A couple of weeks back, I read about “the rise of emotional agents” in the Guardian. One of the games mentioned was Blood and Laurels, a work of interactive fiction (or if you like) a text-based adventure set in ancient Rome. Which seems appropriate as the Portus Project MOOC is running again. That’s said, I’m not convinced its a Rome historians will recognise, the Emperor is “Princeps” which is a pretty generic term, and his predecessor is a fellow called Corretius. Princeps is I think meant to be Nero, which would make Corretius, Claudius. I think I understand reason for the changes – this way, you won’t be tempted to think the the outcome of the interactive fiction is pre-determined by actual history.

I’ve played it through a couple of times now. The first time, as I would any adventure, putting myself into the role and turning out to be a slightly cowardly poet, who just wants everyone to be his friend and not to kill him. Turns out I’m not the only one. I’ve just finished a second playthrough, wherein I tried to be more brash, braver, and a bit of flirt. I should stick to what I know, because this time the story ended prematurely with my character scared in bed. Not quite the satisfying ending of the previous attempt, in which I became Emperor. I’ll try again, and this time, try to make enemies and see how long I survive.

It’s something more than a Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA). For a start it isn’t as location based as many such stories. The interaction is less based on where you choose to go than on how you choose to interact with other characters.  It’s based on the Versu engine, which is an engine to model social interactions, in interactive fiction. It defines not just what characters (agents) can do, but what they should do, in particular social situations. (Versu’s designer Richard Evans, who worked on The Sims, describes being inspired partly by a situation in The Sims when a Sim invited his boss to dinner, but after letting the boss in, went off to have a bath.)

There’s a lot to read on the Versu site, including this paper, which is the clearest description of how the whole thing works. I’m wondering whether this or possibly Inform 7, from another member of the Versu team, might have an application in cultural heritage sites.


It’s easy… when you know how

It feels like I’ve spent the best part of four days learning Linux. Lets be specific (because I’ve discovered, you have to be specific), I’ve been learning the RedHat distro of Linux which does somethings differently to, for example, Ubunto. Oh, and I’ve been learning the Windows Command prompt syntax as well, all to get a Minecraft Portus up on to the University’s Minecraft server. As an arty-farty type who, after some BASIC in my schooldays, has been pretty exclusively a Mac user, my command line experience has seen me many times looking up into the afterlife whispering prayers of thanks to Saint Steve of Jobs. It was he who, in nicking the idea for a GUI (and drag-and-drop – oh all hail drag-and-drop!) from Xerox, saved most of us from the Hell of mis-typed commands and open source syntax (where for example, some commands use “-r” as an option to make the command recursive and other commands, quite arbitrarily it seems, scorn the lower case and only understand “-R” do do exactly the same thing).

The first day’s frustrations were all about getting the user permissions I needed to start tinkering. Some things worked, but other things were forbidden, and of course in my innocence I thought I was doing something wrong until I finally returned to the support line to find the administrator had mis-typed something in setting up my permissions.

Not that I blame him of course, I know how easy it is to mistype something. Readers of my blog have the evidence of that right in front of their eyes. But at least this blog uses actual words, not the contractions, acronyms and symbols so beloved of coders. Then there were three days of:

