The Minoan Modeling Project: 3D Modeling for a New Generation of Archaeological Publication

Persistent identifier:


In the last few years, 3D modeling has become increasingly popular in archaeology, but it is still largely an adjunct to traditional studies. The unique possibilities of 3D content as a hypothesis-generating and -testing tool have yet to be explored fully. In my time at CHS, I prepared the manuscript of my book on 3D modeling the House of the Rhyta, a digital-traditional hybrid publication that presents my theories about access and circulation patterns and the results of my use of 3D modeling to test those theories. The House of the Rhyta, a structure that combines domestic and ritual functions, was in use primarily between 1500 and 1450 BCE and offers the opportunity to shed light on access and circulation patterns, the settlement at Pseira, multifunctional Minoan architecture, and Minoan ritual. The use of 3D modeling allows my architectural theories to be tested empirically and quantitatively via crowd-sourcing through an online game, which was completed during my time at CHS. It is just one example of the wide scope for 3D modeling and gaming to help archaeologists create and test theories, and it is hoped that the book will provide one example among many to come of the responsible use of 3D modeling in archaeology.


In the last few years, 3D modeling has exploded in popularity in every possible academic application. In 2014, when I began documenting the House of the Rhyta at Pseira, the use of photogrammetry, or computer-aided 3D modeling based on photographs, was limited in Minoan archaeology. Today, there is scarcely an excavation in Greece that does not employ photogrammetry to generate 3D models of its architecture and stratigraphy. As a scholar invested in digital archaeology but also cognizant of the pitfalls of technological over-reliance, I have set myself two primary goals: to utilize digital applications well and to show their strengths and weaknesses through the example of my own work. In my time at the Center for Hellenic Studies, I worked to prepare the manuscript of my book on 3D modeling the House of the Rhyta at Pseira, one that I hope will live up to those ideals.[1]

While uncritical acceptance of any technological advance has the potential to disappoint, I believe that archaeologists should not be too wary of utilizing a technology that has already led to progress in other fields, from education to history to medicine. In fact, we should use the capabilities of 3D modeling even more, as long as we do so with proper training and theoretical underpinning. Too often, models are relegated to the illustrations and even presented as static images, so that their full capabilities are rarely exploited.[2] In fact, we can use them to answer a myriad of questions about the ancient world – even social or religious questions. We should treat 3D modeling as an integral part of hypothesis creation, evidence gathering, and argumentation through the implementation of “digital heuristics,” the use of models for direct experimentation.[3] In the case of architecture, a 3D model can allow multiple architects to study a structure and critique each other’s theories or even form their own theories with a significant reduction in fieldwork, and at a substantial savings in time, money, and political capital. Reconstructed 3D models can make the archaeologists’ theories manifest in a format that is both more visual and interactive for scholars and the public, and provide an additional level of clarity to a textual argument. Thus, digital heuristics both create a new level of scholarly accessibility and provide unprecedented opportunities for the public to “visit” sites that are otherwise closed.

While at CHS, I completed four chapters of a book on my new analysis of the House of the Rhyta at Pseira, an island off the coast of Crete.[4] The publication is based on my 2014 fieldwork, including measurement, drawing, photography, and photogrammetry. In this book, I document the architecture, combining traditional architectural analysis of access and circulation patterns with digital GIS analyses, 3D models, and reconstructions. The goal is to understand how people moved through this ancient structure and what that means for how they used it – and, by extension, how my theories might work when applied to other ancient buildings. The publication will be a digital and traditional hybrid, in which online 3D models supplement a printed or print-on-demand book. Before coming to CHS, I had already completed a 3D state model based on my photogrammetry[5] and a 3D reconstruction of the structure.[6] While at CHS, I and my team from Rhodes College were able to complete the next major step of the reconstruction – building a video game that provides a new public face for the House of the Rhyta. This video game is now accessible at, allowing anyone to experience the resurrected House of the Rhyta and to participate in my research. The data collected from this research will be the basis of the conclusions in my book and allow me to determine whether I am correct in my theories about how people moved through the house.

