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Interdisciplinary course combines anthropology and computer science, using computer software to model ancient buildings and artifacts.

Credit: Carson Kahoe

Penn is offering a class that combines the very different disciplines of anthropology and computer science — ANTH 258/CIS 106: Visualizing the Past, Peopling the Present.

The class, which hasn’t been taught since 2011, was offered this year for the fourth time. It is one of the few dual-school courses between the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

The class is taught in alternating lecture sessions by Norman Badler, a Computer and Information Science professor and director of the Center for Human Modeling and Simulation, and Clark Erickson, a professor of landscape archaeology and historic preservation and design in the Anthropology department.

Erickson said that the course was informed by one of Amy Gutmann’s original mantras to teach and learn across the schools, but there were logistical hurdles to configuring the course when the rules for dual-school courses were still unclear.

“At first it wasn’t very easy, because who gets the tuition dollars?” Erickson said. “Who gets the credit for the class? How do you count the students that come from one school or another?”

In ANTH 258/CIS 106, students use computer modeling to create 3-D structures of building sites, ancient peoples and archeological artifacts. Technology has advanced enough since the course began that students now can populate contemporary buildings (like Reading Terminal Market, of which they have a 3-D model), although the eventual goal is to animate figures in an ancient site.

“It helps students understand that populating the past is at least as important as reconstructing it,” said Badler.

“Peopling the Past is to make people front and center, and working with game engines we can actually see people’s perspective and you can move through these scenes that students create,” Erickson said. “The idea is to make the past come alive.”

Each semester the professors suggest a theme for the students to virtually recreate, usually in conjunction with an exhibit at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. This year, the focus is an Amazonian landscape in eastern Bolivia that is flooded for half the year. Some students will recreate the topography and floodwaters, specifically to model earthworks that are badly eroded and manipulate the water flow.

Previous final projects have included virtual “fly-throughs” of architectural renderings and digitally reconstructed garments on virtual models. Erickson hopes that this year a student will be able to animate the model’s movement in the garments.

Estee Ellis, a senior in the College, is a Visual Studies major enrolled in ANTH 258/CIS 106. She said that the course contextualized archeology and represented a democratizing trend in the field.

“It’s not just the one lead archeologist saying his experience and his perspective, but opening it up for everyone to share their perspectives,” she said.