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A High-Tech Look at Ancient Civilizations

New Duke professor Maurizio Forte uses high-tech wizardry to re-imagine aged civilizations

Part of the Humanities Writ Large Series
Duke's Maurizio Forte shows prospective students how technology brings ancient civilizations to life in Duke's
Duke's Maurizio Forte shows prospective students how technology brings ancient civilizations to life in Duke's "Dive," - the Duke Immersive Virtual Environment.

The Italian farmer resolutely tilling his soil may have no idea he's standing atop the remains of an ancient villa.

But seated at his desk at Duke University, Maurizio Forte knows. Using satellite photos and high-tech imaging technology, he can see what the farmer cannot. And this semester, his students are creating a virtual replica of the hidden villa.

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Sounds cool, huh? This is what Forte does. An archaeologist, he uses the latest gadgetry to discover ancient civilizations and piece them back together digitally.

Forte arrived at Duke in January after a five-year stint on the faculty of the University of California's Merced campus. At Duke he has faculty appointments in the departments of classics and art, art history and visual studies (AAHVS). He will work in a new Smith Warehouse lab being designed for him and other visual artists and scientists. He also expects to spend a great deal of time in the Duke Immersive Virtual Environment facility -- the "Dive" -- which he will use to poke around and analyze ancient ruins in Turkey, China, Italy and elsewhere.

He wants not to just bring ancient civilizations to life, but to simulate them with an unusual level of detail and accuracy.

"Technology is a wonderful catalyzer, and there are people here from a lot of different backgrounds who together can share a lot of ideas and research," he said. "I want to make this field very different from the traditional view of it."

Forte's path to Duke is unusual for American academia. Born in northern Italy, Forte, 51, became interested in ancient artifacts and history as a youngster when he visited archaeological sites with his parents. After getting his Ph.D. in archaeology in Italy, he went to work at the National Research Council,a government agency in Rome, where he spent a decade running a research laboratory.


That left him with plenty of research experience but little of the traditional academic work needed to move to an American university. But he found an entry point in 2008 at the University of California - Merced, a new campus in that state's central valley that was ambitious and enough flexible to invest in new multidisciplinary fields. It brought Forte in to work on digital technology and cultural heritage, and he prospered, taking on a number of archaeology projects and bringing students to ancient dig sites all over the world.

"When you're on a baby campus, you can build things, shape things," he said. "There was a lot of potential."

He was drawn to Duke by its reputation for collegiality and collaborative spirit. He points to his dual appointment in classics and AAHVS, an arrangement he says is unusual in academia. And he is looking forward to working with faculty in similar areas of expertise; he'll share lab space at Smith Warehouse with current Duke faculty involved in the Wired! lab, which uses 3D modeling and other technologies to re-create ancient cities and structures.

"His work depends on teamwork and he really values collaboration," said Carla Antonaccio, chair of the classics department. "Though he's trained in Roman archaeology, what he does isn't bounded by one particular place or culture. He's interested in all of it."

Forte's brand of visual, virtual archaeology is attracting different sorts of grad students to archaeology -- those with backgrounds in computer science, environmental science, visual art and architecture as well as classics, Forte said.

"When we have a broader community of students with different skills, we can be more effective in teaching and do better research," he said. "We don’t want to clone people and their backgrounds. We want people to be independent, and students from different backgrounds working together can produce something special."

At least one core principle will remain, however. In piecing an ancient community back together, either in person or virtually, Forte makes the distinction between re-creating it and simulating it. He isn't re-creating these ancient communities; that would be presumptuous. Rather, he and his students are applying their knowledge of these ancient places and peoples to make their best educated guesses about how places were designed and how people lived.

And the work they do remains in the public domain, an interactive, digital textbook of sorts for use by other scholars.

"Any scientific approach uses inferences and hypothetical analyses," he said. "We cannot reconstruct the past, but we can simulate it because the past itself is fluid. Our job is to be open to multiple interpretations and perspectives."