Neurocities and Ruinscapes: Reconstructing Ancient Cities and Ruins Using Virtual Reality (2023-2024)


Cities are microcosms that reflect the structure of societies over time. The many layers of the past are part of our urban experience of a city, either as residents relying on our city’s historical and cultural identity or as tourists wanting to glimpse other cultures and ways of living. 

Archaeologists, architects, anthropologists, urbanists and historians face the enormous task of understanding cities in time and space, including the ways in which they have evolved over time. Further, cities are (or have been) living organisms interdependent with the environment and shaped by intangible factors such as social, cultural and political dynamics. 

The mental reconstruction of ancient cities elicits an aesthetic experience when observers engage in multisensorial interactions with archeological ruins. This happens in the visitation of ruins, such as Pompeii, Rome, the Acropolis or Machu Picchu, and also in their contemplation as iconic vestiges of the past with enduring symbolic value. The same or similar aesthetic experiences may also happen when ruins are virtually visited and represented with new media and emerging technology. 

Project Description

This project aims to explore the mental reconstructions and embodied aesthetic experiences engendered by real and virtual interactions with archeological ruins and virtual representations of places, spaces and cultural artifacts associated with an ancient city. 

Using state-of-the-art methods of digital videography, virtual reconstruction and cognitive neuroscience, this team will examine the embodied aesthetic experience engendered by real and virtual interactions with archeological ruins (“ruinscapes”) and virtual representations of places, spaces and cultural artifacts associated with the Etruscan/Roman city of Vulci. 

Team members will have access to extensive digital data on Vulci, including 3D maps, digital elevations models, geophysical prospections (geoelectric and ground penetrating radar), archaeological stratigraphy, laser scanning models and over 90,000 photos from multispectral drones. Five years of archaeological excavation models are available in virtual reality. These unique, multidimensional datasets and virtual representations will be used to engender embodied aesthetic experiences in both research subjects new to the material and expert scholars familiar with the site and Etruscan/Roman culture. The team will investigate the impacts of these experiences on the mind, brain and behavior. 

Experimentation will be done both in a laboratory setting and on site in Vulci. In the lab, the team will engage with virtual representations of Vulci and track eye movements to document how shifts in visual attention and visual explorations of places and artifacts engage brain networks and impact physiology. 

The team will employ psychological means to empirically measure perceptual judgments of scale, distance, symbols, colors, specific architectural features and particular objects in virtual context using Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) questionnaires. Ultimately, the team will investigate the cognitive, perceptual, proprioceptive and performative aspects of spatial embodiment during the virtual experience of ancient spaces and objects. 
Summer field studies will allow similar neurocognitive and physiological investigations of engagement with the physical remains of Vulci, allowing the team to assess differences and similarities between the embodied aesthetic experiences associated with real and virtual ruinscapes.

Anticipated Outputs

Methodological protocols; public website; on-campus exhibit; academic publication and conference presentation; data to be used by National Etruscan Museum and Archaeological Park of Vulci for design and visitor engagement 

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this team will include 4 graduate and 5 undergraduate students. The strongest applicants will have skills in areas such as computer science/programming, statistics, neuroscience, art, art history, visual studies, classical archaeology and/or cultural anthropology.

Members of the team will have the unique opportunity to conduct interdisciplinary research with innovative protocols (see, for example, the Duke project NeuroArtifAct) in the lab and in the field and across institutions. They will lean how to compare virtual reality and empirical experiences by EEG and eye-tracking systems in the context of archeology. Some team members will travel to Rome, Viterbo and Vulci, Italy in Summer 2023 to record data at the archeological site and do data analysis in the field. 

Antonio LoPiano will serve as project manager.

See the related Data+ project for Summer 2023; there is a separate application process for students who are interested in this optional component.


Summer 2023 – Summer 2024

  • Summer 2023 (optional): Data capturing in Vulci, Viterbo and Rome, Italy
  • Fall 2023: Data processing 
  • Spring 2024: Data interpretation; preliminary publications 
  • Summer 2024 (optional): Comparative analysis of the data captured in 2023


Academic credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding available

This Team in the News

Sidney Jordan: Neurocities and Ruinscapes Bass Connections Project

Duke Diary Dispatch: In Italy, A Peek Into the Past

Duke Diary Dispatch: In Italy, High-Tech Tools and Ancient Civilizations 

Duke Diary Dispatch: Presenting in Montalto di Castro

Duke Diary Dispatch: Successful Last Days in Vulci

See related Data+ summer project, Neurocities and Ruinscapes (2023).


Image: A Duke staff member participates in a 2019 interactive presentation by the Smart Archeology project team, by Milena Ozernova

Woman wearing virtual reality headset next to a computer showing a view of an archeological site.

Team Leaders

  • Elisa Corro', University of Ca' Foscari
  • Vicenza Ferrara, Sapienza University of Rome–Medical Humanities Lab
  • Maurizio Forte, Arts & Sciences-Classical Studies
  • Leonard White, School of Medicine-Neurology

/graduate Team Members

  • Caitlin Childers, Digital Art Hist/Comp Media-AM

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Priyanshi Ahuja, Computer Science (BS)
  • Alyssa Ho
  • Sidney Jordan, Classical Languages (AB)
  • Srinjoyi Lahiri, Neuroscience (BS)
  • Shenglong Ma
  • Alex Pieroni, Classical Languages (AB2)
  • Kathleen Seithel, Public Policy Studies (AB)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Augustus Wendell, Arts & Sciences-Art, Art History, and Visual Studies
  • David Zielinski, Arts & Sciences-Art, Art History, and Visual Studies

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Sapienza University of Rome
  • University of Ca'Foscari