UC Merced Virtual Archaeologist Saves Past for Future

Professor Forte breaks ground with virtual archaelogical research.As a "virtual archaeologist," UC Merced professor Maurizio Fortedoesn't limit himself to the present condition of historical landscapes.

Traditional archaeologists study cultures through the recovery, documentation, analysis and interpretation of material remains and environmental data. Forte takes that science one step further with the use of digital technology. He combines both to reconstruct archaeological landscapes, which allows him to create an archive of what he calls "virtual heritage."

"The bridge between global and virtual heritage is constituted by the information process: We communicate what we perceive and learn," Forte says. "Virtual heritage allows students to experience the landscape up close. They can see texture and explore freely."

The process of constructing virtual versions of ancient ruins is time-consuming and involved, but well worth the effort, says Forte, who will kick off International Education Week, Monday, Nov. 17, with a lecture, "Cyber-Heritage: Saving the Past for the Future." Monday's lecture begins at noon in the Chancellor's Conference Room (Kolligian Library Room 232) and is open to the public. Attendees are welcome bring a lunch to enjoy during Forte's presentation.

He and his team of researchers employ traditional and contemporary archaeological methods to collect data. In the field, his team uses laser scanning, photo modeling, digital photogrammetry, global positioning and even visual observation to recreate the skeleton of a landscape. From there, computer technology is used to create objects, models, monuments, landscapes, avatars and simulations that allow users to navigate and interact with the scenery within the virtual world.

The final research product can be a virtual museum of sorts that features a landscape in the way researchers presume it looked in the past - complete with indigenous vegetation and original architecture - and peopled with characters that can interact with visitors.

Forte has already created one virtual museum, of an ancient Italian villa in Flaminia. The "virtual museum of the ancient via Flaminia" is in the Museo Nazionale Romano delle Terme di Diocleziano, which is in Rome. Since joining the faculty of UC Merced last year, Forte has already had his sights set on creating a second one here in the U.S. - possibly even on campus.

"That may be far in the future," he admits, "but it doesn't hurt to dream."

However, Forte has done more than just dream. He's already laying the groundwork to make his dream a reality.

Forte spent his summer in China, conducting archaeological fieldwork in the Xi'an province through a collaborative effort between UC Merced and the Jiaotong University.

The end goal is to create a virtual museum of the West Han Dynasty, which is important because China has not historically placed much importance in preserving ruins.

"This is the first time in the field of world heritage that a foreign institution and its government have been directly involved in the archaeological fieldwork," he said. "It's been crucial for us to take on this project, because if we don't document the ruins now, they will be lost forever."

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