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Archaeological Visualization in VFX



Wayyyyyyyy back in the day I had the opportunity to grow up and meet an archaeologist almost every weekend. This article is dedicated to her as, right now it is a bit hard for her to do her job. Since some places around the world are not inaccessible due to civil unrest, war, and natural disasters, traveling to digs and historical sites is almost impossible for archaeologists. 3D scans, models, and other visualization tool might become the future for rediscovering lost facts about human kind, since we can't be on site for discoveries.  So let's talk about how we can make this develop this field, and make it easier and safer for scientists. 

This article is also dedicated to supervisor I met this past summer. His enthusiasm was infectious, and it still pains me that our schedules didn't line up and I couldn't be a part of his team. Sorry about that Alex, but in the meantime here's the thing I was talking about...:)


Photogrammetry and 3D Modeling

Before we get started, let's just talk about what Archaeology really is. Just because it covers a lot of topics.

Archaeology is the study of human activity through the recovery and analysis of ancient cultural materials. It is a sub-study of paleontology. Some of the greatest recorded studies of archaeology are from Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and European culture. Archaeology is both a social science and a branch of the humanities. It studies everything from ancient artifacts, architecture, preserved bio-material, and cultural landscapes. It is a great way of understanding the past, explaining how our ancestors lived, and how technology developed.

One of the more recent developments of the 20th Century is that Archaeologists have been working hand in hand with computers to model what they find, restore, and showcase. I'm sure everyone of you at some point has seen a show from the early 2000s on the History or Discovery Channel. In those shows you often see 3D representations of the inside of the pyramids, structures, and other objects. Well scientists create 3D models for finds for more than just the Discovery Channel.

Excavation will always be the main source for any starting point in Archaeology. But afterwards it is important to preserve the dig site, and make sure it is easy to have continued access to discovered material. This can be a bit tricky if you wanted to continuously visit a site halfway around the world in person. However, if you introduce photogrammetry into this step everything becomes much easier. 

Photogrammetry is the process of creating 3D scans by using both traditional photography and 3D models. Photogrammetry cameras can survey and map distances between objects. They can also capture color information, and geometry of objects. This information can then be entered into a 3D software. The software then decodes the information the camera has captured, and generates models from the selected measurements. After it is entered into a computer it can be used for GIS applications, cultural heritage documentation, and visual effects production.

3D models are important because they document objects and events like illustration or photography. This helps improve visualization of archaeological data for archival preservation and access. This also improves the research potential of any archaeology study by preserving more detail about the material, and allowing broader access to the study. It is generally easier to learn from something with pictures and realistic scale than just reading a textbook.

Cameras can also capture more light than we can naturally observe. So any scans of a dig or artifact can contain infrared data or other forms of indirect light. This can help archaeologists see remains of faded paintings, biological debris, or other objects. Photogrammetry can also preserve objects that cannot survive in their existing condition. This is incredibly helpful for documenting mummies or human remains, as they might start to degrade once they are exposed to direct sunlight and weather. 

During these Covid ridden times, photogrammetry has become more important than ever. Since large groups of people, and traveling is not allowed, it is even harder to try and preserve artifacts. Some scientists have started combining photogrammetry with drones and LiDAR data, to explore terrain without leaving their homes. A U.K.-based archaeology team has continued their research through the pandemic by using airborne survey data. They then analysed thousands of images derived from the drone's LiDAR data, and made high-resolution maps. So far they have found over 30 prehistoric Roman settlement enclosures, 20 prehistoric burial mounds, remains of hundreds of medieval farms, and a few quarries in the UK landscape. The study team was led by Dr. Chris Smart from the University of Exeter.


Before we go any further, I wanted to give some spotlights on companies or sites that are doing their best to bring the culture of archaeology forward. This is one of those sites, and what they are doing is pretty cool.


This collaborative internet project researches innovative approaches to integrate 3D digital models, and virtual reality environments online for teaching and research on ancient architecture and landscapes. Currently, You can go to the website and view 3D models of artifacts found at different dig sites, and virtual tours of them as well.  It has grown into an international project that brings together art historians, archaeologists, and other cultural experts. As well as a group of specialists in remote sensing, photogrammetry, 3D modeling, and virtual reality. The MayaArch3D is overseen by The German Archaeological Institute (DAI) and the GIScience Research Group at the University of Heidelberg.

The Murale Project

This is another project that I think is worth talking about. The Murale Project is doing a lot to bring together artists and scientists to form databases for the world to use. Let's dive inside...

 The Murale Project is an Information Society and Technology project funded by the European Commission to advance the use of computer technology in archaeology. The Murale group is mainly formed by these groups: Brunel university in the UK, ETH University in Zurich, Switzerland, Eyetronics (Belgium), Imagination (Austria), the Technical University of Vienna (Austria), the University of Graz
(Austria), and the University of Leuven (Belgium). 


