Building ancient Rome, bit by bit

Building ancient Rome, bit by bit

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It’s the world’s oldest and largest jigsaw puzzle – a third-century map of Rome in 1,200 fragments of marble. Archaeologists for centuries have tried painstakingly to piece together the sculpture, fragment by fragment.

Now, computer wizards at Stanford University say they have created a software program that holds the key to the puzzle and the ancient city.

At the heart of the program are three-dimensional scans of the fragments, plus algorithms to find possible matches. Already the work has produced several dozen probable and possible matches.

“They’ve advanced farther and faster in the last months than we have in centuries,” said Margaret Laird, a Roman archaeologist and visiting lecturer at the University of Chicago. “These new matches are going to change a lot of what we know about the city of Rome.”

The undertaking is a five-year study conducted by Marc Levoy, an associate professor of computer science and electrical engineering at Stanford, to be completed this summer. The findings and interactive 3-D models of the fragments are online, allowing scholars as well as elementary-school students unprecedented access to the monument.

It is the first time anyone has applied technology to piece together the puzzle. Short of a 1961 book that is now out of print, the project’s Web site is the only place where archaeologists will be able to examine each fragment of the map, known as the Forma Urbis Romae.

The map itself is a feat of cartography. It detailed nearly every architectural feature of the city, from large monuments such as the Colosseum to shops, apartments and even staircases. The completed map, made up of several marble slabs, measured 60 feet by 43 feet and hung in one of the grandest monuments of the ancient city, the Templum Pacis. Today, only about 15 percent of the map survives – but it includes core parts of the city.

For centuries, scholars have visually matched up the heavy pieces of marble, some weighing several hundred pounds. In modern times, one match has been found every few years – a cause for huge celebration in the academic world.

The software program finds an average of one match a month.