Distributed February 28, 2003
For Immediate Release

Mary Jo Curtis

The Great Temple of Petra

Scientists, artists and archaeologists collaborate on digital archaeology

A team of Brown University archaeologists, computer scientists, engineers, mathematicians and artists has received a grant of more than $2 million from the National Science Foundation to develop technology for digital restoration and reservation of architecture and artifacts from the Great Temple of ancient Petra and to further develop shape theory.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Professor Martha Sharp Joukowsky, director of the Center for Old World Archaeology and Art at Brown University, has spent more than 10 years excavating the Great Temple of Petra, racing against time and the ravages of the desert to uncover the architecture and artifacts of the ancient Jordanian site.

Now, supported by a grant of more than $2 million from the National Science Foundation, Joukowsky and her students are receiving some unusual and innovative assistance from a team of scientists and artists in the University’s SHAPE (SHape, Archaeology, Photogrammetry, Entropy) lab. Together they are using technology to capture and restore aspects of Petra’s Great Temple for future generations in a multifaceted, interdisciplinary project that bridges research in the physical sciences and humanities.

The city of Petra, about 50 miles south of the Dead Sea in Jordan, achieved prominence in the first century B.C. because of its success in the spice trade. During the decade Joukowsky and her colleagues have spent at the site, they’ve unearthed more than 10,000 architectural fragments – and nearly 326,000 cultural objects, such as pottery, bone, faience earthenware, glass and shell.

“Petra is very rapidly eroding, so the team is eager to build accurate models of what’s there,” said David Cooper, professor of engineering, who is serving with Benjamin Kimia, associate professor of engineering, as co-director for the grant. Other principal investigators are Joukowsky; David Mumford, professor of applied mathematics; Richard Fishman, chairman of the visual arts department; post-doctoral research associates Frederic Leymarie and Pierre-Louis Bazin; and Demetri Terzopoulos, professor of computer science and mathematics at New York University.

The group is building upon work begun three years ago with a $1.25-million National Science Foundation grant. Cooper, Joukowsky, Kimia, Mumford, David Laidlaw, assistant professor of computer science, and then-graduate students Leymarie and Eileen Vote collaborated to digitally represent and manipulate two- and three-dimensional shapes from data recorded by laser range scanners and digital and video cameras – and then apply those theories to archaeological site analysis.

“Some of the geometry of the site has been recorded pretty accurately with surveying equipment, but that’s very time consuming,” Cooper said. “We want to use new techniques to obtain data faster and in a less costly fashion, with video and digital cameras instead of long-range scanners, to make this more automated.”

One dramatic result of the first grant effort was the development of ARCHAVE (ARCHAeology in Virtual Environments), an immersive virtual reality rendering of the Great Temple in Brown’s Technology Center for Advanced Scientific Computing and Visualization. In this second phase, the team will develop a prototype for a desktop version of ARCHAVE that will be less expensive and more readily available to students and researchers.

The team is also developing technological tools to aid archaeologists in the reconstruction of artifacts from the thousands of shards they have found – a time-consuming and sometimes impossible task. Using various mathematical models, the group is applying shape theories to automatically reassemble 3-D objects from fragments, offering mathematical probabilities for each potential configuration, and to represent how the original items are likely to have looked, even when only a few pieces are available to analyze.

“You can get a fair amount of information from an individual piece,” said Cooper. The shapes found at the temple – eroded rectangles, spheres and cylinders, as well as the irregular and free form items – provide rich data for developing shape theories, he added.

Fishman is collaborating with the computer engineers in the development of virtual sculpting programs. Terzopoulos, a computer vision and animation specialist, will assist by making inferences about the appearances of people and mammals of the period.

“With a 3-D reconstruction of the site, we want to have animated reconstructions of people and animals there – and maybe eventually tie this to forensics, using bones from the site,” said Kimia.

“It looks as if these tools will be very powerful in helping archaeologists to extract more information from finds and make it easier to analyze these things,” he added. “This could really be a revolutionary contribution to archaeology.”

“The gains are immeasurable, both short term and long term,” Joukowsky said. “I know our use of technology has already improved learning.”

In addition to the archaeological applications, the project is aiding the development of a common language and understanding between the collaborators. According to Fishman, efforts such as digital sculpting create a “link between arts, humanities and technology that is important and timely for education and the way society is moving.”

Cooper predicts this technology will eventually be available on a wide scale to the community and schools, where students can trade in their video games “and feel like they’re on a site – and learn about mathematics at the same time.”

For additional information or images related to this project, visit www.lems.brown.edu/shape/.

For more information on the history of Petra, see www.brown.edu/Departments/Anthropology/Petra/excavations/history.html