  • loading files up to the server, mostly using wget;
  • reading up of how to upload from Windows to the server, and deciding that acquiring and using the open source software, pscp, to do so sounded very, no, too complicated;
  • discovering that if they came from github where the most excellent Shawn Graham had published them, then what I was transfering wasn’t the file, but the web page that held it;
  • looking again at pscp, and again rejecting it;
  • toying with  the idea of getting to grips with Git, which seems like proper programmers, stuff, and instead deciding it would be easier to put the files on Dropbox and wget them from there;
  • learning how to unzip and archive in ssh, and puzzling over why there were two of everything (binary files I’m guessing);
  • trying to get one or other set of files (or a combination of both!) to work by changing the group and permissions to make them look like the ones in the default world (remember to use the recursive option when using chmod or chgrp on directories so that all the contained files also have their group and permissions changed);
  • trying to wget the directories and files direct and uncompressed from Dropbox, only to discover that process seems to change every file’s name slightly;
  • downloading pscp and discovering that wouldn’t open when double clicking on it (oh the innocence!), giving up;
  • trying to load Git on the server, discovering I didn’t have permission, and deciding the this was an arcane thing that no mortal man should know;
  • finally getting my head around opening pscp in Windows’ Command Prompt, setting a PATH for it so it would actually work (no I don’t know either, but it needs to be done, every time);
  • loving the way that paths are described with “\” on windows and “/” on Linux (and the web);
  • chmod and chgrping again (By this time I’m feeling quite the expert on these functions. Oh yes I can 775 with the best of them!);
  • all of the above with frequent restarts of minecraft_server.1.8.1.jar to see if what I had done worked (and discovering it didn’t);
  • accidentally deleting the actual minecraft_server.1.8.1.jar software (there’s no undo in a command line interface);
  • quickly restoring minecraft_server.1.8.1.jar using my new-found pscp skills;
  • restarting to find it still didn’t work
  • tweaking the name of the players directory (to playerstats as in the default world) and moving the region directory (which seemed to have some how escaped from the world directory, and restarting again; and,

Its works! Ha-lleh-bloomin’-lu-yah!

The Trajanic Basin from the roof of the Imperial Palace
The Trajanic Basin from the roof of the Imperial Palace
The lighthouse at night
The lighthouse at night
The hills behind Portus in the rain
The hills behind Portus in the rain

So what is it exactly? Well, its the work of a group of Shawn Graham’s students  “3rd year undergrad history class, but […] a mix of majors; none of them ancient historians” Shawn explained to me. According to their presentation, the intention was to recreate the life of a slave in Portus, by limiting the interactivity. I’m not sure whether that side of it is actually working in my version, as I seem to be be able to explore with complete freedom.

The model itself is based on these old archaeological (or maybe more appropriately, antiquarian) plans, most specifically  the ones by Canina. It looks pretty good even without the Romecraft texture pack, which the students used (and which I’ll install when my head stops hurting).

The server isn’t publicly available currently, but if you have a University of Southampton username, open a VPN with the university, fire up your copy of Minecraft, click on multiplayer, and seek out this world, which goes under the name of

It’s also worth checking out Shawn’s assignment to his students which, explains why they worked so hard to create this.




I’ve been toying with Twine . Not like a cat with wool, you understand (though maybe like a cat with wool, because I find it very difficult to leave it alone now I’ve started), but with an open-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories. I’m thinking about using it to create an interactive narrative based around Portus. Inspired by the Honda Type R interactive YouTube ad, I have this idea about the user being able to flick between the present day and one or more periods of the port’s Roman development and decline, while they also get the better idea of how the various spaces connect and relate to one-another. I also have this crazy idea about using it to navigate other student’s creative course work. Which is all very ambitious for someone who knows very little at Twine.

So this week I’ve been learning about Twine. And the best way to learn about it is to play with it. And its fun. It is so much better than HypeDyn, which has a very similar model. It’s so much more intuitive, easier to use and, dammit, prettier. It may turn out not to be quite as functional at HypeDyn, but so far, everything I’ve asked of it has (with only a little Googleing for help) been as easy as pie. What I haven’t yet fully scoped is how procedural it might be. On the surface, it seems everything the player reads has to be written, though it can be shaped at least by variables “if/else” functions.

So, given that I needed to have a structure, a story, in mind to get the most out of my practice, I haven’t started with the Portus Twine. Instead I’ve used a story that I’ve had knowing about in my brain for quite a while. Its a piece of “fanfic” if you will, a story featuring the characters from the little known (but much loved) short-lived TV series, Firefly. Its a story that I’ve told interactively before (frequently in fact), around a table using a variety of Roleplaying Game systems. Players of all sorts have made all sorts of choices, so while I can’t claim to be able to predict everything a player might want to do, I do have a good understanding of the choices they usually want to make. I’ve also discovered that the story can have a number of different, yet satisfying, endings and got a good idea of how the emotional ups and downs of the story feature in the narrative.

