99-030 (Viretual Archaeology)
Distributed October 7, 1999
For Immediate Release
News Service Contact: Scott Turner

Virtual reality systems under construction for archaeologists

A research team is creating new software to help archaeologists reassemble complex objects from images of unearthed fragments and pieces. The work is funded by a $1.25-million grant from the National Science Foundation.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Add virtual reality software to the archaeologist’s lap-top tool kit.

Brown University researchers are designing software that will allow archaeologists to model and reconstruct columns, walls, buildings, statues and other complex shapes from photos and video of unearthed fragments and objects. The work is funded by a new three-year $1.25 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

“Eventually, we will be able to have an archaeologist use virtual reality to look at an area under excavation as if that person was actually there in the reconstructed site and to make precise geometric measurements of small artifacts and large structures,” said David Cooper, professor of engineering and one of the project’s five lead investigators.

At best, reassembling archaeological artifacts by hand or with images is laborious and time intensive – and often impossible because of missing pieces or features. From images, current computer algorithms can recreate only simple structures, such as straight lines, automatically or with little human intervention. Reconstructing complex shapes usually requires considerable human interaction with the computer.

“A second purpose is to construct as complete a record as possible of site excavation in a way that is fast-working and easy for people to access,” said Cooper. “This consists of computer site models for unearthed artifacts and structures that will incorporate time, location, three-dimensional position and other data gleaned from object images.”

The project is also designed to develop more descriptive and effective ways of using computers to model and make inferences about three-dimensional shapes and surfaces. Other major applications of the work are to use computers to reconstruct models and images of objects in their original conditions from images of damaged “found” artifacts, categorize reconstructed objects into like groups, relate them stylistically, and compare them to similar objects found at other sites.

In addition, the technology could help archaeologists determine where objects originated and trace both ancient trade routes and the stylistic influences between locations.

To develop the systems, the researchers are using images of objects and other data obtained from the ancient Middle Eastern city of Petra, under excavation in what is now Jordan. The items range from pottery fragments to ornate column heads.

One of the project’s principal investigators is Martha Sharp Joukowsky, professor in the Center for Old World Archaeology and Art and the Department of Anthropology. Joukowsky is in charge of the excavation of the Great Temple in Petra.

The researchers expect that the software systems prototyped will boost computer modeling and inferencing capabilities in other fields, including manufacturing, architecture, historical research, video conferencing, and searching image and three-dimensional databases over the Internet.

The grant is part of a new NSF initiative in information technology, with awards directed at difficult computational problems requiring multidisciplinary approaches.

“We’re looking for new approaches to handling huge amounts of complex image data from single images or from video of complex, free-form shapes in order to build three-dimensional models,” Cooper said. “We hope to advance current computer systems so that machines become as autonomous as possible to relieve humans of as much of the tasks of modeling and inferencing as possible, thus speeding up the whole process.”

The project’s other leaders are Benjamin Kimia, associate professor of engineering; David Laidlaw, assistant professor of computer science; and David Mumford, professor of applied mathematics. Key researchers also involved are visiting faculty Peter Giblin, from England, Jean Philippe Tarel, from France, and Michael Gruber, from Austria; graduate research assistant Eileen Vote; Frederic Leymarie, a project leader in the Division of Engineering; and a half-dozen graduate students and undergraduates.