2. The Pilot Survey

In 2010, the authors undertook a small series of three-dimensional (3D) scans of Roman stone portraits from a variety of contexts across southern Britain (Figure 1). This was, in part, a pilot study conducted in order to ascertain whether it would be possible, through the analysis of sculptured fragments preserved within British museums and their subsequent comparison with images held within internationally important stonework repositories, to build up a digital database of Roman portrait typology. Such a database would, it was hoped, significantly aid the resolution, identification and interpretation of Roman sculptured images recovered from the north-western provinces, however fragmentary their condition. This comparison would, in turn, help clarify the incomplete British dataset and ascertain whether the island did indeed possess a range of sculptured imperial portraits similar to that recorded from elsewhere within the empire.

Figure 1

Figure 1: 3D laser scanning a marble bust of the Emperor Vespasian at the British Museum as part of the compilation of a 3D digital database of Roman portraiture (Authors' photo, courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum)

The preliminary scanning survey generated a set of 3D images of Roman sculpture, recorded without either photographic distortion or the vagaries of light and shade (which in 2D photographs can sometimes significantly alter the overall appearance of portraits). Recording throughout the pilot project was conducted using a Konica Minolta VI900 laser scanner that measured three-dimensional points onto the surface of each sculpture. Portraits were positioned on a turntable and rotated until a complete series of overlapping scan 'point clouds' were collected. Individual scans were registered together and were then rendered to create a mesh in order to represent the surface of each image.

The first three heads chosen for the pilot study were selected as all appeared to be of broadly similar date, hairstyles suggesting manufacture within the Julio-Claudian principate (Augustus–Nero: 27 BC–AD 68). None of the portraits had ever been positively identified, all being in a relatively poor state of preservation and with only one possessing any form of secure archaeological provenance. As a consequence of their limited context and survival, none of the portraits chosen for the pilot survey had, to date, contributed in any significant way to the understanding or interpretation of Roman Britain.


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