I’ve not done it all of course, just the first scene. But I have managed to do something I’ve been wanting to try for some time, and that is let the player’s actions decide who their character is, and thus what their point of view will be for the rest of the story. It’s only a short scene (very short if you are a gung-ho sort of player who jumps in with both feet). Short enough in fact to try multiple times to see who you end up as. Give it a go. tell me what you think of my first attempt.

If you’d like to have a go yourself, this a very easy and useful introduction, and this is a very snazzy presentation. It is notably how the award winning game Depression Quest was created.

Minecrafting Italy

Last week I set up my first Minecraft server. I’d been discussing how we might build Portus on the University’s Minecraft server, but because we don’t yet have Admin access to that I thought I ought to set one up on one of my own machines to start understanding how it all works. I say “one of my own machines” because I had planned to run it from my University Windows laptop, but I could not get it to work. The idea is that you run it once and it creates a bunch of files, which you then fiddle with before running it properly. But those files didn’t appear on my PC. After some time trying to locate them, or run the .exe file again to create them anew, I gave up and decided to repeat the process on my Mac at home.

There it all seemed to work perfectly. The only challenge on the Mac is creating a script to actually start the server, and then turning it into an executable file. But there is a very simple guide on how to do this on the Minecraft Wiki.

So today I followed Shawn Graham’s advice to have a go at creating the topology of Portus. Well I say I followed it. Obviously I ignored the bit about ignoring a bit of a YouTube “Minecraft School” video about getting Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) data via Google Earth. Let me just repeat that: “Shuttle Radar Topography Mission.” Data, from the Space Shuttle! Isn’t that amazing? No? Moving on…

That YouTube Video is a bit out of date you see. and you don’t need to find it from GoogleEarth (or download the SRTM plug-in, which it turns out doesn’t work anymore anyway), the data you need is available here:

When we do this for real, we’ll have the Universiy’s LIDAR data to create the topology, but I wanted to have a go with something relevant. So I used QGIS, the free and open source GIS software, to edit the SRTM data down to an area around the sites of ancient Roman Portus and Ostia.

The area around Fiumicino in SRTM TIFF data, manipulated in QGIS
The area around Fiumicino in SRTM TIFF data, manipulated in QGIS. Is that the Trajanic Basin?

Then, exporting that image as a Bitmap (BMP) file, it was off to WorldPainter, to turn it into a Minecraft world. There’s a bit of trial and error required here, first of all finding an appropriate scale for the translation, both in x and y  axes, and of course in height. WorldPainter tends to want to make the range between see level and the highest point 255 blocks (which I guess is something to do with the shades of grey in the bitmap. Then there is the white space where the sea goes. White indicates the highest points of the the landscape, so the sea could turn into a massive … er… massif, 255 blocks high.

And of course there’s the curiosity of the Trajanic basin. Why is it a mid grey? Neither white like the sea, nor black like the lowest land? After a number of attempts I cheated – took the bitmap into Paint, and made the sea and basin black. After that, and some fiddling with scale, the WorldPainter map started to look something like an actual map:

The WorldPainter Map
The WorldPainter Map

Good enough, I though to try out on the server. I exported them to the desktop and put the files in the relevant folder on the server, then fired up Minecraft proper to take a look. Hmmm more work required I think…

... and I have NO idea where these huge anti gravity squid ponds came from!
I have NO idea where these huge anti gravity squid ponds came from!
The low resolution of the SRTM data does quite cut it at this scale
The low resolution of the SRTM data doesn’t quite cut it at this scale



On Minecraft

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks in which to start thinking about building Portus in Minecraft. A fortnight ago, after a consultation with my nine year old Minecraft expert, and some reading around the subject I was about to recommend Bukkit to my colleagues as as the best way to set up a custom server, perhaps using some Rome specific modifications and textures (more on those later).

