LSInc. logo

Salve Regina University

December  2000

Ancient Studies -- New Technology: The World Wide Web and Scholarly Research, Communication, and Publication in Ancient, Byzantine, and Medieval Studies

Salve Regina University, Newport, Rhode Island, USA1

December 8-10, 2000

The Assyrian Palaces at Nimrud: 
Digital Publication Projects and the Implications for Archaeology and Education on the Web

Presented by Samuel M. Paley and Donald H. Sanders

Projects developed by Samuel M. Paley, Ph.D., State University of New York at Buffalo, Richard P. Sobolewski, R.A., Warsaw, Poland, Thenkurussi Kesavadas, Ph.D., State University of New York at Buffalo and Alison B. Snyder, R.A., University of Oregon, in conjunction with Learning Sites, Inc., with assistance from University at Buffalo students: Young-Soek Kim and Parijat A. Bhide of Mechanical Engineering who are doing the Onyx2-based programming and Sandra Boero-Imwinkelried of Classics, videographer.


An important step in the transition from codex-based archaeology to digital archaeology is the use of visualization and presentation techniques that take advantage of what cannot be done on paper, such as the use of moving images, sounds, and hyperlinks.  Digital archaeology, especially one that takes full advantage of the World Wide Web, need not depend upon the visualization tools, linear format, or two-dimensional display methods of past archaeological reporting.  Java, virtual reality, and computer animations can all be seamlessly integrated into the basic methods of disseminating archaeological data.

The shortcomings of traditional paper-based archaeological reporting include:

  • limits on the number of images; 
  • limits on the types of images; 
  • limits on the sizes of images; 
  • prescriptive, static, and linear presentation; 
  • the difficulty of updating the data, ideas, and images; 
  • packaging costs; 
  • mailing costs; 
  • warehousing costs; and 
  • the expense of production per unit of data published.

Electronic reporting, integrating the Internet, can overcome these and other profession-wide barriers to information because it can: 

  • reduce the long time lag between data gathering and data dissemination; 
  • provide more information more creatively to more people; 
  • increase vastly the amount of data that can be included in a publication; 
  • increase the options for visual presentation of the data; and 
  • provide hyperlinked presentations and customizable search and retrieval formats.

We intend to demonstrate some of those advantages through discussion of what we call VirtualSiteMuseums: the 9th-century BC Northwest Palace of Ashurnasirpal II) and the 8th-century BC Central Palace of Tiglath-pileser III (both at ancient Nimrud, Assyria). The Central Palace publication will be the Final Report of the Polish Center of Archaeology’s Excavation at Ancient Nimrud, Assyria. 

A team of archaeologists and architects from the United States and Poland are working with Learning Sites, Inc. and the Virtual Reality Laboratory at the University at Buffalo2 to create massive research resources based on virtual reality re-creations of the palaces as they were excavated and as they have been digitally reconstructed.  The virtual models have links to drawings, photographs, descriptive and analytical text, and high-resolution renderings of the building complexes.  The projects will also include intelligent agents--virtual Assyrians acting as virtual site interpreters that will be able to answer user’s questions about the Palaces, haptic devices, and a virtual examination toolkit.  The results will be published both on DVD and on the Internet, for integration of live updates, distance education features, and links to new information as they arise.  Access to Internet2 and the technologies of the ImmersaDeskTM and CAVETM are also in progress.

The 9th Century BC palace of Ashurnasirpal II and the 8th century BC palace of Tiglath-pileser III, were discovered on the citadel mound at Nimrud in Northeastern Iraq by the British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard 150 years ago.  Excavated over the course of several years, Layard and his successor, Hormuzd Rassam, removed many of the surviving stone bas-relief slabs that decorated the walls of the palaces’ "state apartments".  European and American collectors, some of them Christian missionaries, furthered the removal of whole and parts of whole relief slabs from the palace remains, which had not been taken by Layard and Rassam.  Most of these sculptures are now in public and private museums across the world, from the United States to almost every European country, as well as Canada, Israel, India and Japan.

