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Remodeling the past

The Ausonius Institute, specializing in the fields of archeology, antiquity and the Middle Ages, has become a leader in creating virtual reality models of “lost objects” like the Circus Maximus of Rome.1 A glimpse into the inner workings of a research center where ancient history and state-of-the-art technology coexist.

Remodeling the past01

© Photos 3D: Ausonius/Archéovision

The multipurpose exhibition hall (300 m2) of the Archéopôle of Aquitaine. Its mission: to inform the public about the Ausonius Institute's various activities and research programs.

The warm handshake with which Raymond Descat greets you at the door of his office at the Ausonius Institute, located within the Archeology House in Pessac, contrasts with the foggy cold enveloping the Bordeaux suburb on this late November morning. Overwhelmed with work but overflowing with energy, he explains the motivations behind the 1996 construction of this flying-saucer-like stone structure, located a few blocks from Michel de Montaigne University–Bordeaux-III: “To bring together previously dispersed research teams specializing in the ancient history–essentially Roman–of the Iberian Peninsula, Greek history and medieval-era land occupation.” As for the name of the new joint research unit, it is a tribute to Latin writer Ausonius, who not only was born (circa 309) and died (circa 390) in Bordeaux, but also taught there for thirty years. “How this late-antique poet spent his life makes him an ideal patron.”

The first project on the Ausonius Institute's agenda: archeological digs both in France and abroad, covering the period from 2000 BC to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. “Our archeologists are currently conducting a number of pilot projects.” For example, in Barzan, near the Gironde estuary, they are studying the thermal area in the center of town; in Labitolosa, a Spanish-Roman city in the Pyrenees, they are trying to determine how far Roman civilization penetrated into the heart of the mountain range. Projects are also being carried out in Syria, Turkey, Tunisia and Croatia. In sum, whether investigating urban or rural sites, the Ausonius Institute “is covering the entire time range from antiquity through the Middle Ages.” Either independent of or directly related to these digs, other projects in progress include studies on “ancient politics and economics” and production of a historical atlas of French cities to the scale of 1:2500.

The institute is also noted for uniting Historical data with the virtual world through its creation of incredibly futuristic three-dimensional digital models of famous “lost objects” like the Circus Maximus of Rome and Montaigne's castle (famous for its pillars inlaid with Greek quotations), destroyed in 1885. At the helm of this 3D technological platform, where philologists, architects and computer scientists specializing in synthesized images work in conjunction, is Robert Vergnieux. Optical mouse in hand, he is delighted to give tours of the largest amphitheater in the ancient world. “Using all the existing resources (iconography, texts, archeological vestiges, etc.), we make a preliminary 3D model of the monument–a sort of skeleton–that we show to the experts most familiar with the site. Then we go from seminar to seminar, suggesting ways to reproduce parts when some are missing, to refine the digitalization of the structure,” until a finished product emerges that is 100% in keeping with the latest scientific developments, and which can be modified at will. Another recent exploit of the Bordeaux team: the digitalization of a mold of the Delphi sphinx. In partnership with SNBR, a company that specializes in the restoration of ancient sculptures, the Sphinx has been robotically carved out of the original marble–a world premiere. In the future, the process could be used to repopulate ancient sites that have been stripped of their most exquisite treasures, or in cases where originals are to be protected and real-life copies displayed instead…

Ausonius, which incorporates a prolific publication service, Ausonius Editions, and “one of the most complete library collections in Europe on the subject of the Iberian Peninsula,” is currently celebrating the recent opening of Archéopôle, a unique 1000 m2 area designed as a meeting place between the public and the world of archeology.3 The building houses “an exhibit hall, ceramography, numismatics, and epigraphy studios, a virtual reality room (Archéovision) with 100 viewing stations, and a resource center–all enabling observers to see research as it's being done,” enthuses Pierre-Yves Saillant, communications and technology transfer manager, his mustache wagging. The space has been welcoming visitors since its inauguration in September 2005, under the watchful eye of the newly carved Delphi Sphinx.

Philippe Testard-Vaillant

1. Joint research center CNRS/Université Michel de Montaigne Bordeaux-III.
2. Laboratoire Bordelais de Recherche en Informatique. Joint lab: CNRS / Université Bordeaux 1 / ENSEIR Bordeaux.


Contacts :

Raymond Descat

Robert Vergnieux

Pierre-Yves Saillant

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