But, having closed my browser and headed off to the Archaeologies of Media and Film conference in Bradford (more on that, maybe in another post), unknown to me Bukkit was being taken off the internet. So when I came to look for it the following week, I couldn’t find it. What seems to have happened in that two of the main developers of the software had managed ot get a job with Mojang, the creators of Minecraft. And what the rest of the community had only just discovered was that they had also sold Bukkit itself to Mojang. One of the other developers (it seems, according to this link) isn’t sure that everything has played out fairly, and has invoked the United States’ Digital Millenium Copyright Act, to have the software removed from public availability (and I guess to make things difficult for its new owners).

This of course was pretty concurrent with hearing that Microsoft was interested in purchasing Mojang, and I wondered whether Mojang recruiting the Bukkit team was to make themselves more attractive to Microsoft. I think I was right in that speculation, because earlier this week Microsoft’s purchase was officially announced, along with the news that Notch, the main developer of Minecraft, and two partners were leaving the company. I wish them well in their future endevours, and hope they enjoy spending their share of the very impressive reported price.

So, where will Minecraft go now? Some have been quick to portend doom and gloom, but I prefer to wait and see.

Now back to Portus. We’re not the first to think about creating ancient Roman civilizations in Minecraft. Romecraft is an ever expanding community/set of projects with similar aims,  they’ve already produced texture packs for “Germania,” “Roma” and “Aegyptus”, and built two role-play Minecraft Servers, and right now there is a project going on to recreate Pompeii.

I think I need to try and recruit them to the next run of the Portus MOOC...

From Roman Portus to Medieval Bodiam – virtually

Today I had a meeting with brothers Joe and Ken Rigby. We met in a faux-medieval world, of the sort familiar to players of Skyrim, World of Warcraft and many (many) others. I’d arrived as a woman, so Joe helped me find a more masculine avatar, then a quick tutorial in walking, running, flying with a rocket-pack, and we were off exploring.

Joe is convinced there’s a market in building historic environments in the Unreal engine, and he and Ken have built a few proof-of-concept environments, including (and of particular interest to me) building five at Portus, and Bodiam Castle.

Once I was comfortable manipulating my avatar, Ken replaced the game-world we were in, and loaded Portus on the server. Joe and Ken got a model of building five from my colleagues at Southampton, and put it on a model of the Trajanic basin. Walking through it (or rather directing my avatar while we talked) I was immediately impressed by the sense of scale, if not by the somewhat oppressive sky texture they chose.  We talked about how, with enough server space, you could invite a lecture group to the model, and talk about the research and interpretation behind it while leading a group of avatars around it.

Here’s a video walkthrough Joe made previously:

Of course I was thinking about the Portus MOOC – but immediately I could think of challenges. For a start the environment sits on a sort of commercial virtual world server run by US telecoms company Avaya.  Joe explained they had a very reasonable price-plan, for smaller meetings. But even though in theory 2000 people could visit at once, Joe said the server fees would be prohibitively expensive. On top of that of course, MOOCs are inherently asynchronous, so without huge amounts of planning, many people would miss out, and possibly feel deprived. But regardless I asked whether the lecturer could change the appearance of the models as s/he  discussed the various theories behind them. After a bit of thought Joe said, although the models themselves couldn’t change on the fly, they could build a sort of “TARDIS” (yay, Doctor Who back tomorrow) that could transport the group between a number of models, or (obviously) through time to show different stages of Portus’ development.

Then we went to Bodiam, and arrived in the courtyard of a Bodiam Castle far less ruined than the one I know. Joe explained that they had a model of the Great (dining) Hall, created by a PhD student, and were thinking about how to build a simple model of the Castle around it, when the found exactly the model they were looking for on-line, available for £50. So that’s what we explored, but the only detailed interior was the Great Hall.

