UB Today Alumni Magazine Online - Winter 2002
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Samuel Paley (right)—the classics professor who helped conceptualize the project—with Prof. Thenkurussi Kesavadas of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

To view fullsize, click on the image.

Digital archaeology
'Virtual Assyrians' to guide visitors through
palace of ancient king

Story by Patricia Donovan Photography by Frank Miller

Nearly 2,700 years after it was buried in the Mesopotamian earth, the crumbled, plundered, and now spectacular palace of the ancient Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II will, within the next year, open its virtual doors to visitors from around the world. Upon entering the palace, they will view a historically accurate, complex, detailed and high-resolution virtual world—an ancient world—through which they can "walk" at their own pace, navigating the massive courtyards, anterooms, throne room and corridors, going in whatever direction they choose, turning corners, touching (and feeling) structural details and decorative items. The visit will be made possible by UB archaeologists, engineers and computer scientists who have been digging with digital tools to produce the next era of instructional devices.

The virtual "reconstruction" of the palace of Ashurnasirpal, one of a series of Assyrian palaces located in present-day Iraq, will be possible because of profound changes in methods of archaeological presentation and publishing being applied at UB.

As functional as they are complex, these multiuser, multimedia, real-time virtual realms will be available for exploration by a diverse audience through hardware ranging from hand-held devices to fully immersive environments. Their work, say the researchers, has led to the production of a massive bank of educational research resources that can be used for a variety of educational purposes beyond those on which they are focusing.

The project was conceptualized by noted archaeologist and Ancient Near East historian Samuel M. Paley, professor of classics in UB’s College of Arts and Sciences, and Donald Sanders of Learning Sites Inc. of Williamstown, Massachusetts, a company that produces archaeological visualizations for interactive education and research purposes.

The undertaking involves a team of archaeologists and architects from the University at Buffalo, the University of Warsaw and the University of Oregon. They are working in collaboration with Learning Sites, the Virtual Reality Laboratory in the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the UB Center for Computational Research and the New York State Center for Engineering Design and Industrial Innovation (NYSCEDII) at UB.

The applications are being demonstrated in the project’s first phase, a virtual reconstruction of the Northwest Palace of ninth-century B.C. Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II. The effort is being led by Paley; Thenkurussi Kesavadas, UB professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering; Stuart C. Shapiro, UB professor of computer science and engineering; Richard P. Sobolewski, Polish Center of Mediterranean Archaeology, University of Warsaw; and Alison B. Snyder, University of Oregon. Prototypes can be seen at http://www.classics.buffalo.edu/htm/
(UB’s Virtual Site Museum), or at http://www.learningsites.com/NWPalace/NWPalhome.html.

Although it will take years to finish, the virtual Ashurnasirpal palace will be available in completed sequences to offer a glimpse into the educational possibilities that have arisen from new information technologies.

Sanders says the palace is being constructed from multimedia, multi-dimensional knowledge bases that already demonstrate the usefulness of virtual reality as a collaborative tool for interactive research and education in the social sciences. These tools will further the educational dimension of the experience by linking various sites in the palace to drawings, photographs, descriptive and analytical text, and high-resolution renderings of the building complexes.

The results will be published both on DVD and on the Internet to allow for the integration of live updates, distance-education features, and links to new information as they arise. Access to Internet2 and the technologies of the ImmersaDesk™ and CAVE™ also are in progress at UB and demonstrate the benefits of life-size virtual reality applications.

In addition, Kesavadas and Paley are designing ways to use haptic tools (i.e., tools related to the sense of touch) that enable visitors to "feel" structural surfaces, draperies and clothing, giving them a much more realistic and intuitive way of understanding both artifact and environment.

To assist visitors, the palaces will be populated by intelligent agents—virtual Assyrians who will act as site interpreters and building "guides," answer visitors’ questions about the palaces and instruct them in the use of the haptic devices and virtual examination toolkits. Shapiro is developing the natural language interfaces that will drive the intelligent agents’ communication with the visitors.

Kesavadas points out that computer graphics, specialized hardware and software, and virtual-reality technology have been used by engineers for several years to advance the state of manufacture and design.

"Now," he says, "we’re using it to bring us ‘into’ physical environments to which we have had limited access—the human body, for instance, or ancient archaeological sites."

Paley explains that the benefits of the overall project are enormous, not only for the education community, but also for the research community.

"The palaces have been severely plundered," he says, "and the removal of hundreds of pieces of bas-relief and sculptural items obstructs our understanding of the total composition of the art on their walls.

"This not only impedes scholarly interpretation that would help us understand Assyrian art and palace construction as it developed in the Neo-Assyrian period," he continues, "but it [also] prevents us from understanding the relationship between inscription and relief, and how and why the reliefs were created."

In addition, Paley maintains that the missing materials hinder identification of the various hands that produced both the design and its execution, perhaps even the origin of the sculptors and the principles of Assyrian architecture.

This is why, he says, it is necessary, now that it is possible, to recreate the original site using digital archaeology—to bring together all of the discrete palace items that are scattered across the globe and, in a sense, put them back where they belong so we can appreciate their original function as part of an elaborate whole.

"Digital archaeology overcomes many of the shortcomings of traditional paper-based archaeological reporting," Paley continues, citing limits on the number, types and sizes of images; reliance on prescriptive, static and linear presentation; difficulty in updating data, ideas and images in the publication; the expense of production per unit; and packaging, mailing and warehousing costs.

Sanders says the Assyrian palace project demonstrates new visualization and presentation techniques that incorporate moving images, sounds and hyperlinks. Java, virtual reality, and computer animations, he adds, all can be seamlessly integrated into the basic methods of disseminating archaeological data.

Projects like this one make it clear that digital reconstruction will be the archaeological presentation standard within 10 to 15 years, according to Sanders and Paley. The methodologies used here, they say, will not only offer an accurate, reliable and fascinating look into a long-distant time and place, but also have many additional applications with implications for schools, museums and future archaeological research.

UB students working on the project are Young-Seok Kim and Parijat A. Bhide, graduate students in the UB Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, who are doing the Onyx2-based computer programming; Sandra Boero-Imwinkelried, a doctoral candidate in the UB Department of Classics, who is the project videographer and graduate assistant; and Colleen Snyder, an undergraduate Honors Program student, who is assisting Paley with the content of the user manual.

Patricia Donovan is senior editor for humanities, University News Services.

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