Restoring an Ancient Community with 21st Century Technology: Stabiae, Italy

May 24, 2019 / Updated Mar 17, 2020

Since 2004, the University of Maryland’s Architecture Program has been a major player in uncovering one of the largest excavation sites in the ancient world: the Roman villas of Stabiae. Located on the western coast of Italy, Stabiae was a holiday mainstay for the Roman elite prior to the devastating eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, which buried the resort in over two meters of volcanic ash in 79 AD. For more than 10 summers, architecture students have travelled from College Park to the coastal town as part of the Restore Ancient Stabiae Foundation (RAS), a non-profit archaeological organization founded in 2004 by the University of Maryland, the Superintendency of Archaeology of Pompeii and the region of Campania.  During that time, student teams, working with scholars and archeological professionals from around the world have successfully excavated and documented several of the site’s Roman gardens, courtyards and villas, including the Villa Arianna, known for its stunning frescos and private tunnel to the seashore.

Excavation work at Stabiae is painstaking and time-consuming. To add to the intrigue, once a portion of the site is unearthed, students must quickly draw and document the cultural resources before they are altered by the elements.  For this reason, time is the student’s biggest enemy, and unfortunately, the task is neither simple nor speedy; constructing renderings of just one villa wall can take days. This was probably evident to no one more than Luke Petrocelli, an architecture graduate student who has spent his past six summers in Stabiae. So last year, Luke embarked on a quest to research, and ultimately convince administration to invest in mapping technology that will not only change the way UMD students explore excavation sites all over the world, but squarely place UMD as an educational authority in archeological documentation.

The University of Maryland is one of a handful of universities joining what many experts are calling a “revolution” in archaeological exploration and understanding: using Light Detection and Ranging, or LiDAR, to uncover and document the world’s ancient treasures.  LiDAR is a remote sensing technology that measures distance by illuminating a target with a laser and analyzing the reflected light. It is widely used in geology, agriculture and by law enforcement; you can thank LiDAR the next time you are clocked over the speed limit with a speed gun. And while LiDAR has been increasingly used over the past decade in archeology, its cost-prohibitive nature has made it unavailable for most scholarly work.

“While LiDAR has been around a long time, it has been historically expensive, complicated and frankly, a bit cumbersome,” explains Professor Lindley Vann. “Updates in the past decade have definitely made it more accessible, but what really made this work for Maryland was the cross-discipline commitment to invest in the technology.”

To make his case, Luke organized a demonstration by FARO Technologies, an Ohio-based LiDAR company in the winter of 2014, with Dr. Vann’s support and help. Knowing the implications that the technology could have across many disciplines, Luke and Dr. Vann cast a wide net, inviting students, faculty and administrators from architecture, humanities, preservation and anthropology.

“I knew it was a good idea, so I just had to convince everyone,” said Luke. “Just the excitement from the demo alone did the trick.”

David Cronrath, working with Dr. Mark Leone of the Anthropology Department, and Dr. Gregory Ball, Dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, green lit the purchase by spring.

The first trial, which took place this past summer in Stabiae, almost didn’t happen. An expedited package from FARO to College Park was then hand-carried to Rome by Professor of Architecture Matt Bell, who was in the city, briefly, for a conference. Luke and his team had a tight window before the machine had to go back to College Park with Professor Vann, who was leaving in three days. During that time, Luke traveled to Rome, picked up the machine, trained himself and his team and successfully mapped the entirety of the Villa San Marco.

As to what would have happened without the machine?

“It would have taken the rest of my life,” laughs Luke. “And the project wouldn’t have been as good. We had a near perfect record in a matter of hours.”

This near-perfect record has broad applications for RAS and for future scholars. Its wide accessibility is a game changer; anyone who wants to study the villa now can, thanks to its digital format. The specificity of the technology notices things unseen by the eye; the pitch of a garden or wall patterns, for example, which can predict construction methods and dates of when the structures were built.

“I think it’s important to note that traditional methods of architectural and archeological surveys, like sketching, will remain a crucial part of discovery and documentation,” said Luke, who plans to accompany another group to Italy this summer. “In Stabiae, we start by teaching the older techniques and then teach the technology. Adding LiDAR is a great compliment to our preservation efforts, because it offers a perfect representation of the site.”

Equally important are the broad implications the technology has for UMD’s reputation in the field. It is so portable—about the size of a small suitcase—it can be used just about anywhere, from the ruins at Aperlae, Turkey, to an 18th century cemetery on the Eastern Shore. In a sense, LiDAR is carving out a nice niche for UMD’s team; in an arena where so many top-level universities are lending their talents to the effort of preserving and documenting archeological sites, this technology is opening doors to collaboration with other institutions and making UMD a leader in archaeological documentation.

“Right now UMD is building a reputation on site as the recording team,” says Luke. “So if say, Columbia University or another group is excavating or researching something in particular, they will need to have it recorded. We draw and record in order to understand, and that’s becoming UMD’s specialty.”