What would a private home in ancient Sardis—capital of the Lydian empire and one-time Roman metropolis—have looked like?
That question has long been on the minds of students, archaeologists, architects, and others excavating at Sardis, in western Turkey. Every summer since 1958, a team from Harvard and Cornell Universities has unearthed and researched this site through the Archaeological Exploration of Sardis.
Zhao Sheng, a student in Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, spent the summer of 2018 serving as a student architect with fellow graduate student Kelly-Anna Louloudis. Their role was to survey, document, and help reconstruct (in drawings) the remains of buildings from all periods at the site. “There were several moments during the daily digging when I was struck by the space,” Zhao said. “It’s been there such a long time, and you can feel that history.”
Zhao and Louloudis quickly learned that they shared a keen interest in one particular question: what might Sardis have looked like during various eras? To help get closer to an answer, each designed models of Sardis at different points in its history—and, potentially, its future.
Zhao used digital technology to look back in time. Using software for three-dimensional modeling, image rendering, and image editing, he re-created spaces such as a grand living room of the House of Bronzes (named after the many bronze objects it held). The remains of this Late Roman dwelling’s mosaic floor and furniture informed Zhao’s work.
His renderings are practically photorealistic, complete with dramatic morning light streaming in through the windows. Dogs and cats (based on the real pets of current Sardis staff) are seen sitting or lounging in some spaces, adding a sense of scale and intimacy.
Zhao’s virtual re-creation of the space builds on the work of another Sardis team member done a few years ago, but this new version reflects recent scholarship about the site. Advances in technology have also improved the quality of the images: “We can do a better job with these renderings every year,” he said.
Another important project was visualizing the Lydian fortification wall, which likely stood about 80 feet tall and 65 feet thick. Using a photograph taken by drone, Zhao mapped the precise location of the wall over its present-day ruins. His striking image was recently displayed at the Sardis site, giving visitors the chance to better understand the imposing structure.
“Images like these yield new information about the spaces,” Zhao said, noting that relationships between objects often become more apparent as perspectives change.
Ideas for the Future
In contrast to Zhao’s glance backward, Louloudis looked squarely toward Sardis’s future. For her thesis, she created a three-dimensional design for a new roof that could highlight and preserve the ruins of a massive, Late Antique synagogue (4th–7th century CE), which was originally part of a bath-gymnasium complex. Though the remains of a mosaic floor in the synagogue’s main assembly hall were stabilized in the 1960s and 1970s, they still require significant protection.
Louloudis digitally modeled her proposed structure and then used specialized printers to build three-dimensional models. One model, made with painted stacked chipboard and acrylic, was created at a scale of 1:500; the other was 3D-printed, at a scale of 1:100.
The resulting models—which feature an open-air structure providing different levels of coverage against the elements—are impressive in both size and detail. Louloudis even reproduced portions of the synagogue’s mosaic floor, based on drawings by Professor Andrew Seager, of Ball State University. That detail helps “communicate the site to people who know nothing about it,” Louloudis said.
After completing her thesis, Louloudis gave her models—including extra 3D-printed replicas of different portions of Sardis, such as a re-creation of a major Roman triumphal arch—to the Sardis office at Harvard. Zhao’s renderings have also become part of Sardis’s collection and no doubt will be a valuable resource for future team members. The Sardis staff are even planning an augmented reality app that would make these models accessible to users all over the world.
Louloudis and Zhao had plenty of takeaways from their work on the project.
Being a student architect at the site and using that experience as inspiration for a thesis “taught me a lot about how to work in the real world,” Louloudis said. “It was an exercise in time management, communication, and collaboration within a truly multidisciplinary environment.”
For Zhao, Sardis sparked a new interest he intends to pursue as he finishes his degree: “This experience led me to think about how to design architecture that can communicate across time and across history,” he said.