site and educating the public about what it might have been like to live and work there.

Global audience

“The project has also brought the discoveries at Portus to a global audience. Our excavations, geophysics and computer modelling featured in a major BBC1 documentary seen by 4.2 million people,” says Graeme Earl, Professor of Archaeology and Deputy Director of the Web Science Institute at the University. “Portus is also the topic of one of the University’s massive online open courses (MOOC); between this course, the website and the documentary, more than 40 million people have learnt about Portus,” he adds.

“Certainly, Portus is one of the great archaeological sites of the world. It has much to teach us about the commercial realities of how Rome was sustained as an Imperial capital at the heart of the Mediterranean basin for around 400 years, and the economic impact that was felt by provincials as far apart as Turkey, Spain and Libya. The political unity that was bound up in this has been unmatched since and has a continuing relevance today,” explains Simon.

The team’s excavation of Portus has led to a £2.1m European Research Council project to examine a network of 31 Mediterranean Roman ports in nine countries, using geophysical surveys (including ground-penetrating radar), data from satellites, and the study of ancient texts, to learn how they functioned within vast trading networks across the Empire.

The Southampton team is working with project partners from across Europe at the Université de Lyon La Lumière, British School at Rome, the Centre Nationale de la Recherches Scientifique (CNRS) at Lyon and the German Archaeological Institute in Istanbul, as well with the Austrian Archaeological Institute, the Catalan Institute of Classical Archaeology, the Soprintendenza Archeologica di Roma and Napoli, the University of Cádiz and the University of Oxford.

The project has also brought the discoveries at Portus to a global audience. Our excavations, geophysics and computer modelling featured in a major BBC1 documentary seen by 4.2 million people

Graeme Earl - Professor of Archaeology and Deputy Director of the Web Science Institute

Satellite imaging

The team are conducting fieldwork ‘in situ’ at eight of the 31 ports, surveying sites with the latest geophysical techniques (similar to underground scanning) at Ephesus, Pitane and Kane in Turkey; Gades and Tarraco in Spain; Portus and Puteoli in Italy; and Utica in Tunisia. “We are also using satellite imagery and existing archaeological data to study the remaining 23 ports in France, Egypt, Tunisia, Italy, Spain, Turkey, Libya, Israel and Greece,” says Simon. “Satellite imaging is really useful in the discovery of roman archaeology, as while it gives you vital information in a visual way, it preserves the cultural heritage as it is not invasive,” he adds.

Simon and colleagues are looking for structures which formed the port infrastructures, such as harbour basins, canals, warehouses and residential buildings, while European partners are complementing this work by studying the vocabulary of harbours and moorings, the management of harbours and the jobs involved in everyday harbour life, while also having the chance to drill down into the underlying data. “By sharing data, tools and educational resources openly we aim to support people to engage with the site at whatever level they choose. I think this open scholarship is a massively strength within the University as a whole,” says Graeme.

“It is hoped that much of the study will eventually be presented in a virtual environment online, including computer visualisations,” says Graeme. “Users will then be able to explore the ports and immerse themselves in the structures and harbour life,” he adds.

Answers with X-rays

Preserving cultural heritage is the most important aspect to consider when Simon and Graeme carry out their research, and they continuously work with colleagues across the University to achieve this. Graeme and his team have been working with the British Museum to examine buried Roman coins using the latest X-ray imaging.

Originally designed for the analysis of substantial engineering parts, such as jet turbine blades, the powerful scanning equipment at Southampton’s µ-VIS Centre for Computed Tomography is being used to examine Roman coins buried in three archaeological artefacts from three UK hoards.

The centre’s equipment can scan inside objects – rotating 360 degrees while taking thousands of 2D images, which are then used to build detailed 3D images. In the case of the coins, the exceptionally high energy/high resolution combination of the Southampton facilities allows them to be examined in intricate detail without the need for physical excavation or cleaning. “It has been possible to use 3D computer visualisation capabilities to read inscriptions and identify depictions of emperors on the faces of the coins – for example on some, the heads of Claudius II and Tetricus I have been revealed,” explains Graeme.

“Excavating and cleaning just a single coin can take hours or even days, but this technology gives us the opportunity to examine and identify them quickly and without the need for conservation treatment at this stage. It also has potential for examining many other archaeological objects.

CGI visualisations

“The University’s Archaeological Computing Research Group can then take this one step further – producing accurate, high resolution CGI visualisations based on scan data. This gives archaeologists and conservators around the world the opportunity to virtually examine, excavate and ‘clean’ objects,” Graeme adds.

When he first saw the computed tomography results, Dr Roger Bland, Head of Portable Antiquities and Treasure at the British Museum commented: “This scanning technique is already yielding some fascinating results and the possibility of identifying a hoard of coins in a pot, without removing them, is very exciting. Working with archaeologists and engineers at Southampton, it is exciting to be pioneering and exploring the potential of a process which is faster, cheaper and less interventive than excavation.”

Satellite imaging is really useful in the discovery of roman archaeology, as while it gives you vital information in a visual way, it preserves the cultural heritage as it is not invasive

Professor Simon Keay - Associate Dean, Research and Enterprise for Humanities

Open access

The satellite imagining, X-ray imaging, geophysical radar scanning and CGI technology employed by the team at Southampton result in a broad audience being able to experience past civilisations while making sure cultural heritage is preserved. Thanks to Southampton researchers you can walk down computer-generated roads in ancient Roman ports and read inscriptions on coins used by traders of the time.

“We have a focus on making the research that we undertake as openly accessible as possible. This isn't always easy and we have a long way to go in providing ubiquitous access, but there is a lot of will and expertise in the University to make this happen. Why should one of our alumni suddenly lose the ability to study something about the site, read about our work or perhaps see our data once they graduate?

“We make the research we do understandable to as broad a community as possible, by employing a variety of media,” says Graeme. “We concentrate on linking together all of the various methods available to us to help people imagine how they might have experienced these objects and places. They may be ancient cultures, but our job is to make sure they are not forgotten, and that their relevance to the modern world is understood.”

For more information on the Portus Project, visit

More information on Graeme's research

More information on Simon's research

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