At Peter Sommer Travels, we are constantly engaged in making ancient monuments accessible and approachable to our guests, usually in a fairly hands-on manner, by “bringing antiquity back to life” while guiding on the various sites themselves. It is certainly a privilege to be able to do so, but we are also interested in other ways that can be done, ways that provide more information and entertainment outside the travel season, or for those who cannot travel. A chief example, and the most old-fashioned one, are books such as the wonderful illustrated volumes by Peter Connolly (we recommended one recently). Innovative exhibitions, such as we see in Rome or in many of Greece’s recently renovated archaeological museums, are another one.
But one of the most fascinating and most promising approaches is the use of (usually web-based) dynamic and interactive reconstructions and presentations. They are an interface between the lives people led and the things they built or used hundreds or thousands of years ago and the most modern forms of communication – which makes them a very exciting field. Sifting through the internet, I have found three especially good examples, each relating to a monument we show our guests on one of our three city tours, including our Rome tour, Athens tour and Istanbul tour – plus an amusing bonus or two. Here they are.
Trajan’s Column, Rome
On Facebook a few days ago, we praised National Geographic’s brand new pages on Trajan’s Column in Rome. That brilliant online feature is the trigger for this post. It presents the famous monument set up in AD 113 to commemorate Emperor Trajan’s victories against the Dacians. The pages, well-designed and visually very appealing, consist of three main elements: There are a series of well-written texts explaining the monument itself and the wars it commemorates; plus a whimsical but highly instructive animation cleverly explaining its construction. The highlight, however, is the interactive visualisation of the Column’s most famous aspect: the 190m (625ft) carved frieze that spirals its way from bottom to top, telling the story of the Dacian Wars in comic-strip-like fashion, including 2662 figures! If you enjoyed that and you want more, also a look at the much more detailed and more scholarly, but no less fascinating website project dedicated to Trajan’s Column by Professor R.B. Ulrich of Dartmouth College and his students; it includes detailed images and texts explaining the frieze and its narrative scene by scene.
The Parthenon Frieze, Athens
The Parthenon frieze is certainly one of the most famous and one most exceptional works of ancient art, virtually defining what we now call the Classical style of Greek sculpture. Set high up on the outer wall of the Parthenon’s cella, the huge temple’s inner shrine, it was created between 442 and 337 BC. It had a total length of 160m (525ft), carved from 114 blocks of marble, and includes 378 human (and divine) figures and 220 or more animals, engaged in a procession (perhaps the one that was part of the quadrennial Panathenaic festival in honour of the city’s patron goddess). Today, the roughly 80% of it that survive are – controversially – divided between the (New) Acropolis Museum (Athens) and the British Museum (London), but only the Athens display combines originals with casts of the absent parts, arranging the whole frieze as it was set on the building. Visitors rarely have enough time to view the frieze in all its glorious detail – but you can start admiring it right now: as part of its multimedia offerings, the Acropolis Museum provides a very detailed interactive presentation of the frieze, describing and illustrating it block by block, so you can follow the procession yourself. It is complemented by a more conventional database.
The city plan of Byzantine Constantinople, Istanbul
Rather than with a work of art, our third example is concerned with an entire city, capital of a great empire. The city we now know as Istanbul was founded as Byzantion by Greek settlers in 657 BC. In AD 330, the Roman Emperor Constantine (“the Great”) made her his new capital for the Roman Empire’s eastern half, renaming her Constantinople in the process. As the Eastern Roman Empire, today usually called the “Byzantine” one, survived the western one by nearly a millennium, Constantinople became one of the world’s most continuous and most important urban centres, fabled for her wealth and her sumptuous architecture, at least until her sack during the 4th Crusade in 1204 and the final fall to the Ottomans in 1453. With the exception of the city walls and some key buildings, most famously the extraordinary Hagia Sophia and other churches, what was Constantinople is now hidden under and among the no less sumptuous Ottoman city that succeeded it, an urban puzzle. A few years ago, two students at the University of Toronto, Emanuel Nicolescu and Linda Safran, produced the superb Interactive Map of Constantinople. Out of the sites we link to in this post, this is the most truly interactive: you control what elements of the city you see: its topography, streets and squares, walls and gates, cisterns, churches, palaces and so on can all be clicked on and off just as you wish. If you’re more of a visual type, you might also want to look at the very impressive virtual reconstructions of that lost city on Byzantium 1200.
Just for laughs – two bonus links
If you enjoyed these websites, you might also draw pleasure from two more original visualisations of the past that I found during my trawls.
– The first concerns itself with a unique and important historical “document”: the Bayeux Tapestry. Those of you who know British history are properly aware of it: it is the 70m (230 ft) embroidered tapestry created not long after William the Conqueror’s invasion of England and offering a pictorial account of that campaign, a medieval “comic strip” not unlike the frieze on Trajan’s Column. Of course, you can study it panel by panel, but what about this brilliant animated version, literally bringing the tapestry to life by adding motion and making it the movie it always wanted to be?
– Last but not least, one of my personal favourites. The UK-based Panoply project (full disclosure: one of the people behind it is an old friend of mine) produces short animations based on Greek painted vases. Vase paintings are a rich source of insight and imagery on many aspects of ancient Greece, from daily life via mythology to warfare and so much else, and they are entirely visual objects, so making them move is a wonderful idea. Panoply’s videos, often produced with participation from pupils or students, are aimed to be used for teaching – but for me they are simply great fun!
Better than any presentation: the sites themselves…
Having explored the sites listed and watched the various animations, you may want to consider seeing the real things. We can’t help you with the Bayeux Tapestry for now, but you can see Greek vases on many of our trips, e.g. on our Exploring Sicily tour.or Exploring the Peloponnese tour. The Column of Hadrian is a key feature on Exploring Rome, the Parthenon and its frieze take centre stage on Exploring Athens and Byzantine Constantinople is a core theme on our Exploring Istanbul tour. Come and join us on these adventures!