The House of the Rhyta, or Building AF North, is found on Pseira, a small island in the Gulf of Mirabello off the coast of Crete. In the Minoan period, the settlement was an important seaport. It was excavated in 1990–1991 by a team from Temple University under the direction of Philip P. Betancourt and Costis Davaras.[7] Block AF is especially important, not only because it preserves one of the longest occupation sequences on the island, but also because the northern structure combined both cult and domestic activities during Late Minoan IB (ca. 1500–1450 BCE).[8] This combination of domestic and ritual functions is unusual on Pseira.[9] For this reason, the building has the potential to inform conclusions about the town Pseira, about the architecture of mixed use in something other than the most elite Minoan contexts, and about Minoan ritual more generally.

In my book, online gaming allows me to go beyond a 3D model as an illustration and move into digital heuristics. The reconstructed model of the House of the Rhyta becomes the basis of a video game in which I test my access and circulation pattern theories in the final phase of my research: crowd-sourcing. The online community can explore the structure freely through the game, choosing whether to try certain activities or learn more about certain rooms, while the software simultaneously records how these visitors move through the virtual structure – in other words, tracking their access and circulation patterns. Statistical analysis of those movements over the next couple of months will provide quantitative evidence to check my theoretical study of the architecture and help me to understand access and circulation patterns in House of the Rhyta.

Until recently, architectural study has faced an insurmountable problem. There were few ways to verify theories about how people moved through ancient structures with independent data. Unless clear marks of use were visible on the floors or preserved walls, archaeologists were forced to rely on logical interpretation of the plan to help them answer questions like where people went first and most frequently in a structure. Methods such as Space Syntax Analysis offer a quantitative methodology for the study of access and circulation patterns, but, still, none of the results can be directly tested on ancient structures. In other words, there is no opportunity to observe people moving around within the structures to provide experimental proof. In the end, the validity of a method must be decided by whether the logic of the interpretation convinces the reader.

I, however, use 3D modeling and its capabilities for both realistic reconstruction and human interaction to test empirically how real people interact with the ancient architecture. A virtual reconstruction immerses people in a structure that appears to be complete, including not just walls, but also floors, windows, doors, ceilings, and a roof – as close to walking through the real thing as they can come without a physical reconstruction. Therefore, those people will react more similarly to how they would in a real structure than they would if viewing a plan or even visiting the archaeological remains. For example, it is impossible to walk over a ruined wall in a reconstruction, but tourists do just that every day at archaeological sites. Therefore, their access and circulation patterns through a reconstructed model are more likely to mimic their behavior in the original structure. This realistic interaction makes a reconstructed model an important component of testing not just my hypothesis but also other theories empirically.

My goal in publishing this model and game as a book linked to live models is to create responsible data, which is accurate, can be updated, is useable by others, and becomes a tool for future hypothesis testing. My publication of the House of the Rhyta provides an opportunity to innovate in 3D content publication, which has been identified by the NEH as one of the top five challenges facing scholars working in 3D.[10] 3D models are not acceptable book equivalents in most academic departments, including mine. Furthermore, many academic libraries are not fully equipped to reference, catalog, and preserve born digital content other than text. While barriers still exist to model-only or even all-digital publications, a hybrid publication that combines a book with open-access content offers the best of both worlds. A printed option with stills of the 3D models allows for conventional use, while live links to the text, models, and data provide the opportunity to interrogate the underlying data, challenge assumptions, and develop new theories. This type of publication would create an open field for scholarly argumentation of the highest standard.

