Ashes2Art: Collaboration and Community in the Humanities
First Monday

Ashes2Art: Collaboration and Community in the Humanities by Arne R. Flaten and Alyson Gill

Ashes2Art is the integration of research and pedagogy in digital reconstructions of ancient monuments, data retrieval matrices, open source software and intercollegiate collaboration. The program’s immediate focus is 4th century BCE Delphi, Greece. A joint effort among faculty and undergraduate students at Coastal Carolina University and Arkansas State University, Ashes2Art combines art history, archaeology, Web design, digital modeling, panoramic photography, animation, video and site–specific travel.



Ashes2Art is an interdisciplinary and inter–university collaboration between Arkansas State and Coastal Carolina University that digitally reconstructs monuments from the ancient past online [1]. It provides a wide variety of other materials for specialists, teachers, students and the general public. At the heart of the Project is community and it functions on a number of levels. Dr. Gill and I are both art historians, so our approach to digital humanities differs from those projects we have heard about today.

Ashes2Art is a course, and a project and a program. All materials, including Web design, photographs, digital models, essays, glossaries, bibliographies, interactive maps and videos are created, designed and implemented by undergraduate students for upper level course credit. Students at both universities work on different components of the same Project. Our two universities have been extremely supportive. Coastal Carolina and Arkansas State have built two high–powered, project–specific computer modeling labs with swipe card security systems (eleven workstations and fifteen workstations, respectively). The two universities also have awarded the Project numerous Academic Enhancement grants, Research Enhancement grants, Scholarship of Teaching and Learning grants, student travel grants and Information and Technology Services grants. Additional support has come from the Arkansas Department of Education in the form of a SURF/SILO grant, and a Digital Humanities Start Up grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

For the current stage of Ashes2Art, we are focused on 4th century B.C. Delphi in Greece. We take students on–site to record Global Positioning System (GPS) data and to shoot detailed photographs and digital panoramas. Returning to our respective classrooms, students digitally stitch the panoramas together using Adobe Photoshop and RealViz Stitcher (which joins flat 180–degree images into a rotatable 360–degree image). With the permission of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and the help of the American School for Classical Studies in Athens, we gained access inside most of the monuments, so the panoramas we hope to publish will be exclusive to the program. We are waiting for permission from the Hellenic Ministry of Culture to publish the panoramas online. The detailed photographs provide crucial information about what the monuments would have looked like. Students use excavation reports, plans, elevations, primary source texts, photographs and advanced software to carefully build digital models. Even though the students are under close supervision, the extraordinary results are attributable to their expertise and their passion for the Project. The final models in many cases are the most accurate reconstructions of the monuments anywhere.


Figure 1: The tholos temple of Athena Pronaia
Figure 1: The tholos temple of Athena Pronaia, Coastal Carolina University, Greg Schultz, 2007.


Coastal Carolina University is putting together materials pertaining to the tholos temple of Athena Pronaia (a round temple dedicated to Athena in the lower part of the sanctuary known as the marmaria) and various other monuments, and Arkansas State University has focused on the gymnasium complex. The tholos temple, (see Figure 1) reconstructed by CCU student Greg Schultz, and the plunge bath modeled by Rick Taylor at ASU (see Figure 2) will be the focus of the present discussion.


Figure 2: The plunge bath
Figure 2: The plunge bath, Arkansas State University, Rick Taylor, 2007.


We are all familiar with films like Gladiator where the Colosseum and the city of Rome are virtually rebuilt as backdrops to Russell Crowe’s heroics. Digital models have become commonplace on the History Channel and the Discovery Channel, but archaeologists and historians are frequently ambivalent about them because the models can appear convincing without being faithful to the physical or textual evidence. Questions regarding accuracy and methodological transparency have become increasingly problematical for digital reconstructions in general. The difficulty for our Project and for our students has been to make certain the data we have available to us from the French School of Archaeology, mediated through the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and the American School for Classical Studies in Athens, is the most accurate available. Ashes2Art is associated with a project called Serving and Archiving Virtual Environments (SAVE) in conjunction with the Institute for Advanced Technologies in the Humanities (IATH) at the University of Virginia under the direction of Bernie Frischer. One component of SAVE is to provide a resource for evaluating digital reconstruction projects. Dr. Gill and I are on SAVE’s Editorial Board and spoke about it at a SAVE workshop at the Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology conference in Budapest in April 2008 [2].