One of the methods of recovery of the wall decoration in both of these palaces was to saw or break a whole bas-relief slab up into smaller chunks to relieve the burden of carrying heavy pieces of stone away from the site on pack animals and then by river transport.  The "excavators" left behind fragments of bas-relief sculpture: sometimes only a quarter or eighth or ninth of a total slab was taken -- a head, part of a torso, a single figure of several on a slab, etc.   Today, the mining of these sites continues: recently stolen bas-relief fragments appear on the international antiquities market regularly.

The removal of pieces of the palaces obstructs our understanding of the total composition of the art on the palaces’ walls.  It impedes scholarly interpretation that would help us understand Assyrian art and palace construction as it developed in the Neo Assyrian period: the relationship between inscription and relief, the creation of the relief, and the identification of various hands that produced both the design and its execution, perhaps even the origin of the sculptors and the principles of Assyrian architecture.

In 1949, the British returned to re-excavate Nimrud and, with the Iraqi State Organization of Antiquities and Heritage, the site was conserved and a "site museum" at Ashurnasipal’s palace was created.  Iraqi work continued until the Gulf War, and included major discoveries and much reconstruction.

From 1974-76, the Polish Center of Mediterranean Archaeology began a project to excavate Tiglath-pileser’s palace.  The Poles also created a documentary record of Ashurnasirpal’s palace that was published in the Baghdader Forschungen series.  These volumes incorporate hundreds of drawings of the fragmentary bas-relief that survived in situ and in 65 museums and private collections worldwide.  The story of how the several hundred fragments were tracked down, many having gone unnoticed in small collections for decades, is one of the great detective stories of modern Iraqi archaeology.

There have been many attempts to create collaborative multi-user virtual worlds. We propose, for the first time, to create a virtual environment using real historical data, linking elements in the world to a vast knowledge base.  We will use both avatars coming from outside the system and avatars as intelligent agents, as intermediaries, among the knowledge base, artifacts, and locations within the virtual environment, including adding the sensation of touch to create a more intuitive way of understanding artifact and environment.

Thus, the project’s interdisciplinary goals are: 

  • To demonstrate the use of virtual reality (VR) as a collaborative tool for interactive research and education in the social sciences; 
  • To incorporate a touch-based VR for more realistic interaction with the virtual world; 
  • To develop and study two types of virtual characters -- pre-programmed intelligent agents and avatars representing real users; 
  • To develop a multimedia, multi-dimensional knowledge base that is accessible using natural language queries to intelligent agents set within an historically accurate, complex, detailed, high-resolution virtual world; and 
  • To demonstrate that the functionality of such complex, multi-user, multimedia virtual environments can be made available to a diverse audience using delivery hardware ranging from hand-held devices to fully immersive environments. 

The modeling phase involves three aspects of the design of the virtual environment: (1) building precise and accurate 3D computer models of the palaces, their environs, furnishings and decorations; (2) building precise and accurate 3D “Assyrian” characters to be used as avatars and intelligent agents to make visits to the virtual environments more informative and user-friendly; and (3) defining and creating “nodes” — the hyperlinks and hotspots that connect the virtual world to the research knowledge base.

The 2nd stage of the project will focus on collecting and organizing the information into data sets that can be “mined” by the user.  The data sets come from excavation documentation, photo and archival resources, and previous, current and ongoing research. The data sets (texts, 2D and 3D images, sound, voice, video, and computer animations) will be organized into a semantic network (an n-dimensional array structuring the data according to information science and thesaurus principles) that will then be linked to the virtual environment and made accessible to the user either directly via hotspots or through natural language queries to intelligent agents. 

