This paper describes a course that I developed and co-taught with Dr. John Hopkins at Rice University in the spring of 2014, entitled “Virtual Reconstruction of Historic Cities.” In this course, student teams worked to digitally reconstruct ancient Roman and Swahili buildings. The final products followed from a semester-long engagement with research on these pasts, working with archaeological and textual sources, draft iterations of buildings, then digitally modelling the structures and building them into 3D worlds in open-source gaming software. In this paper, I describe the background to the course, how it was organized, and how the course unfolded.

This paper describes a course that I developed and co-taught with Dr. John Hopkins at Rice University in the spring of 2014, entitled “Virtual Reconstruction of Historic Cities.” In this course, student teams worked to digitally reconstruct ancient Roman and Swahili buildings. The final products followed from a semester-long engagement with research on these pasts, working with archaeological and textual sources, draft iterations of buildings, then digitally modeling the structures and building them into 3D worlds in open-source gaming software. Here, I describe a background to the course, the work that it took to create and gather institutional support for it, and how the course unfolded.

In the years leading up to the course, Hopkins and I had both been engaged in conversations on campus about digital innovations in the humanities and social sciences, focusing on digital reconstructions from fragmentary archaeological data. We organized and ran a yearlong workshop at the Humanities Research Center at Rice entitled “Digital Visualization of Historic Cities,” which brought together researchers in the Schools of Humanities and Social Sciences with an interest in digital reconstruction projects. Active projects include GIS-based projects, those actively reconstructing ancient buildings, and projects collecting 3D data via LiDAR. These faculty members also met with peers from the Department of Computer Science and the Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology at Rice University.

Hopkins had long been involved with digital reconstruction projects based at UCLA and was working on reconstructions for his now-published book on early Rome.1 I was directing a long-term project at the medieval site of Songo Mnara, a 14th- to 16th-century C.E. Swahili town on the southern Tanzanian coast. As part of my project (co-directed with S. Wynne-Jones), we had collected an enormous body of spatial data of the standing architecture at the site.2 This included floor plans of structures excavated as well as LiDAR scans of the standing walls and buildings (in collaboration with the Zamani Project).3 I was keen to begin applying digital technologies to reconstruct the buildings.

During an energizing visit with our workshop with Dr. Christopher Johanson from UCLA’s Experiential Technologies Center, we discussed the possibilities of our projects with him and expressed our hesitancy at diving into digital reconstructions. His response was to “just start” and begin experimenting with different technologies and techniques, and not wait until institutional support magically appeared. The challenge for us was that, although there was great interest in advancing digital reconstruction projects at Rice, there was no department or program that focused on encouraging or supporting such efforts. We thus decided that a co-taught course, bringing together students from across the university, might be a workable first step in starting this type of research and collaboration at Rice. We approached the Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology to see what type of institutional support would be available, and they generously funded a small grant to support our technology needs as well as the framework of the course.

The projects focused on structures in two project areas: from ancient Rome, students reconstructed a temple (at Sant’Omobono) and a residence/cult space (the Regia) from the sixth-century BCE. For the Swahili world, students focused on a pair of two-story houses at the urban site of Songo Mnara, a medieval UNESCO World Heritage site on the southern Tanzanian coast for which extensive digital data is available (see Figure 1).


Floorplan of Swahili houses at Songo Mnara, Tanzania.4 


Floorplan of Swahili houses at Songo Mnara, Tanzania.4 

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We quickly realized that for students to be able to proceed through the necessary research, modeling, and coding for a digital reconstruction, we would need to create small teams of students from different disciplines, each bringing their particular strengths and skills to the course. Archaeology and Art History students were knowledgeable about reading archaeological and historical texts, as well as building up the research necessary to make decisions about the details of a historical reconstruction. Architecture students understood how to model buildings and had knowledge of architectural history, materials, and material constraints that was important in reconstructing a building. Computer science students could work with digital models, build them into 3D environments, and code the unique immersive settings.

We wanted the class to be organized primarily as an active lab class, where class time for much of the semester was devoted to researching, collecting, and managing data, and then experimenting with building models and interpretive materials, and the final construction of the 3D model. A digital lab class required not only technological support from the university but also classroom space where students could work as teams. Creating the course was thus a challenge because we needed the support of departments in four different schools at Rice: Architecture, Social Sciences (Anthropology), Humanities (Art History), and Engineering (Computer Science). In order to bring students into such a course, we need it to be cross-listed across all schools, so students could apply it to their program requirements. In the Architecture and Engineering programs, in particular, students have very few elective classes available and so cross-listing the course widely would allow them to take it as a “school” course, even while engaging in a cross-disciplinary experience.

