Modeling Ambiguity Project

Paper and Topic Introduction

Below you will find a brief paper written for “Intro to Digital Humanities,” a graduate seminar,  in which I briefly explore the idea of modeling ambiguity in academic 3D modeling projects.  A link to the test-environment for the modeling of ambiguous environments can be found here.

Method for Modeling Ambiguity

My original proposal for our class project was to construct a model of the ancient Qumran settlement to display ambiguous interpretations of Qumran’s archaeological record. When I began to create the first model of a building at Qumran, I realized I did not have access to a lot of the information required to display ambiguous interpretations in the way that I wanted.[1]

Instead of attempting to model ambiguity in Qumran, I decided to create a framework for modeling ambiguity with a visualization of the ancient synagogue of Bet Alpha. The goal of this project was to create a base model and a scripted, mesh overlay for that base model, which users could toggle off and on to visualize the imagined, built structure within the immediate context of the physical, excavated remains. While this project started as a test run for this modeling method, it is a method that I will be tweaking and incorporating in future projects.


For this project, I created two meshes. The first mesh was a basic framework of the Bet Alpha synagogue produced in the 3D modeling software Blender and scripted in Unity3D. The model is based on measurements from the excavation report and also the architectural plans from Eleazar Sukenik’s excavation report.[2]  The second mesh was an accurately scaled overlay of the extant Bet Alpha remains created using Agisoft Photoscan, a photogrammetry software package. I wrote a short, C# script and applied it to the photogrammetric mesh that allows a user to toggle the overlay-mesh on and off with the press of a button. In future projects, I would like to expand this script to allow for the selection of varied architectural features.

When the overlay mesh is turned on, users can walk through the synagogue and see the extent to which the physical archaeological remains exist in relation to the visualized synagogue model. Please note that the visualized synagogue architecture is neither complete in this model nor are the textures necessarily accurate. In future iterations, I will create more realistic textures based on photographs in the excavation report as well as baking bump, normal, and specular maps.


As I have increasingly studied academic-based 3D modeling over the past couple years, it has surprised me that ambiguity rarely makes it into the modeling projects about which I have read, seen, and experienced.   When I refer to ambiguity in 3D modeling, I am referring to a visual representation of uncertainty. Karen Kensek and her co-authors, in “Fantastic Reconstructions or Reconstructions of the Fantastic?” refer to two reasons why modeling ambiguity is important: “(1) to make evidence accessible to the user of the virtual world and (2) additionally to make the experience more immediate, more ‘real’ and more convincing.” [3] Each of these two points speaks directly to ambiguity inherent not only to 3D modeling but also to archaeology. Excavating is messy and prone to human error. The existence of errors made while digging and subsequent errors made in publication should be accounted for—or at least acknowledged—either in print, or if a model is being constructed, in the model itself. It is my hope that by creating a rectified, photogrammetric overlay for modeling projects, users will get a better sense of what archaeologists actually excavate in contrast with what archaeologists imagine what once stood in a location.

Importance of Bet Alpha

Before moving to a survey of other 3D modeling projects that are attempting to model ambiguity, I first wish to discuss the significance of Bet Alpha in regards to my current research. The stunning mosaic floor of the ancient, 6th c. CE synagogue at Bet Alpha was brought to light in 1928 when a nearby kibbutz uncovered a portion of the mosaic floor while digging irrigation channels. In 1929, Eleazar Sukenik began excavations at Bet Alpha, uncovering not only the synagogue’s mosaic floor but the entirety of the synagogue remains. According to Sukenik’s excavation report, the archaeologists involved in the dig did not immediately think that the building being unearthed was a synagogue. The striking images of the zodiac, surrounded by the cornered-personifications of the four seasons, all encircling the sun, who is personified as a man riding a four-horse chariot towards the viewer, prevented Sukenik and others from suggesting that Bet Alpha was a synagogue. As more of the mosaic floor was uncovered, however, images of the Aqedah, an inscription by the mosaicists, and possible scenes of the Temple, led Sukenik and others to conclude that the monumental building at Bet Alpha was indeed a synagogue.  I am modeling Bet Alpha to create a contextual view of the mosaic floor alongside a visualization of the ancient synagogue.