The 3rd stage of this project will develop an efficient navigation system for visiting and appreciating the virtual environment, making it more informative and user-friendly for interactive research, distance education, peer-to-peer communication, and public enjoyment.  The navigation system will include virtual scaling, natural language parsing, speech recognition, voice activation of avatars and intelligent agents, artificial intelligence, and the building of a semantic network as a way to allow the users as avatars and intelligent agents to interact more naturally with the vast research databanks and educational tools. 

We are already experimenting with the avatar.  The avatar moves under our direction across the throne room floor to a point behind the throne.  The avatar touches the throne, which activates a pre-recorded short explanation.  The  avatar can be moved to any location in the virtual world by the person directing the navigation. Thus, we can use the avatar, as if in a classroom, to illustrate how we can teach from a remote monitor (World to World) to a classroom, perhaps one campus to another.

The next steps in the project involve programming navigation system enhancements, which will have the following features: A Virtual Examination Toolkit, Dynamic Virtual Worlds, and Haptic Devices.

The virtual examination tools will enhance the experience of being immersed in a virtual environment through the use of surrogate instruments that can be handled by visitors to the virtual environment in order to carry out some specific task without overloading the computer.  We will give the user a ‘virtual binocular’ for viewing across large archeological spaces to extract very high-resolution images from a distance, a ‘virtual magnifier’ to examine details on 3D artifacts and of decoration, and extract fine levels of detail without overloading the rendering engines, and a ‘virtual ruler’ for measuring objects in the virtual environment. 

Using existing technologies, dynamic virtual worlds will make it possible for users to visualize alternative solutions to design problems by interacting dynamically and directly with the geometry of the virtual world.  Thus, a visitor will be able to change the virtual world on command (by voice or menu-driven command) and in real time.  For example, research hypotheses about the heights of ceilings or widths of doors will be permitted, allowing users to alter the geometry of the world in response to specific queries.

Haptic devices will add touch to the otherwise visual field of VR, allowing the user to feel the sculptures and artifacts. 

The final goals of the project will ensure that scholars, students, and the general public will be able to use the virtual environment and its interface for their own work or enjoyment on a wide variety of display systems. We will develop multilevel virtual environments, which will run on systems from hand-held devices to high-end immersive environments, such the Immersadesk™ and a 6-Wall CAVE™. The modeling process, information delivery concepts and user profiles will vary for each level of the environment. While a fully immersive environment may be of great advantage to researchers, a PC-based system with autostereo may be appropriate for schools and colleges. Hand-held devices may be more appropriate for visits to a site museum or museum exhibition, incorporating sound and virtual contexts that would replace the passive audio systems currently in use.  In this research we will investigate the various issues and create configurations and requirements for the multitier, intelligent, multi-user virtual reality system.

Also, today’s technology makes collaborative virtual sites possible by linking various sites together in a single system. We hope to expand this concept to develop geographically distributed virtual sites at several Internet2 labs to bring people who are in different spaces together under the guidance of a single veteran educator.

Before these visions can become our future reality, we are addressing such issues as digital archiving, imaging and data format standards, file conversion and migration (for instance, from VRML to Sense8's WorldToolKit™), authorship guidelines, and peer review.  To help us we have assembled a research team that includes archaeologists, architects, educators, museum curators, engineers, and computer scientists from both academia and the private sector.

So far we have learned that many things are feasible: 

  • virtual worlds are an effective means of coordinating and visualizing the disparate data sets of archaeology; 
  • virtual worlds are an effective means of disseminating raw and assimilated archaeological information; 
  • virtual worlds are an efficient means of publishing archaeological data; 
  • current technologies allow for the creation of natural language person-to-avatar and person-to-agent interrogation within complex and detailed historically accurate virtual environments. 
We firmly believe that real-time interactive education and research is the future of our discipline.

1 - More information about the conference and the texts of other paper texts can be found at the conference proceedings' Website.

2 - More information on the collaborative work on the Northwest Palace by the Virtual Reality Laboratory and the Center for Computational Research at the University of Buffalo can be found at their Website.