Over a period of two years, Lisa M. Snyder, a Ph.D. candidate in architecture, painstakingly created an interactive computer simulation of the Temple Mount complex built in Jerusalem by Herod the Great. A senior member of the Urban Simulation Team of the School of the Arts and Architecture, Snyder worked under the guidance of team director Bill Jepson. She spent more than 1,500 hours creating the exquisitely detailed virtual temple.
Her work was unveiled this spring at the Israel Antiquities Authority's dedication ceremony for the Ethan and Marla Davidson Exhibition and Virtual Reconstruction Center in the Jerusalem Archaeological Park. Snyder showed Israeli President Moshe Katsav, other dignitaries and members of the international media around the virtual site.
Housed in an underground chamber of a seventh-century Umayyad palace adjacent to the actual Temple Mount site, the virtual temple's high-resolution, three-dimensional images invite visitors to imagine themselves entering the scene. They walk along ancient streets, pass beneath an enormous gateway, descend into the ritual baths and emerge to ascend a grand staircase to the majestic temple. Following this virtual trek, visitors to the center then go outdoors to view the remains of the actual temple.
The virtual Temple Mount was commissioned by Israel Antiquities Authority officials who were impressed by an earlier UCLA project: a virtual reconstruction of the Forum of Trajan in the Forum Romanum, on display at the Getty Center.
"We believe that this is the most exciting way to explain to non-archaeologists — and even to archaeologists — what an archaeological site looked like," says Jacob Fisch, the Authority's director of traveling exhibitions.
The reconstruction was based on the work of archaeologist Ronny Reich, director of excavations at the site. Snyder began the project by traveling to Jerusalem, where she took some 900 digital images of every possible detail of the excavation area, from close-ups of wall stone textures to the site's physical terrain.
Upon her return to campus, Snyder used these photographs, along with sketches by Reich, as the basis for a model that eventually grew to more than 200 individual computer files nested together hierarchically, including more than 300 individual texture maps, adding up to a 95-megabyte binary file.
"It was important for us to be as accurate as possible," Snyder says. "We didn't model anything unless we could justify it with archaeological evidence or historic data."
Some details, however, were educated guesses, based on conflicting or incomplete information. To acknowledge these areas of uncertainty, Snyder explains, the virtual temple in some places offers visitors a choice of alternatives.
The Authority is now considering expanding the project to include a reconstruction of the Umayyad period structures on the site.
"Visitors would then be able to see how the Temple Mount site evolved over time," Snyder says. "It's an amazing opportunity. I'm continually fascinated by the potential of this technology."