Other Examples of Modeling Ambiguity

Of course, I did not create my project in a vacuum. Plenty of other archaeologists have modeled ancient sites and many have also attempted to model ambiguity. One such project that attempted to model ambiguity was Qumran through (Real) Time: A Virtual Reconstruction of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls.[4] In this 2009 publication, Robert Cargill of the University of Iowa attempted to answer two of the most hotly debated question in the study of Second Temple Judaism: (1) who lived at the site of Qumran; and (2) was this group responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were a series of thousands of fragments of ancient texts found throughout 11 caves near Qumran.[5] Cargill modeled the site of Qumran and allowed for varying scholarly views to affect his visualization. Though helpful in laying forth a methodology for modeling archaeological sites,  Cargill’s volume and project do have a couple of faults. First, Cargill used proprietary software (Presagis Creator) that is neither easily available nor affordable. [6].  Additionally, Cargill never fully released his model, though he published a book about the model.

Two further promising projects can be found in the archaeological work in ancient Italy. First, at Duke, the Regium@Lepidi project, offers users a virtual reality (VR) experience of walking through a Roman forum. The embodiment aspect of stepping into a model and being able to look around is an aspect I want to include in my own digital projects. Of course, a prerequisite for experiencing Regium@Lepidi in VR is owning or visiting a place with an Oculus Rift. The creators of the model at Duke have also made a version available that one can simply walk through on a computer screen, using software that is freely available. Concerning the question of ambiguity, the Regium@Lepidi project also has a function that allows users to reconfigure the positions of the monumental buildings located in Lepidi’s forum. Users can test different positions of proposed buildings that may have stood in the forum, since archaeologists are not sure about certain building’s locations or what the functions of some of the buildings may have been.

A third project of interest is the University of Reading’s “Virtual Rome.” While still under construction, the creator of the project, Matthew Nicholls, is attempting a full-scale, 3D reconstruction of ancient Rome from the year 315 CE. What most intrigues me about this project is Nicholls’s goal of using the 3D model to study “political and social history.”[8] Nicholls’s model uses a variety of textual and archaeological sources to depict space in a way that the city can be analyzed based on social and political constructs. The details of exactly how such interpretations are achieved through spatial modeling only appear to be accessible for those who attend one of Nicholls’s lectures. It appears as if forthcoming publications may expand on the project’s methodology once it is completed.


It is my hope that in this paper I have both explained the importance of including ambiguity in 3D models and also demonstrated a way of presenting ambiguity through combining constructed 3D models with photogrammetric, mesh overlays. The test environment created for this modeling method can be viewed at the following link: (Please note that the model will capture your mouse once you click in the screen, and for the platform to release it, you must hit the “esc” key on your keyboard and move your mouse out of the web platform.)

[1] This lack of information is largely due to the dearth of published architectural material from Qumran’s excavations over 50 years ago.

[2] Eleazar Sukenik, The Ancient Synagogue of Beth Alpha : An Account of the Excavations Conducted on Behalf of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem  (New York: G. Olms, 1975) and Sukenik The Ancient Synagogue of Beth Alpha, Jerusalem, University Press, 1932.

[3] Karen Kensek, Lynn Swartz Dodd, Nicholas Cipolla, “Fantastic Reconstructions or reconstructions of the fantastic?” Tracking and Presenting Ambiguity, Alternatives, and Documentation in Virtual Worlds.” Automation in Construction 13 (2004), 176.

[4] Robert Cargill, Qumran Through (Real) Time: A Virtual Reconstruction of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Piscataway, NJ: Georgias Press, 2009).

[5] Cargill, Qumran, 1-2

[6] Cargill, Qumran, 4, 15, 81


[8] “Virtual Rome.”

Works Cited

Cargill, Robert. Qumran Through (Real) Time: A Virtual Reconstruction of Qumran and the      Dead Sea Scrolls. Piscataway, NJ: Georgias Press, 2009.

Forte, Maurizio. “Regium@Lepidi 2200.” Duke University.

Kensek, Karen, Lynn Swartz Dodd, and Nicholas Cipolla. “Fantastic Reconstructions or reconstructions of the fantastic? Tracking and Presenting Ambiguity, Alternatives, and Documentation in Virtual Worlds.” Automation in Construction 13 (2004), 175-186.

Nicholls, Matthew. “Virtual Rome.” University of     Reading.

Sukenik, Eleazar L. The Ancient Synagogue of Beth Alpha : An Account of the Excavations Conducted on Behalf of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem : From the Hebrew. New York: G. Olms, 1975.

———. The Ancient Synagogue of Beth Alpha, Jerusalem, University Press, 1932.