For the past 3 years, a team of archaeologists, architects and computer scientists have been laserscanning the underground network of burial chambers, tunnels and chapels carved out of the soft, volcanic tufa rock of Lazio.
The scanner, according to BBC News, “looks like a cylinder on a tripod, stands a metre or so high and is a piece of kit you usually find in the construction industry.”
Gone are the days when archaeologists just used shovels, brushes and sieves to unearth the past.
The scanner has been placed in hundreds of different locations in the Catacombs.
It turns slowly, sending out millions of light pulses that bounce off every surface they come into contact with. The light pulses rebound back into the scanner and are recorded on a computer as a series of white dots, known as a "point cloud".
Gradually, every wall, ceiling, and floor is bombarded with the dots, enabling the computer to build up a picture of each room.
All told, “four billion dots” were gathered, and on a computer screen, they coalesce into a digital 3D model of the necropolis: a filigreed network of subterranean voids that's not unlike the complex clustering of a Romanesque basilica and its companion buildings.
You can zoom in and zoom out, rotate about the axis, and render it with color. Perhaps you can record your scopic drive through this digitized world, as one would with Google Earth. Give it a soundtrack, and you've got yourself a YouTube music video.
And maybe Radiohead would like to give it a go for a sequel to House of Cards.
One of the stated goals of the project is to study the paintings in the Domitilla catacombs: from the pagan images of the early 3rd century to the theologically fully developed Christian iconography of the late 4th century, and how this micro-history of early Christian art reflected the broader changes in late Roman society.
Now if only someone could make the laserscanner mobile (a spelunking Paranoid Android) and then send it roving through other labyrinths — other necropolises, ancient underground aqueducts, sewers, stormwater megatunnels, abandoned subway tunnels — kicking up an underground maelstrom of point clouds.
Google comes a-knockin', and soon everyone will be exploring these passages in a flurry of nighttime clicks. Google Hadesview®.
Rome Stillborn 1.0