I must admit, though the smoothness of the experience was a lot more accessible than, say, Second Life (though maybe that’s because of the speed of my Broadband) I can’t think of a sustainable business model for environments like this. Build it and (maybe) they will come, but beyond these experiments, where is the reward for building it? Will visitors pay to visit a virtual Bodiam, or would they prefer to go to the real thing? Would my organisation (the National Trust) pay to have a virtual Bodiam accurately modelled? Who for?

Millions  of people (probably) have paid to tour a virtual medieval Florence in Assassins’ Creed, but they came mostly for the killing and the treasure – Florence itself was a pleasant extra.

I DO think virtual environments like this could benefit things like the Portus MOOC, but MOOCs ain’t cash cows… and Second Life lies in (relative) ruins, as do many other Virtual world platforms.

This one is free to visit though, and Ken and Joe have agreed to leave Portus on it for a while. Make sure Flash is up to date and click on this link to visit. You’ll need to download an Avaya extension, but its a painless process. If you see anyone there, wave by pressing the 1 key on your keyboard, and if you have a microphone attached, talk to them.

Changing direction?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking around my participation in the Portus MOOC a few weeks back. This post is an attempt to get my thoughts in order, so I apologise in advance for any disjointedness.

First of all, let me edit in some thoughts on locatative gaming, prompted by a Guardian article on social gaming I read today while I should have been bashing this post into shape. Describing the new game from Bungie, Destiny (which is of course a console game, not a location based one) she says

On a practical level, though, “social” is a business model. It means content engineered to be “liked” or shared. It means fundamentally we spend anxious time doing free labour for social infrastructures, providing our personal lives, disseminating links, making those platform-holders wealthy with our exhibitionism and interaction. When it comes to games, it’s increasingly on the player to create the meaning in their experience.

And passionate players provide unpaid labor to games development, too: games are being released in beta and updated in public, so that the end product will better meet their needs. Thus the eager front-line beta testers mitigate the expensive risk of developing a commercial tech product, just through the fuel of their social behavior.


It is social in that business sense: you must collaborate with and keep up with your friends, ensure that your statistics and equipment – your fitness for competition – are ever increasing. You participate excitedly in this capitalistic metaphor.

Having “played” Ingress for a couple of weeks now, I’m beginning to feel the same frustrations as the author. I simple don’t have the time and dedication to labour on behalf of Google and for the benefit of my fellow players. I know what I ought to do to have an enjoyable experience is recruit freinds and family into the game so that we can play as a team, or build relationships with other players to do the same. But its too much bother. Its not for my generation, I’ve concluded.

In the Guardian, Leigh Alexander concludes:

I believe in the potential for games to create incredible collaborative environments for play. But let’s think about what a “social” play experience would look like if it served us, the users, and not the platform, whose only real desire is to have us use it, to have us serve and propagate it, to lend hours of our time to its cold lunar ecosystem.

What would a locatative game look like, that served the users rather than the platform? We’ll have to wait and see.

Right now though, I’ve been thinking about how the Portus MOOC might better serve its users. I’ve been looking at all the comments that were posted by students on the MOOC, and though I’ve not yet done any proper text analysis, my impression is that the Portus team received great praise from participants, but there are two apparent challenges for web-based learning:

  • Spatial and contextual awareness. Comments from participants consistently highlight the difficulty of understanding the spaces involved, their relationship to each other, and their scale. Efforts to understand spaces were further undermined by the struggle to understand the context as the topography and use of space changed during the 500 year period of occupation. Copious maps, plans, 360/spherical panorama and references to GoogleEarth and Bing Maps failed adequately to mitigate this challenge.
  • A preference for didactic learning over investigation. Though many participants relished the more autodidactic optional activities, a considerable number expressed discomfort when faced with interpretation tasks where users generated their own content. Peer review was especially daunting.

