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page updated April 1, 2002



The endeavor that currently goes by the name LEARNING SITES actually has its roots in the late 1980s when project founder the late Bill Riseman began to realize that there were more uses for his computer-aided design (CAD) program (called DataCAD, with its accompanying simple shading program called Velocity) than making the process of designing buildings more efficient.  He began to apply his proficiency with the software to the problems of archaeology, working closely with Dr. Timothy Kendall and Dr. Peter Der Manuelian, then assistant curators in the Department of Egyptian, Nubian, and Near Eastern Art, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Riseman slowly started expanding the envelope of what was considered possible with fairly simple, by today's standards, CAD tools and rendering software, creating stunning graphics and inventing new applications for the tools to broaden our understanding and appreciation of the past.  From research to presentation graphics, Riseman used these 'new' tools for reconstructing Egyptian hieroglyphics faster and with greater accuracy than previously thought possible and for digitally re-placing entire buildings onto their original topographic locations.  His results were dazzling; and some of his activities even led to changes in the software code to accommodate his achievements.  He was a true pioneer, innovator, and visionary in the application of CAD technology and a master of integrating and melding software and hardware.

Independently, archaeologist Donald H. Sanders had been pursuing alternative methods of analyzing ancient built environments and seeking the means to express graphically the kinds of interpretations he was developing.  From his teaching experience he understood how frustrating it can be to try to explain the nuances of an archaeological site to a group of undergraduates using only traditional visual aids--plans, section drawings, and site photographs.  To the untrained eye, ancient sites look like piles of rocks; even to the expert, section drawings of an unfamiliar structure are often difficult to decipher.  There had to be a better way of engaging students, of arousing excitement about the past, and of making them truly understand the ancient world from new points of view.

Sanders met Riseman at a trade show in Boston in 1992.  Each immediately realized the benefits of the other's expertise. Subsequent to that chance meeting a close working relationship emerged and the original goals each had set merged and broadened as they explored what were then merely distant buzz words: virtual reality, hypertext, and multimedia. However, several ideas quickly coalesced, including trying to revolutionize public education and scholarly research, and digitally preserving archaeological data that is languishing and actually deteriorating in existing archives.  


    Cultural Heritage Concerns

Among our fundamental concerns was the on-going destruction and loss of cultural patrimony taking place both in materials housed in collections and in those remaining at archaeological sites around the world.  The following three different circumstances exemplify the impetus behind our initial experimentation:
  • First, the destruction of excavated antiquities can be documented, for example, using photographic evidence in the site archives of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.  In a slide of Tomb G7560 in the Cemetery of Giza, Egypt, the image shows the condition of the hieroglyphics located on the north wall of the tomb as of June 29, 1929, during excavation.

click image for closeup view
  • Also in the archives is a second slide of the same set of hieroglyphics taken in August 1989.  By this time the top part of the scene had almost completely peeled off, and graffiti had been scratched over and below the remaining hieroglyphics.

click image for closeup view
  • A second slide (also from the archives of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts) can serve to illustrate the loss of primary evidence about excavated sites.  The museum collection has a glass negative showing part of the Cemetery of Giza as of 1912.

click image for closeup view
  • Upon comparing a print from the negative taken also in 1912 with a second print taken from the same glass plate in 1993, it was too clear that significant degradation of the original image had already taken place.  Irreplaceable visual documentation had been lost.

click image for closeup view
  • Third, illustrating another equally disturbing state of affairs, the museum has a photograph that was taken in 1938 after the excavation season at Giza had been completed.

click image for closeup view
  • A photograph of the same area taken 55 years later indicates that the cemetery had begun to fill back in with blowing and drifting sand. 

click image for closeup view

Thus, what we are witnessing is not only the deterioration of the actual antiquities themselves, but also of the only surviving original visual records of those monuments.  Sites once accessible to scholars and the visiting public are rapidly disappearing and, as photographic emulsion peels off old glass plates at an alarming rate, documentation of these places is disappearing as well.

From these initial realizations grew the ideas of applying CAD (and associated graphics) programs to attacking this situation while at the same time using the digitized data for the collection, analysis, and publication of the ancient sites and then using that data as the foundation for educational materials. 


    Early Projects

A number of demonstration and research projects followed using data supplied to Riseman by the Museum of Fine Arts.  The CAD models of the sites remained the foundation of his work, which included the process of re-creating the ancient buildings and sites, the process of visualizing ancient built environments, and the process of building a multilayer, multimedia experience.

The Early Projects
Gebel Barkal, Sudan -- "inverse photogrammetry"
The Mastabas at Giza, Egypt  --  "epigrammetry"
The Sun Temple, Meroe --  different rendering engines
Royal Cemetery of Kush -- Tomb of Aspelta -- 3-D hieroglyphics
The Fortress of Buhen --  virtual world
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