Because the course depended on a mix of students from across campus, we set out to recruit students and made the course “instructor permission only,” requiring all potential students to come talk to us. Our challenge was finding students with specific skill sets as well as the ability to work interdisciplinarily. Finding Archaeology and Art History students was perhaps easiest, as they were our own students. To recruit Architecture and Computer Science students, we spoke to classes on campus, explaining the course and collaborative experience we were planning. To be frank, it was a challenge to recruit students from these fields, as they were unsure how the course would connect to their own disciplinary training. In the end, we were lucky to find amazing students from both Architecture and Computer Science. With the students we recruited, we formed three teams of four or five students apiece; each included one architecture and computer science student and two or three students from Archaeology and Art History.

We expected that students would emphasize their disciplinary strengths and technological skills to complete the reconstruction projects. It was essential, however, for students to understand the ideas, data, and workflow from all the disciplines for the project to be successful. In this way, we wanted to challenge the students not only to extend their knowledge within their field of expertise but also to learn how to work and exchange ideas with team partners. For all team members, we hoped that the experience of working across disciplines would simulate future experiences of working with “clients” to achieve project goals.

We structured the course so that student teams would work collaboratively throughout the semester, not just when their particular skill set was needed most. This meant that different students would act as team leaders at different points in the semester, but that all team members were engaged in all steps of the process. The following text is from the course syllabus and provides an overview of the course structure and how we sought to organize student work. As this shows, we aimed to have rotating student “leads” throughout the semester, but to maintain team-based input and decision-making throughout.

Weeks 1-2: Overview of course, projects and purposes

Week 1: Overview of course and the expectation, group dynamics, shifting leads, and proposed outcome; presentation of professors’ projects, their histories and purposes; reveal of the monuments to be reconstructed by each team.

Week 2: Explanation of the process of research, reconstruction and interaction and overview of each building, its historical circumstances, the state of the evidence and the desired outcome; presentation of bibliography.

Weeks 3-6: Research lead

Together, students will perform research on their group’s building, beginning with the prepared bibliography, and branching out into further research related to the building and comparative evidence. Students will work to synthesize the information and, in discussion with the professors, they will begin to assess the basis for reconstruction and potential problems. HART and ANTH students will steer this portion of the semester and will be responsible for effectively assembling research, which all team members will be performing, such that there is a comfortable sense of the anticipated needs for the next phase of the course. Meanwhile, ARCH students may begin drawing mock-ups and working on study models to help with this process, and COMP students will begin trying to ascertain what functionalities and what interactive capabilities will be necessary in the platform for the most effective communication of this building’s reconstruction.

Weeks 7-9: Modeling lead

Together, students will build a 3-D virtual model (or multiple models) of the building in question. During this period, the ARCH student will take on a lead role as s/he builds in 3-D software. The reconstruction will be done in close collaboration with all students in the group. It will be the ARCH students’ responsibility to create the first “realized” reconstruction, which will require that the HART and ANTH students who led the previous section will be actively involved in the 3-D model construction to ensure the model’s fidelity to the period. Additionally, COMP students will make sure that the model is built in such a way that it will allow for the best functionality in the final environment.

Weeks 10-13: Environment lead

Together, students will integrate the building model(s) into an interactive platform that will allow a viewer to move around the building, view different aspects of its creation, and better understand its reconstruction, its original state, and the processes and scholarship behind the hypothetical 3-D model. The COMP student will take on the lead role as s/he incorporates the model and works through any problems that arise. Meanwhile, the ARCH student will maintain the integrity of the model and work with the COMP student to realize the best version of it for the platform, and HART and ANTH students will make sure that the scholarship, hypotheses, and research questions are made clear through the environment.

As described above, the class was broken into four sections. During the introductory section, we offered broad overviews of the regions of study, situating the architectural tradition within the regional environment and history. We also presented the particular structures with which the students would work and gave them a background to previous research at each. At these introductory meetings, we provided each group with a short bibliography of key sources to get the research started.

During the research phase, students immersed themselves in the regional architectural and archaeological literature. This section was the most challenging because it not only required them to understand the broader architectural history, but also the details of a large range of architectural elements. This required them to read both general archaeological reports, to see what was found, but also to look at contemporaneous and later structures to compile lists of possible examples for roofs, doors, wall materials, foundations, built-in features, and staircases, to name a few. Each team created excel spreadsheets of these features and kept files of images of particular elements taken from their research. This provided them with a “bank” of elements to use when they began their first sketches. Students created annotated bibliographies for this part of the course and then made presentations to the class at the end of the sixth week of class.

During the model buildings phase, students first submitted rough sketches of the structures a week after the research was completed (see Figure 2). These rudimentary models were discussed as a class, with all the teams providing feedback and asking questions about the decisions made by the students. After these discussions, the teams modeled the buildings digitally by building the structures in Rhino. This was a very interesting stage, in that it put the proposed research-based model in conversation with the architectural and engineering knowledge of the architects. The following discussion is from an article about the class, and exemplifies the types of issues that emerged in this stage:5 


Initial sketches of the Swahili house models.


Initial sketches of the Swahili house models.