My supervisor, Graeme Earl already addressed the first point in his post on the Portus MOOC blog. Therein he says:

Some of you have already used ingenious methods, such as pacing out the size of a canal on your driveway or finding household objects similar to those we find at Portus. This is fabulous and please keep sharing these ideas – it is really helpful for us and for other learners.

But what do we do if we want to immerse you in the site as it is today, and as it was in the past? I would like you to imagine the buildings towering above you, to feel as though you are walking the streets and avenues in the footsteps of the Roman sailors, warehouse workers, slaves and traders that walked there two thousand years ago. You did this in textual form fantastically already in theFirst Century discussion in week one and in the Summary of the Week in week five, and it would be great if you continued to produce image or audio versions and share them on the Flickr group pool.

We’ve been thinking about how, for the next run of the Portus MOOC, we might lift our model of Portus off the page, take it out of the tiny window of the average computer monitor.

Imagine this.

Armed with a smartphone (loaded with a simple app that we create), one of our MOOC participants takes a walk, where-ever they live, and finds a piece of ground of a reasonable size, a park perhaps, or a school playing field, or a parking lot even. As long as it’s reasonably clear of obstructions it should be fine. They walk around the field pacing out as large a rectangle as they can, using the smart-phone’s GPS function to define and log each of the four corners. The app (or maybe its an HTML5 webapp, so they (and we) don’t have to worry about app-stores) tells them how the area they’ve measured out compares to the area of the Portus site.

Then (and here is the clever bit) the app scales everything we know about the real Portus to the area they’ve described. Using the app, and maybe some physical markers of their own, they can locate the intersections of the streets, and the locations and sizes of buildings that we’ve excavated. The app would allow them to map the changes that took place over time too, so that could plan out Then they can walk those streets, and the app can help them visualise the building they are walking past, and how goods (and people) moved from one space to another on their journeys in and out of the Port.

When I say visualise, I bet you are thinking they hold their phone up and, looking through the screen, see 3D models that we’ve made of the buildings in AR. I guess it’s a possibility, but we’re beginning to push at the limits of the technology here: Smartphone GPS has been getting better, but most phones are likely to deliver something accurate only to between three meters and nine, and what with level changes on the site they are doing this, and at Portus, I fear that an AR presentation might end up with so many visual glitches that it becomes off-putting rather than insightful and inspiring.

So actually I’m thinking there is a better learning outcome by making them do it all in their heads. I like the idea of  learning that visualisation starts in the imagination, not at the 3D modelling interface. Grant Morrison, who wrote the challenging comic The Invisibles, coined the term Fictionsuit to describe a method by which an author interacts with the characters in his (or her) diegesis by becoming a character in the diegesis. In a way, this is what the MOOC asked students to do the “First century discussion” that Graeme referred to in his post. Some participants (according to the comments) were more comfortable than others with this exercise, but I’m convinced its a vital tool for interpreting archaeological evidence and learning about exploring a world that can, in a very literal sense, only be a creation of our collective imaginations.

In another way, game avatars are fictionsuits too. Whether they are created by authors of the game, like John Marston in Red Dead Redemption, customisable creations of the player as in Skyrim, or held entirely within the imagination of the player as in Dear Esther.

But there’s a dichotomy between the exercise of imagination, and the “truth” of an academic paper or computer model. And the evidence of the comments betrays, among participants on the MOOC, a preference for passive acceptance of an expert’s model over willingness to imagine a model of their own.

