How can we reconstruct the past? The question, while intractably difficult, does not seem quite so abstract after listening to Michael Jarvis describe his work on the Virtual St. George’s project that he directs from the University of Rochester, where he is also Associate Professor of History and Director of Digital Media Studies. Jarvis’ talk surveyed his ongoing efforts to digitally reconstruct St. George’s, the first capital of Bermuda and the oldest town in English America. Building off his many years of archival and archaeological work on the island, as well as the huge collection of historical and geographical data that he amassed along the way, Jarvis has embarked on a massively ambitious effort to synthesize historical, visual, GIS, architectural, and archaeological data into a detailed, immersive 3D model of the town as it existed in 1775, with eventual plans to create additional models for other key points in Bermudan and Caribbean history. Drawing from examples of existing 3D models of historical buildings and places, Jarvis explained that while these models are often of interest as objects in their own right, too many of them fail to really challenge or engage their viewers beyond an initial perusal. To increase the impact of the reconstruction he’s creating with his team, Jarvis appealed not so much to other architectural modelling projects as to the visual realism of contemporary video games, such as Assassin’s Creed. What if the graphics and gaming engines that fueled the loosely-fitted historical cityscapes and implausibly gory missions of such a game were redirected toward a painstaking and archaeologically sound model of a real historical city and actual historical people and events? Could a Virtual St. George’s become a vehicle to explore gender, race, and class from immersed, first-person perspectives for its gamers?
Virtual St. George’s is developing apace. Jarvis and his field team only just returned from their most recent trip to the island to collect additional photography and other data, and the project has already accumulated a huge trove of data that will continue to be stitched together with yet further resources culled from public and commercial sources such as Google Earth. The best place to keep updated for now is Jarvis’ Smiths Island Archaeology Blog or his faculty page, where new links will be added as they become available.
I’d highly recommend continuing to check in online, as well as to join the project’s technical leads tomorrow at the Reconstructing Historical Structures workshop (Clemens Hall. rm. 128, 10am-2pm). Josh Romphf, Blair Tinker, and Jim Barbero of the University of Rochester’s Digital Humanities Center which will give a hands-on sampling of the GIS, visualization, and animation techniques needed to create historically accurate, interactive 3D models.