Rome, A Virtual Tour of the Ancient City

As you may remember from a former post, I have been researching lately on MOOCs and the role they can play in the communication of archaeology to larger audiences. In a paper I have recently published I concluded that, if well designed and maintained through time, MOOCs can be an incredibly engaging learning experience. I have enjoyed that research so much that I decided to keep taking and reviewing MOOCs on archaeology and anthropology, not necessarily for a new paper, although you never know, but for this blog. Thus, today I am presenting you with a MOOC that I have finished a couple of days ago and that is one of the best I have ever taken: Rome, A Virtual Tour of the Ancient City, from University of Reading in the platform FutureLearn.

Cover image from the course.

The course makes a very interest emphasis on the city as a functional element, not denying the importance of monuments but having as the end goal of the study the people that inhabited and used them. Here is an extract from the course materials that illustrates very well this point:

“You may think of Rome as a city of grand monuments, home to the Forum, Colosseum or Pantheon – buildings which held thousands of Romans cheering gladiatorial combats, where celebrated and feared emperors plotted the expansion of their empire, and where their subjects worshipped the gods. But behind these spectacular structures, Rome was also a living, breathing, working city. Join me as you visit these famous monuments, along with the housing, aqueducts and sewers that supported ancient Rome’s million or so inhabitants.”

For most students in this course the visual material is the most spectacular component of it. Lessons consists not on PowerPoint presentations but on a multitude of videos and interviews that guide us through the main monuments of the ancient city in a manner that reminded me of a TV documentary. All the video lessons put together would well make a fantastic BBC series. But of course, that is not the most eye-catching part of it. This honour belongs to the 3D reconstructions of the monuments and the city that thanks to the modern technology we can just walk, like in a video-game. Incredible. Just think how great it is that you can virtually visit a monument reconstructed as archaeologically accurately as possible. The only thing I wonder is how much time they are going to wait until they transfer it to the VR technology we have nowadays. It would be walking Rome in the 2nd c. CE. Literally. I do not want to break any copyright law by posting images here so please follow the links to the course so you can have an idea about this.

With such an incredible visual component you would expect the textual section to play a secondary role on the course, but it is not the case. In my experience with MOOCs, article sections are usually a short paragraph or attached reading on a pdf. Here they are a complete and original texts that could be edited and printed in any reference book on the topic, something the instructors should actually think about. They are original, engaging, and linked perfectly to the documentaries included on the text. A content that would fir perfectly in any university-level course.

If there is a word that defines this course is immersive. It is difficult to deny that the use of 3D technology is spectacular, that we enjoy it in part because of its novelty, its futuristic look. But it would be unfair to consider the 3D model a bunch of shiny lights. It is a tool, and a great one. Assessing proportions of the different parts of the structure are, for example, one of the most interesting aspects of the model. We have very useful drawings of structures, but walking these buildings, even virtually, brings a new way of looking and understanding them.

So, what does this course have for you? Well, if you are an archaeologist with some Mediterranean background you can answer most of the questions of the quiz, even without looking at the notes of the course. But that would be a mistake. The materials and the videos are just fantastic, perfect for preparing an intro class into Roman archaeology, and some of the resources used, especially the importance of poetry, will be a novelty for some of you. If you are not a professional but love archaeology and the Roman empire, then you should definitively take this course. Not only for the many things you may learn, but for the variety of sources used. It is also a great complement to another course from the University of Reading, a general introduction to archaeology. Great training available to everybody. Enjoy!

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