Among the interesting pedagogical results of Ashes2Art are the types of questions that surface from this kind of hands–on inquiry and student/faculty collaboration. When a student reconstructs a monument such as the tholos, various questions beyond the basic plan and elevation arise: “What happens when it rains?” “What function did the protruding lion heads serve?” The lion heads were waterspouts whose function was to attractively drain rain water. But a digital modeler must figure out how the water would collect before it exits through the mouths of the lions. These types of questions probably do not come up in a typical classroom. Students engage these issues because they are rebuilding the monument, and the precise function of a given architectural element or component is crucial to understanding the larger structure and how the blocks and ornament fit together.

We know the interior floor of the tholos was paved in black limestone (with the exception of the center circle), but there are various opinions about how the ceiling would have looked. Similarly, there is little scholarly consensus about the roof design. It might have used a single–tier conical design or it might have had two tiers, which means we have to build alternative models which represent both ideas (see Figure 3). Our methodology must be transparent; we must post online all the different measurements we use and state explicitly why one decision was favored over another.


Figure 3: Alternative reconstruction of the temple of Athena Pronaia
Figure 3: Alternative reconstruction of the temple of Athena Pronaia, Coastal Carolina University, Greg Schultz, 2007.


But digital models are only one component of the Project. Students also are responsible for Web design, the beginnings of a database, essays, glossaries, primary and secondary source bibliographies and interactive maps. Fly–through videos (animated virtual tours) of what the tholos would have looked like roughly 2,500 years ago are available on our Web site. The fly–throughs allow viewers to control the speed so they can stop to look at specific details, or watch the doors open as they “walk” through.

Educational videos (which include maps, plans, elevations, still images and a narrated text) and fly–through videos are available for online viewing and are downloadable to personal video players, iPods and cellphones. The materials are available anywhere free of charge and are portable. You can watch them in the comfort of your living room, of course, but a traveler also can stand in front of the ruins at Delphi and see what a building would have looked like or watch a short video lecture on the history of the site or monument on his or her personal cellphone.

We want our online resources to function as valuable research tools for a variety of users, and we want the materials accessible to the broader community and disparate age groups. Extensive lesson plans are available (online as free .pdf files) for secondary education teachers in accordance with the National Standards for Visual Arts education guidelines. Those files are supplemented by videos, photographs, essays, a glossary and the other materials on our Web site.

I described earlier the panoramas (360 degree rotatable images) we hope to publish of what the site actually looks like today. I will call these “real” panoramas. The “real” panoramas are valuable for archiving the physical state of a given site at a specific time and for providing a better understanding of the monument in its physical surroundings. A panorama of the digital model, rendered from precisely the same vantage point from which the “real” panorama was shot, allows both the virtual panorama and “real” panorama to be linked together and move simultaneously. This has already been done by the Digital Roman Forum Project at UCLA [3] and we hope to do the same for our panoramas at Delphi.

At Arkansas State University Dr. Gill’s students have been focusing on the gymnasium complex, including the plunge bath and xystos. The online model by ASU student Richard Taylor is not yet complete, but it provides an exciting opportunity to visualize the components of the bath and to understand how it worked. Water would have flowed into the plunge bath through outlets in the wall behind the bath which were probably embellished by lion head spouts. The water would have flowed into chest–high basins, and then the overflow from the basins would have filled the plunge bath (see Figure 4). The bath includes a system for emptying the bath as well, and the images online include a photograph of the plunge bath and also an image of the digital model from the same vantage point to compare the actual remains with the digital reconstruction. Dr. Gill’s area of research emphasis is baths and bathing in Classical antiquity, so this project complements her own research interests and underscores the importance of student/faculty collaboration in the humanities.


