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The Catacombs of Rome in 3D
Catacombs of Rome

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.

Catacombs of Rome

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.

Catacombs of Rome

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.

Catacombs of Rome

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
  • Anonymous
  • May 3, 2009 at 8:56:00 PM CDT
  • Has this 3-d database been posted online anywhere?

  • Alexander Trevi
  • May 3, 2009 at 9:20:00 PM CDT
  • I don't believe it is. Not yet anyway.

  • Anonymous
  • May 4, 2009 at 1:02:00 AM CDT
  • Thanks for the excellent article.

  • NéRo
  • May 4, 2009 at 3:46:00 AM CDT
  • there is a 3D database of such labyrinths since 1995....
    it's the level map of the computer game Descent :). this scan really awakes those memories... geoff manaugh would put it like this: "...could it be, that those dark passages were in reallity created by robots, which have disappeared, falsified history, only to dominate us through a secret conspiracy?" :D

  • Adrian Chatfield
  • May 4, 2009 at 4:10:00 AM CDT
  • The difference between Descent and other computer games and the catacombs is that the former are virtual realities, whereas the catacombs are actual historical realities, created by Christians who believed in the physical resurrection of our Saviour Jesus Christ and buried their dead in their midst, not being afraid of death any more.

  • Anonymous
  • May 4, 2009 at 10:21:00 AM CDT
  • Actually, there are pagan catacombs and jewish catacombs in Rome. The shift is not at all essentially connected with the rise of christianity. Also, ALL the Roman catacombs are OUTSIDE the limits of the ancient city, in accordance with Roman laws.

  • Alexander Trevi
  • May 4, 2009 at 2:10:00 PM CDT
  • To Anonymous ( MAY 4, 2009 10:21:00 AM CDT ): Just wondering if your comment was directed at my post or to Adrian Chatfield's comment. Also, if the shift you're thinking about is one from non-Christian catacombs to Christian catacombs, or the changes in iconography in the Domitilla corpus?

    Since no one else commented on the locations of the catacombs, I'm guessing the last part of your comment was directed at what I might have written. Note that I used the geo-term Lazio.

  • Alexander Trevi
  • May 4, 2009 at 2:12:00 PM CDT
  • And Georgia, thanks for the links to Toby Minear's research!

  • NéRo
  • May 5, 2009 at 4:36:00 AM CDT
  • To Adrian Chatfield:
    I am aware of the history of the catacombs of Rome, since I have visited parts of it. I was merely referring to the VISUAL APPEARANCE of the scans.

    Littel is know, that Malta also has extensive catacombs of its own. These complexes were used christians, judaists and pagans AT THE SAME TIME.

  • Georgia
  • May 11, 2009 at 11:59:00 AM CDT
  • @localecologist h/t @xrisfg - New York mag's "Secrets of the Deep
    What lies beneath the surface of New York Harbor?" -

  • Lucas Gray
  • May 23, 2009 at 5:35:00 AM CDT
  • The underground part of cities is fascinating. I hope this system is used to document the hidden gems of other cities around the world. Perhaps google will buy it and add it as a google earth feature. That would be fantastic.

    -Lucas Gray

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