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“The architecture students would have questions or concerns like, ‘This section is not roofable. Whatever your research might have said and whatever scholars have said in the past, this is impossible to do,’” Hopkins said.

“That forced us to ask questions about what kind of buildings were possible, given what we know about construction techniques at the time,” he said.

Despite their having plenty of data about Roman roofs typical of the period, one building gave a team fits, Hopkins said. “When you look at the (two-dimensional floor) plan, you’re not forced to think about certain issues, and so you don’t.” The Regia, he said, “had a set of rooms with an odd configuration for a Roman building. It was remarked upon by Roman scholars, but that was it.”

“Well, the researchers did their plan, the architects did a massing model and everything was fine. But when the architect started on the roof, he realized there was no arrangement of rafters and purlins that would work—unless it was a truly unique roof. So he sent it back to the researchers.”

The conclusion: the archaeology was sound, and so was the data. “That meant there were two options: either there was not a roof, which was unlikely, or it had this strange-looking, unique roof. And this is something that’s never entered the scholarship. Nobody’s ever thought about this,” Hopkins said.

It was these types of interactions that created an ongoing iterative process within each group, as they wrestled with the research and realities of building a 3D model.

Another challenge in this phase was the misfit between the exacting lines of modeling software that architects use, and the vernacular architectural traditions found in the Swahili house example. “Modeling software that only likes sharp angles also gave the architects heartburn,” said sophomore Greg Kamback, a member of one of the Swahili teams. “Another program called Blender, which is a little more freeform, allowed us to manipulate the surfaces and objects to get more of a natural curve,” he said, “But typically, the software we use as architects is completely straight.”

In the final section of the course, the computer science students imported the models into Unity, an open source gaming platform.6 Although the importation of the model was generally straightforward, this part of the work involved creating the broader environment of the building and adding in interactive features, photographs, and underlying data that users could examine as they navigated the building. As one of the archaeology students noted, “It wasn’t like we were done [when the model was imported into Unity] . . . there was constant communication about the details.” This part of the process was important, as the students had to make their best-educated guess about a particular feature. What became very clear for the students at this stage was that the models themselves would always be works-in-progress; for many features, they could only make a good guess at how the building would have looked. Seeing the buildings modeled and being able to navigate through it was often a revelation for the teams, since they had worked with the elements of the building for most of the semester. I was also very surprised to see the result of the Swahili reconstruction. As I was quoted in the news story: “Fleisher said seeing 3-D models based on his Swahili research was a revelation. ‘I can say, “Is that right? I never would have pictured it that way.” And I’ve been working there for 20 years. Seeing reconstructions really does change the way we think about the archaeology.’” And, in this way, the reconstructions were incredibly successful as research tools—they challenged our understanding about domestic and other spaces by being able to inhabit them in three dimensions.

With the models completed, the course met for a final time at the Rice University Chevron Visualization Laboratory to present their final projects on a 200-inch display. In attendance were faculty and deans from all the participating colleges, who were able to examine the 3D models and ask questions of the students. In this discussion, there were questions about why certain decisions were made, particular conventions adopted, and concern about the authenticity of the models themselves. Because the students had handled all aspects of the projects, they were able to answer these questions thoroughly and thoughtfully. The final course models are available for viewing online.7 

In the course evaluations, the students highlighted the interdisciplinary aspects of the course and the way that the class challenged them:

Groundbreaking class at Rice. This class is truly interdisciplinary. You will work alongside CS, Archi, Social Science, and Humanity students to research and design a truly great product.

. . . it was a great opportunity to take on an interdisciplinary project on a large scale. It’s one of those classes that will demand work from you, but will be extremely rewarding in the end.

These echoed conversations we had with students after the class ended, in which they talked about how the class pushed them to think and work interdisciplinarily, an experience they rarely had in their other courses. The course experience not only challenged the students to think about ancient structures and their histories in new and novel ways, but also forced them to think about how to communicate what they learned not only to each other, but to a broader viewing public.

We gratefully acknowledge funding from the Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology at Rice University through the Enriching Rice through Information Technology (ERIT) program, seed-funding supported by the Sheafor/Lindsay Innovation Fund. Jan Odegaard at the Ken Kennedy Institute and Farès el-Dahdah at the Humanities Research Center provided key support and encouragement.
John N Hopkins, The Genesis of Roman Architecture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).
Jeffrey Fleisher and Stephanie Wynne-Jones, “Finding Meaning in Ancient Swahili Spaces,” African Archaeological Review 29(2/3) (2012): 171–207.
“The Zamani Project,” available at (Accessed October 22, 2018).
From P. Garlake, The Early Islamic Architecture of the East African Coast (Nairobi and Oxford: British Institute in Eastern Africa, 1966).
Mike Williams, “Walks with the Ancients,” Rice News, April 28, 2014, available at (Accessed October 22, 2018).
Available at (Accessed October 22, 2018).
“Virtual Reconstruction of Historical Cities,” available at (Accessed October 22, 2018).