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3809Ancient Architecture in Ohio Has a 3-D Rebirth

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  • jdaintira@aol.com
    May 2, 2003
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      My Source did not provide Link: It appears to be from the NY Times. ~ JM

      Ancient Architecture in Ohio Has a 3-D Rebirth

      Illustrations from the University of Cincinnati

      Top, a depiction of a hilltop enclosure built 2,000 years ago that survives at Fort Ancient, near Lebanon, Ohio.

      Below, a simulation of a type of hut that was sometimes incorporated into the culture's earthworks. It is believed that such huts were used for ceremonies and then burned.


      OME of these monuments were wonders of the ancient world, experts say, along with the Parthenon, the Pyramids and the Colosseum.

      But the imposing structures of which they speak were not built in Greece, Egypt or Rome. They rose in the Ohio Valley, where several long-vanished cultures created an architecture of vast geometric shapes, enclosures and a lunar observatory as well as many more modest buildings.

      The extensive earthworks produced by the Hopewell, Adena and Fort Ancient cultures as early as 600 B.C. are little known today, in part because only a few of the structures remain intact. Most of the buildings that survived into the 19th century have disappeared, plowed under and covered up by cropland, villages and golf courses.

      Now, in a five-year collaboration by architects, archaeologists, American Indians and others, the long-forgotten sites have been reconstructed digitally so that people can see three-dimensional computer models of the ancient structures as they once were, including symmetrical octagons and a great earthen circle that measures a quarter of a mile across.

      John Hancock, an architecture professor at the University of Cincinnati, conceived and led the digital restoration project. He hopes that it will lead to a wider appreciation of the rarely mentioned native societies and their even more rarely mentioned geometric earthworks.

      "Even when these earthworks were being studied in the 19th century by Europeans," Professor Hancock said, "most people couldn't believe that anyone related to native populations could have built structures so spectacular and precise."

      Professor Hancock's reconstructions are based on data from 19th-century maps, surveys completed before the monuments were destroyed, aerial photos taken in the 1930's that show traces of walls, modern satellite and ground-radar images, and other archaeological sources. The data was fed into architectural software programs to create three-dimensional models of the earthen monuments and other lost buildings.

      Such reconstructions may lead to a better understanding of the complexity and magnitude of the architecture as well as to the digital reconstruction of other prehistoric sites in the United States.

      A permanent display based on the project, called EarthWorks, is to open at the Cincinnati Museum Center on June 21. Professor Hancock hopes that his ideas will gain currency, prompting similar digital projects involving ancient native cultures.

      Professor Hancock first learned about the Ohio Valley structures more than a decade ago from a student. "I'd been teaching ancient architecture and I knew Mesopotamia and Greece," he said. "But I had no idea there were great works of ancient architecture from the same time period in the Ohio Valley."

      Bradley Lepper, curator and archaeologist with the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus, supplied some of the data for the digital reconstruction of sites created by the Hopewells, an Ohio Valley society that flourished from about 100 B.C. to A.D. 400, in the time of the Caesars in Rome.

      Professor Hancock converted the data into three-dimensional computer images of Hopewell structures from various perspectives; for instance, viewers can click on a giant earthen circle and then fly over it, gradually coming closer to see details.

      Dr. Lepper said that the vividness of the three-dimensional animated models surprised him."I could suddenly see the structures as a maze or giant labyrinth,'' he said.

      Professor Hancock said that finding a way to recreate the early structures through computer animation was complicated. "It's earthen architecture," he said, "which is so ineffable. It looks like nothing until you figure out how to show it."

      At first, the group tried using views of the structures at eye level, but that was a mistake.

      "We discovered early on that you can't appreciate the perfection of the geometry solely by looking at these earthworks from the ground," he said. They are too vast. "But when we animated our cameras to fly over the ruins," using 3-D software, "the geometric shapes revealed themselves fully."

      Dr. Richard Shiel, an associate professor of history at Ohio State University at Newark, agrees. Dr. Shiel lives in Newark, Ohio, the site of a large earthen circle that is one of the rare surviving examples of Hopewell architecture. "There's no substitute for just standing in the great circle of Newark," he said, and for walking through it. "But just standing there doesn't give you any clue to the scale of the entire site," as the computer images do.

      Alan Tonetti, an archaeologist and historian at the ASC Group, an environmental and consulting firm in Columbus, said he admired the EarthWorks Project's computer images but preferred old-fashioned archaeological illustrations. "The bird's-eye views are attractive but inauthentic," Mr. Tonetti said. "It's a perspective no native ever had."

      Viewers may soon be able see the digital reconstructions for themselves, even if they are not attending a museum show. Dr. Hancock recently completed a DVD about the sites that includes interviews with archaeologists, comments from American Indians and many other features.

      Any computer-based illustration involves an act of interpretation, Dr. Hancock said, citing, for example, a decision to depict morning mist near a great circle.

      But he said his job was to create computer images that were not only accurate but vivid, too. The software enabled him to produce striking images, he said, which matters if the ancient cultures are to be remembered for their accomplishments.

      "To create a place in the public imagination for our predecessors in the Midwest," he said, "we have first to inspire an appreciation of this vast and subtle architecture that they created."

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