So I’m thinking about how we might use game mechanics to:

  • Immerse participants in the geo-spatial relationships of different parts of the site. Exploring it by moving from place to place on a map (or even a scale recreation of that map in a real-word space) to access different content.
  • Encourage the creation of fictionsuits to explore the possibilities of how the site might have worked
  • Share (and even evaluate) interpretations of the site and the evidence

That last, the sharing and evaluation of interpretation is a particular challenge, the game mechanic solution to which might be in some work I looked at yesterday. Without wanting to reveal too much about the project of a colleague I only just met, I was introduced to a team which is working of using game mechanics to create Linked Data for an enormous  corpus, and also evaluate learning. It strikes me that this methodology could be incredibly useful for MOOCs. Yes, it uses game-play to source un-paid labour, just like the social games that Leigh Alexander was berating in today’s Guardian, but it does offer the intrinsic reward of actual, real learning.

I’m still trying to synthesize all this into a coherent project, but I do think I’m getting somewhere.

Please do comment if this all feels like nonsense though.

Why Lego? #buildyourownportus

I wrote a post for the Day of Archaeology blog. Much of it summarises, and refers back to, recent posts here about the Portus MOOC and #buildyourownportus. But this bit is new:

But then I […] had to make a visit to the Vyne a week or two ago, and they currently have on display a large Lego model, based on all the archaeological evidence of what that place looked like in its Tudor prime.


Looking at this model. It dawned on me that there’s something very important archaeologically about using Lego (or any other construction toy, I’m not a Lego shill!) to visualise the past. Every model a archaeologist produces is an experiment, a theory. It follows that every model an archaeologist produces is wrong.  Of course the idea is that the more evidence an archaeologist applies to their model, the less wrong it is. But there is always missing evidence, always an element of conjecture.

But models can be very seductive, especially when they are presented by institutions like museums, the National Trust, or media like the BBC and National Geographic. Then they become authoritative, they are imbued with an illusion of rightness, of “that’s exactly how it was”, that would embarrass the archaeologist who produced it. Archaeologists would prefer to show a model in constant flux, shifting through all the “might have beens”, all the theories and conjecture that hasn’t yet been discounted.

Computer modelling is a double-edged blade (modelling knife?) in this regard. On the one hand, computer models allow archaeologists to efficiently try different versions of the model, but on the other hand, with ever more sophisticated textures and lighting effects, computer models can appear even more real.

But Lego comes with an inbuilt sense of “unrealness.” Inherent in a Lego model is the idea that you can break it to bits and rebuild it as your ideas change. There’s also a sense that everyone can do this. You don’t need to have a high-powered computer with multiple GPUs and expensive CAD software. You don’t even need the Lego. All you need is your imagination.

So on this Day of Archaeology, bring your own imagination to the table. Play around with ideas. If you can’t get to a dig, or help out with finds recording you can still contribute to our ever growing understanding of the past. Share your “might have beens” with each other, because the more might-have-beens we share, the closer we get “that’s how it was.”

Visualizing Portus #UoSFLPortus

Right, I think I might have reached the limits of Lego Digital Designer.

And I’m only about a third of the way through visualizing the Grandi Magazzini di Settimio Severo. I started with the excellent notes and drawings made by Grant Cox and Christina Triantafillou especially for as after a couple of us on the Portus MOOC started modelling building five. From that I created a Lego model of a single warehouse space – a guess a “Magazzino”. The drawings suggest that along one range, these were mostly of consistent shape and size, so having made one magazzino, it was quite easy to make two by stacking one on top of the other and then 22, by placing eleven stacks side my side. My fiddling with real Lego last earlier this week had prepared me with an idea about how I’d clip each unit to the next. Even with virtual Lego its important to make sure it all slots into space.

Then I created a staircase, which, according to the drawings, is a little narrower than a magazzino. THEN I created the entrance large tunnel, which on reflection, I think I should have incorporated into the construction of the staircase. But then that’s the beauty of modelling, trying it out helps you understand more about how it fits together.

Sometimes it also raises more questions while answering others. On Grant’s drawings, the front (courtyard) opening of the tunnel is depicted under and single arched opening for the upper story. But on the rear facade, the opening is depicted spanning two arches of the upper story. Is this an error? Given that Grant has been doing this stuff longer than me, I think not, but I’d love to have a look at the data upon which he based his drawings.

