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Meet the archaeologists making ancient rock art into 3D reality

High in the Italian Alps, thousands of stick-like images of people and animals, carved into rock surfaces, offer a tantalising window into the past. Archaeologists believe that the earliest of these 150,000 images date from the Neolithic but that most originate from the Iron Age. The UNESCO-protected ‘Pitoti’ (little puppets) of the Valcamonica valley extend over an area of some three square kilometres and have been described as one of the world’s largest pieces of anonymous art.

Meet the archaeologists making ancient rock art into 3D reality

An event taking place next Monday (18 January 2016) at Downing College, Cambridge, will give the public an opportunity to learn more about a fascinating project to explore and re-animate the Pitoti of Valcamonica. Displays and hands-on activities staged by seven of the institutions involved in the EU/European Research Council-funded ‘3D Pitoti’ digital heritage project will show visitors how archaeologists and film-makers have used the latest digital technology to explore an art form often portrayed as simplistic or primitive.

The exhibitors from Austria, Italy, Germany and the UK will show that the thousands of Pitoti can be seen as “one big picture” as dozens of artists, over a period of some 4,000 years, added narratives to the giant ‘canvases’ formed by sandstone rocks scraped clean by the movement of glaciers across the landscape. The images are etched into the rock surfaces so that, as the sun rises and then falls in the sky, the figures can be seen to gain a sense of movement.

Displays will introduce visitors to the scanning, machine learning and interactive 3D-visualisation technologies used by Bauhaus Weimar, Technical University Graz, and St Pölten University of Applied Sciences to record, analyse and breathe life into the Pitoti. Cambridge archaeologists Craig Alexander, Giovanna Bellandi and Christopher Chippindale have worked with Alberto Marretta and Markus Seidl to create Pitoti databases using Arctron’s Aspect 3D system.

The scanned images of the Pitoti are stored in the rock-art research institute in Valcamonica, Centro Camuno di Studi Preistorici, and have given the project’s team an unprecedentedly rich resource to play with in exploring the power of graphic art in combination with other media.

The 3D Pitoti team members attending next week’s event will engage with visitors who will be given the chance to experience the scanner, UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), computer sectioning, and the Pitoti ‘oculus rift’ virtual reality experience, made possible by using advanced imaging systems which are creating a new generation of ‘real’ images. The live demonstration of the interactive 3D Pitoti children’s app, developed by Archeocammuni and Nottingham University, is likely to prove popular with younger visitors who will have the chance to handle the technology and ask questions. Also taking part in the event will be the renowned craftsperson Lida Cardozo Kindersley who will demonstrate the art of letter cutting as an intensely physical process.

Meet the archaeologists making ancient rock art into 3D reality
Eleanora Montinari [Credit: CCSP/3-D Pitoti with permission 
of Marc Steinmetz/VISUM]
Archaeologists increasingly believe that the Valcamonica images may have been one element in a kind of ‘proto-cinema’ that might have involved other ‘special effects’. “When I first saw the Pitoti, my immediate thought was that these are frames for a film. Initially I envisaged an animated film but over time I’ve come to realise that the quality of colour, the play of light and shadow, and the texture of the rocks, make the Pitoti much more sophisticated than 2D animated graphics. That’s why we need to work in 3D,” says Cambridge archaeologist and film-maker Dr Frederick Baker, one of the founding participants in the project.

“Many of the images at Valcamonica are contemporary with classical Greek art but are an under appreciated form of art. I believe that the Pitoti are an example of minimalism, an early precursor to work by Alberto Giacometti and Pablo Picasso. They can be just as powerful as the classical art of Athens and Rome in their own way. By showcasing our project in the neo-classical setting of Downing College, we are highlighting this clash of visual cultures and using the digital to raise the appreciation of what has been seen as ‘barbarian’ or ‘tribal’ art.”

Members of the 3D Pitoti team captured thousands of images of people, sheep, deer, horses and dogs found on the Valamonica rocks. The digitised images gave the project a ‘casting directory’ of thousands of ‘characters’ in order to create imagined narratives. The creation of moving images using pixels, or dots, echoes the making of the Pitoti which were pecked out of the rock by people striking the surface with repeated blows to produce lines and shapes.

Dr Sue Cobb, from the University of Nottingham, who led the international team of scientists, said: “Thanks to the 3D Pitoti project, archaeological sites and artefacts can be rendered in stunningly realistic computer-generated models and even 3D printed for posterity. Our tools will give more people online access to culturally-important heritage sites and negate the need to travel to the locations, which can be inaccessible or vulnerable to damage.

“We overcame a number of technical challenges to innovate the technology, including developing weatherproof, portable laser scanner to take detailed images of the Pitoti in situ in harsh, rugged terrain; using both a UAV and glider to take aerial shots of the valley for the computer model and processing huge masses of data to recreate an immersive, film-quality version of the site in 3D.

Meet the archaeologists making ancient rock art into 3D reality
Michael Holzapfel (left) and Martin Schaich (right) [Credit: ArcTron/3-D Pitoti 
with permission of Marc Steinmetz/VISUM)]
“With our new story-telling app, users can scan and animate 3D Pitoti images to construct their own rock art stories from the thousands of fascinating human and animal figures discovered so far. The aim is to show to public audiences that with archaeology there isn’t a single answer to the art’s meaning –there are theories and interpretations - and to teach the importance of the rock art as a biographical record of European history.”

Next Monday’s event will include a test screening of a 15-minute 3D generated film called ‘Pitoti Prometheus’ which reimagines the story of Prometheus (who, according to legend, created men from clay) by animating digital images captured in Valcamonica. The fully finished film will be launched later in the year.

The film’s 3D engineer Marcel Karnapke and film-maker Fred Baker (contributing via Skype) will take part in a discussion at the end of the day, enabling the audience to ask questions about the film and the unfolding of an ambitious project which breaks new boundaries in terms of European cross-disciplinary collaboration.

“We use the word ‘pipeline’ to describe the process by which we’ve scanned and channelled the rock art images through time and space to bring them to mass audiences,” says Baker. “It’s a pipeline which stretches well beyond what we’ve produced and future technologies will undoubtedly open up new understandings of art forms that communicate so much about humanity and our relationships with each other, with the environment, and with imagined worlds.”

Next Tuesday morning (19 January 2016), a series of talks and workshops, aimed primarily at academics, will take place at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. The two days of events are the official culmination of the 3D Pitoti project. For details of Monday’s event, which is free of charge, go to

Source: University of Cambridge [January 14, 2016]

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