How wealthy people lived 4000 years ago

16 rooms on two floors, sophisticated sewage installations and even a bathroom with a lowered drain: together with archaeologists from the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, the LRZ has has visualised and reconstructed in virtual realityan ancient Babylonian villa dating from around 2000 BC.


From the excavation to the model: The photo (below right) of the excavation site in Ur was the basis for the photogrammetry model (below centre)
as well as the model of the ground floor and the entire house (above). Photo: LMU/LRZ

First, a rather narrow corridor with grey, roughcast walls leads into a hall, from which a kitchen with two ovens and a bathroom with a lower drain behind an extra wall can be reached. Some rooms are flooded with sunlight through the courtyard at the centre of the villa. "This house seems so normal, but it was built around 1850 BC in the city of Ur and is over 4,000 years old," says Adelheid Otto, professor of archaeology and director of the Institute of Near Eastern Archaeology at Ludwig Maximilian University (LMU) in Munich. "At that time, people in Bavaria or Central Europe were still living in caves or on trees, but in Ur there were already fully paved baths with separate toilets".

The comparatively high rooms with dark grey, roughly plastered walls look real, but were digitally reconstructed at the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre (LRZ) and set up in virtual reality (VR). "Virtual reality is something new that we can now use in our subject for teaching and research," says Otto. "With digital models, we can also make our findings accessible to the public and visualise ways of life. There is so much we can learn from the past. The villa of Sîn-nada, the guardian of the Ningal Temple in Ur, not only reveals an advanced civilisation in which men and women could read and write, lived very hygienically and ate a healthy diet, but also demonstrates the longevity and contemporary benefits of earthen building: "Clay bricks keep houses cool, and most of them have survived for more than 4,000 years," explains Otto.

Modelling from photos, sketches and plans

For two years, LRZ experts from the Centre for Visualisation and Virtual Reality (V2C) worked with the archaeologists to digitally reconstruct Sîn-nada's villa. At first glance, the rooms appear cramped, but those who experience the rooms in VR quickly realise that Sîn-nada lived in spacious, stately conditions with his wife Nuṭṭuptum, who taught, fattened sheep and brewed beer. "The house had 16 rooms on two floors and a total area of 236 square metres," explains Dr Berthold Einwag, who coordinated the digitisation project. "We know from letters and other evidence that the house was lavishly furnished and that sacrificial rituals were performed here for the temple community.

Photos, sketches and plan drawings that Otto and Einwag's team were able to collect during two excavations in 2017 and 2019 helped with the digitisation. Ur is located in southern Iraq and was discovered and partially excavated by British archaeologist Leonard Woolley in the 1920s. "In the past, excavations were carried out differently to today. In those days, you had two scientists and 400 workers, and they paid little attention to where things were and had no interest in the use of the houses, their furnishings and their way of life," Otto explains. "But that's exactly what we were interested in, exploring every millimetre of the villa, documenting exactly where the remains of walls, doors and the collapse of the upper floor were and, of course, looking for fragments, inscriptions, seals and rubbish". With each detail, the picture of the villa and the way of life on the southern walled enclosure of Ur became more precise and varied, and the realisation grew that rich people with large households tended to live around the temple of Nigal. Sîn-nada, for example, travelled widely, and his wife supervised many servants and looked after visitors to the temple.

Designing a historic building in exchange

"We developed the digital reconstruction with the LRZ in a constant back-and-forth process," says Einwag. Images and floor plans formed the basis for an initial 3D model using photogrammetry. "We had only vague clues about the structure of the building and couldn't interpret all the images of the excavation site accurately, so we had to keep asking questions and clarifying our work with the team of archaeologists," adds Kristian Weinand, then a student at the LRZ and now a 3D artist. "We calculated a 3D model from the photos using Autodesk ReCap software, which gave us a more precise idea of the house and the site". The villa was then rendered step by step using Blender software to create textures for the walls, floors and lighting. Finally, Unreal Engine 5 was used to translate this detailed model into VR. "The result was a render video and a VR application for the LRZ CAVE," says Dr Thomas Odaker. "This in turn can be used to derive applications for use with head-mounted displays, while the villa and its surroundings can be brought to life with images of people and objects." This would make it easier to assess the spatial and dimensional relationships in the villa and to visualise the way of life documented in letters and other evidence. "The digital model can now be demonstrated," says archaeologist Otto, "but it's certainly not a final product, we want to and should develop it further - at least the virtual tour of the house should be set to music or written down". However, sponsors and supporters are needed to fund this project, which would be possible thanks to the many finds and documents from the excavation. "Students will be able to work with the model using head-mounted displays," says Otto, "and we will be able to clarify working hypotheses in the digital model - for example, about the lighting conditions in the rooms, the number of windows, the position of doors, but also about life in this villa" (vs/ssc, LRZ)