Anyway, though I’d like to work a bit more on that staircase/entrance arch conjunction, I’m ready to share where I’ve got to so far. And it might be as far as I’m able to go. LDD was getting very sticky as I attached the 22 magazzini to the staircase/arch model, and slow almost to to the point of unresponsive when I tried to put the other twenty units onto the other side of the arch. For the last few hours my poor computer has been trying to make a building guide, which would tell me how many real bricks I’d need, and also allow me to share the model, but its already fallen over once and started again. So I don’t hold out much hope!

Anyway, here are a few screen-grabs I made before I issued that fateful instruction.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A Lego Magazzini #buildyourownportus

My post a couple of weeks back on the Portus MOOC, and trying to model Building Five in Lego aroused some visits from my fellow students, a few comments in the MOOC itself, and at least one other attempt to use Lego Digital Designer to as an archeological tool.

It so encouraged Graeme Earl that he wrote about it on Southampton’s MOOCs blog He also provides a link there to some plans and drawings of the Grandi Magazzini Di Settimio Severo that he persuaded Grant Cox (he of the astounding computer models) and Christina Triantafillou to create.

The challenge is evident. Can we, the MOOC’s students, rise to it and build our own models of this enormous building?

One could of course, use the drawings themselves as building blocks, reproducing them to the correct scale, sticking multiple copies to card, and assembling them with glue.

Or, of course, I could turn to Lego again.

This is another huge building. Bigger even than building five. In videos from Week one and week three of the MOOC, Simon Keay strides down the remains of the corridor as though it’s a street. (EDIT: or am I confusing that with the Portico di Claudio?) So in the end I’ll resort to digital designer again. But first let me get a feel for the shape by getting my hands around some real bricks.

Looking at the plans, it’s apparent that many of the storerooms are the same structure, repeated again and again across each wing and two floors. There are other spaces, stairwells etc that don’t conform to the pattern. But to begin with, I’m looking for a modular design for the storerooms.

First of all I lay out a simple version of the design on a baseboard:


Here, I’ve made a very unscientific decision about scale. After my attempt at building five, I’m less interested in building it to minifigure scale. I’m not sure even LDD has enough virtual bricks (!) and anyway I don’t want to place them all. So instead I’m experimenting with the smallest scale possible, and here I’ve decided I can get away with one stud = one meter. Of course the plans show varied decimal fractions of a meter in the metrics, so I’m rounding up and down arbitrarily. Romans – if you find this blog through some sort or temporal anomaly – do not scale up my Lego measurements. You’ll be very disappointed.


Even without the correct scale, the act of modelling makes one think about how the spaces go together, and really interrogate the plans. The picture above shows one of the arches which looked out over the Claudian Basin and the sea beyond. Now though I’m wondering – is it open to the floor? Or does it have a sill? For the time being I’m leaving it open to the floor.



Then there are decisions to make that aren’t about an absence of information, but rather the limitations of the Lego System. The plans show domed interior ceilings, almost like vaulted pillars in medieval cellars, but with Lego I can only have arches. So should I put them across the room, or down its length, because as the images above show, it could work both ways. In the end I decide to put them across the room, and fake the vaulting with some inverse roof tiles. Like so:


“Minifigure scale” is well known among adult fans of Lego, but there is a smaller scale, based on the pieces used in some of Lego’s board games such as Heroica. Sadly these “microfigures” are still too big to populate my building, so I resort to a minifigure film star’s Oscar statuette to give the building a sense of scale. Talking of which, I know the width of this interior doorway but the plans don’t show the height:


Finally, I want to get rid of the baseboard. Having got this far in plastic, and got an idea of the size of pieces I need, I’ll be moving onto virtual bricks. Then I’ll need to create repeatable module that clicks together, so I’m better off creating a “baseboard” that goes on top of the structure.



That’s enough for tonight. Next time, the virtual model.