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These 3-D Models Offer a Digital Glimpse Into 3,000 Years of Athens’ History

Photographer-animator Dimitris Tsalkanis built the city from scratch and posted it online for free

A 3-D model of Athens' classical acropolis (Ancient Athens 3D / Dimitris Tsalkanis)
smithsonianmag.com

The Golden Age of Athens is long over. But thanks to photographer-animator Dimitris Tsalkanis, you can still stroll through the ancient city during its most prosperous time—at least in digital form.

A native of Greece’s (modern) capital, Tsalkanis has spent the past 13 years recreating the long-gone chapters of Athens’ history with 3-D modeling software, reports Sarah Rose Sharp for Hyperallergic. The product, an aptly-named website called Ancient Athens 3D, is an immersive experience unto itself, featuring the city’s monuments and landmarks through seven periods that date as far back as 1200 B.C., during the Mycenaean era, up through the early modern period, during the 19th century A.D.

In crafting the site, which first launched in 2008, Tsalkanis let waves of architecture guide the delineations of his seven featured eras, whose start and end dates overlap with—but don’t perfectly match—those in textbooks, according to the Greek City Times. Selecting one of the periods from the site’s menu takes the user to a page with a brief history lesson and links to individual monuments, rendered with each era’s architectural additions.

The website takes a bit of an open-source approach, adding tweaks or updates every time new data on Athens’ ancient archaeology surfaces, all in service of maintaining as much accuracy as possible. That’s impressive, considering the artist does all of this as a side hustle: The project began as, and remains, a “personal creation, without any official backing whatsoever,” Tsalkanis tells Hyperallergic. “I had no previous experience on 3-D and I started experimenting in my spare time.”

Writing on the website, Tsalkanis is upfront about the limitations of his approach. Perfect reconstructions, he says, are “impossible” given how much of the city’s ancient architecture has been lost to time. But in broad strokes, the city’s biggest changes are made clear. The acropolis—the city’s ancient citadel—has its roots in the Mycenaean era, when the first Greek tribes arrived to settle the region, and has housed a regular rotation of monuments and palaces ever since. As the civilization grew, builders forged a wall around Athens, adding temples to honor the gods, including the Parthenon, the remains of which still stand in the city today.

Conflict, too, shaped the city, according to the website. Each time Athens changed hands in the wake of battle, conquest or foreign occupation, its architecture was retooled—or simply destroyed. A series of clicks is all it takes to trace how the city’s built presence waxes and wanes through the Greco-Persian War, the ages of Roman and Ottoman occupation, and more, all in stunning detail. As Tsalkanis explains to Hyperallergic, the site contains more than a history lesson: It also offers a glimpse into what daily life might have been like many millennia ago.

“3-D is an amazing tool to visualize the past and to simulate what the people who lived 2,500 years ago might have experienced while walking around Athens,” he says. “[It] gives us the opportunity to experiment in every way possible without harming the actual monuments.”

Since its debut, Ancient Athens 3D has been freely available as an educational tool. The site maintains a presence on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. Tsalkanis may even turn the site into an app someday, giving history buffs the chance to take the ancient city with them wherever they might go.

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Boston-based science journalist and Story Collider senior producer. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University. Previously, she served as a Digital Editor at NOVA Next and was Smithsonian magazine's 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

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