Figure 4: Detail of plunge bath
Figure 4: Detail of plunge bath, Arkansas State University, Rick Taylor, 2007.


Ashes2Art is in its early stages. Not even three years old, we are just getting started. The Project started at Coastal Carolina University in Fall 2005 and dealt with Renaissance Florence. That initial stage was relatively simple. My co–conspirator at Coastal Carolina University, Professor Paul Olsen (Graphic Design), and I essentially used it as a means to determine whether a project like this could work in a classroom setting. When Dr. Gill and the students at Arkansas State joined us the following year, we shifted our focus to Delphi. We still have a lot to do there. Dr. Gill and her students have started to build a Geographic Information System (GIS) database which will house various kinds of information, including GPS data, an online image database, laser scans of the monuments, and full–text primary sources in Greek and English.

The Web sites for Ashes2Art are: and The Delphi component of the Project has only recently been posted online, specifically for the WebWise 2008 conference. There are still a few kinks to work out. Interactive maps allow the viewer to navigate through various parts of the site. Two interconnected sites were designed so the individual programs at each university have governorship over their materials (Web design, videos, essays, photographs, etc.) and students at both universities have the same learning opportunities. New models, essays, videos and photographs are added every semester the course is taught (each Spring), so the project is constantly growing, reviewing and revising.

There are inevitable problems. Copyright issues remain for a lot of these materials. It was extraordinary that the Hellenic Ministry of Culture allowed us to take students onsite and shoot panoramas from inside a large number of monuments at Nemea, Epidauros, Isthmia, Olympia, Corinth, Aphaia and Delphi. We are grateful for their permission. The panoramas are already stitched together, but we must now wait for permission to publish them online. It takes time. For all of our images we have either secured copyright from (among the largest collections of digital images of architecture worldwide) or from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, or we shot the photographs ourselves. But in order for Ashes2Art to be a truly comprehensive, searchable online database on the scale we envision, we need to have access from the French School and the Hellenic Ministry of Culture for all of the archaeological reports that have been published since the excavations were begun there in the late 19th century. Stay tuned ...

Ashes2Art is a collaboration between faculty and students, and between two universities, and it relies on agreements between the project directors and the Hellenic Ministry of Culture, the French School, Archivision and the Museum of Fine Arts. The program aims to provide materials that are valuable for discipline specialists, but also useful and intuitive for undergraduates, secondary students, secondary teachers and the community at large.

We were ecstatic to receive a Digital Humanities Start Up grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for 2007/08. When I spoke in Washington, D.C. six months ago for the historic collaborative conference between the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche in Italy and the National Endowment for the Humanities I said that I felt as though I had arrived at the Indy 500 riding a bicycle. The WebWise 2008 conference is similar: the speakers at this Conference are an impressive and august group with an extraordinary array of approaches to libraries, museums and humanities concepts in our digital world. I am humbled to have been asked to participate.

Ashes2Art is potentially limitless in terms of the directions it can go, in its potential as a valuable research tool, and as an innovative pedagogical model for students and for faculty. Future endeavors may take us to other locations around the Mediterranean or colonial and Native American sites. Regardless of our next step, the project directors are committed to maintaining the program’s pedagogical focus and to publish its materials online, free of charge, using open source software. End of article


About the authors

Arne R. Flaten is Associate Professor of Art History and Associate Dean of Humanities and Fine Arts at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C.
E–mail: arflaten [at] coastal [dot] edu

Alyson Gill is Assistant Professor of Art History at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, Ark.
E–mail: agill [at] state [dot] edu



1. and




Editorial history

Paper received 16 July 2008.

Copyright © 2008, First Monday.

Copyright © 2008, Arne R. Flaten and Alyson Gill.

Ashes2Art: Collaboration and Community in the Humanities
by Arne R. Flaten and Alyson Gill
First Monday, Volume 13 Number 8 - 4 August 2008

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