My book on the House of the Rhyta is an attempt to use 3D modeling for more than illustration and reconstruction, but I hope that it is not the only one. Starting with the possibility of making archaeological data more accessible to experts and amateurs alike, I highlight the use of 3D models for direct experimentation. In my case, the online game offers tracking to test how people moved through the structure and what that might mean for the ancient uses of the House of the Rhyta. Other games could address other questions in different ways.[11] It is important for archaeologists to take full advantage of every possible source of data to test their arguments. 3D models provide a powerful new tool that is still in its infancy but has the potential to become a mainstay of the field. There is no reason to limit the application of 3D modeling to illustrations or even to physical architectural questions. 3D modeling can be a part of testing any architectural theory, as long as the visualization is based on valid parameters, data, and modeling practices. The House of the Rhyta offers one fertile testing ground for just such digital heuristics.


Betancourt, Philip P. 2009. Pseira X: The Excavation of Block AF. Philadelphia: INSTAP Academic Press.

Betancourt, Philip P., and Costis Davaras, eds. 1998. Pseira II: Building AC (the “Shrine”) and Other Buildings in Area A. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum.

Champion, Erik Malcolm. 2011. Playing with the Past. London: Springer.

Clinton, Miriam G. 2016. “The Power of the Future: Re-analyzing the House of the Rhyta at Pseira.” In The Future of the Past: From Amphipolis to Mosul, ed. Kostandinos Chalikias, Maggie Beeler, Ariel Pearce, and Steve Renette, 69–79. Boston: Archaeological Institute of America.

———. under review. “The House of the Rhyta at Pseira: 3D Crowdsourcing in an Online Virtual Environment.” In New Approaches and Paradigms in the Study of Greek Architecture, ed. Philip Sapirstein and David Scahill.

Davaras, Costis. 2001. “Comments on the Plateia Building.” In Pseira V: The Architecture of Pseira, ed. Philip P. Betancourt and Costis Davaras, 79–88. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum.

Favro, Diane. 2012. “Se Non è Vero, è Ben Trovato (If Not True, It is Well Conceived): Digital Immersive Reconstructions of Historical Environments.” In Special Issue on Architectural Representations, 273–277. JSAH 71(3).

Floyd, Cheryl R. 1998. Pseira III: The Plateia Building, ed. Philip P. Betancourt and Costis Davaras. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum.

Frischer, Bernard. 2008. “From Digital Illustration to Digital Heuristics.” In Beyond Illustration: 2D and 3D Digital Technology as Tools for Discovery in Archaeology (BAR-IS 1805), ed. Bernard Frischer and Anastasia Dakouri-Hild, v–xxiv. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Scates Kettler, H., and L. Cunningham. 2016. “Where have we come from? Where are we going? Challenges and Opportunities in 3D Modeling of Cultural Heritage Sites.” Paper read at the NEH Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities Summer Institute on Advanced Challenges in Theory and Practice in 3D Modeling of Cultural Heritage Sites, June 20-23, 2016, Los Angeles.


[1] In addition to the Center for Hellenic Studies, I would like to thank the following people and organizations for their support of my work on this project: Philip P. Betancourt, Thomas Brogan, Rhodes College, the Institute for Aegean Prehistory, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, the Hellenic Republic Ministry of Culture and Sports, and the Ephorate of Antiquities of Lasithi. I would especially like to acknowledge the wonderful students who assisted me over three years at Rhodes College to help bring this project to fruition: Kathryn Boehm, Kathryn Clark, Ansel MacLaughlin, Hieu Nguyen, and BaoBao Wang. Darren Floyd, MFA, was essential in guiding the students through the modeling process and created many of the object models that are used in the final version of the online game.

[2] Cf. Champion 2011, 2–3; Favro 2012, 276.

[3] Frischer 2008, xiii.

[4] Cf. Betancourt 2009.

[5] Clinton 2016.

[6] Clinton under review.

[7] Betancourt 2009, xix–xx.

[8] Betancourt 2009, xvii; 170.

[9] Betancourt and Davaras 1998, 1–77; Davaras 2001, 86–88; Floyd 1998, 208–9.

[10] Scates Kettler and Cunningham 2016.

[11] Cf.