Their main "dig" or research site is located in Sagalassos, Turkey. They seek to develop and provide better tools that archaeologists themselves can use in situations. They also wish to develop easy-use tools that are adverse to elements (sun heat, dust, moisture), generate 3D models of objects at different scales, and create a faster and flexible approach to recovering materials. 


They also are in the process of creating a public database for curating images of how a dig site and remains would look over time.

Virtual Reality and Archaeology

Now this is a fun topic. VR is a growing industry, and in the future there will be a huge amount of tools for us to use in our daily environments. Virtual reality is also bleeding into several other industries besides visual effects, such as the medical community, automotive sectors, and schools. But let's take a look on how it's helping the world of Archaeology.

The ARCHAVE System is a virtual system that is aimed at creating an immersive virtual reality environment for archaeological research. It started development in November 1999, and has grown since then.  It's goal is to evaluate virtual reality interaction and data visualization techniques for scientific applications. So far they have worked with data from Brown University's Great Temple excavations in Petra, Jordan and many other University funded digs. 

So far they have created a VR system that allows users to walk around dig sites, explore artifacts, and view other data separately or in large scale structures. The system is also allowing archaeologists to preserve and visualize the data they collect in a 3D environment. As well as enabling them to better understand the context of the excavation data, and gain freedom of movement through the datasets.


This entire system is answering the most basic question of Archaeology: What context is necessary for
performing archaeological tasks? 

Visual Effects and Archaeology Research

So while researching this topic I was hoping to find VFX topics about how in the world of CGI movies were taking 3D scans and implementing them to improve backgrounds, matte paintings, etc. Or maybe something that would show how we are trying to teach history through the sets of Marvel movies. Sadly, I couldn't find anything. The majority of information I could find regarding Archaeology in Hollywood mostly had to do with Indiana Jones or The Mummy franchise. Which were less factual articles, and more trivia on the films. That being said, I think there is a ton of potential for movie makers to use Lidar scans, photogrammetry, and other documentation forms into films. We just need the right people to implement them.

However, I did find one person who is probably the best person in Toronto, or even Canada to talk about the integration of VFX and Archaeology. What he is creating is fantastic, and I did want to give him credit where credit is due.

Dr. Michael Carter is a professor at The University of Ryerson. He is currently their Director Of Industry Relations, and leader in their Digital Media Program. Originally a technical director and producer in the VFX industry, and Senior Demo Artist at SideFX, he has a hugely rich background in visual effects and production. His research focuses on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Culture, and he holds a PhD in Anthropology (Archaeology) from Western University. As well as various other degrees. He also ruins the website; Theskonkworks, which beautifully showcases his work that he is doing with Animation and VFX for Heritage Visualization.


On his site you can see the restorations and models he is creating with VFX software. Such as Longhouses. These are a huge part of Canadian history. His longhouse models combine cultural interpretations what they would have looked and felt like within the 16th century in Southwestern Ontario. Some of his longhouses are also open source resource tools for the public to use, and are combined projects with the Archaeological Services Inc., Sustainable Archaeology, Museum of Ontario Archaeology, and the University of Western Ontario.


Photogrammetry is the New Archaeological Photography: 3D Modeling at Abydos:,preserving%20more%20detail%20about%2C%20and

Resolving archaeological site data with 3D computer modeling: the case of Ceren:

Providing artifact illustration, photogrammetry, and editing services to archaeology and museum professionals:

Digital Archaeology: 3D Modeling Reveals Ancient Artifacts:



3D modeling for Art, Architecture and Archaeology:

3D Delineation:

Google Unveils Incredibly Detailed 3D Models of At-Risk Heritage Site:

The MURALE project: Image-based 3D modeling for archaeology:

Animation and VFX for Heritage Visualization:

Looking Forward: Virtual Reality at the Museum:

The life and death of archaeology: a DCI Conversation with Dr Michael Carter, Ryerson University:

Dr. William Michael Carter:


Stonehenge Uncovered:


Geographic Visualization in Archaeology:


Visualization in Archaeology:


Data visualization in archaeology:




Archaeological Data Visualization in VR:
The ARCHAVE System:




3D visualization and reflexive archaeology: A virtual reconstruction of Çatalhöyük history houses:


Visualizing the Past. Exploring Meaningful Approaches in Interpreting the Archaeological Record Through Illustrations and Reconstructions:

How archaeologists continued digging from home during lockdown:

Archaeology Center Sponsors Virtual Archaeology Film Festival:

4 Technologies Gives New Life to Archaeology:

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