Meet the scientists and archaeologists making ancient rock art into 3D reality

Pitoti 445 x 124 
18 Jan 2016 14:34:49.750

A public exhibition on Monday 18 January will give people first-hand experience of new 3D technologies that have enabled archaeologists to breathe life and meaning into images etched into rock thousands of years ago. 

The free, day-long event, being held at the University of Cambridge, marks the culmination of a three-year project led by The Human Factors Research Group, from the Faculty of Engineering at The University of Nottingham.

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In the Italian Alps, thousands of often-stylised images of people and animals, carved into rock surfaces, offer a tantalising window into the past. Archaeologists believe that the earliest of these 150,000 images date from the Neolithic but that most originate from the Iron Age.

The UNESCO-protected ‘Pitoti’ (little puppets) of the Valcamonica valley extend over an area of over four square kilometres spread across 25-30 kilometres of valley and have been described as one of the world’s largest pieces of anonymous art.

The exhibition

An event taking place on Monday 18 January at Downing College, Cambridge, will give the public an opportunity to learn more about a fascinating project to explore and re-animate the Pitoti of Valcamonica.

Displays and hands-on activities staged by seven of the institutions involved in the EU 7th Framework Programme-funded ‘3D Pitoti’ digital heritage project will show visitors how archaeologists and film-makers have used the latest digital technology to explore an art form often portrayed as simplistic or primitive.

The exhibitors from Austria, Italy, Germany and the UK will show that the thousands of Pitoti might possibly be seen as “one big picture” as unknown numbers of artists, over a period of more than 5,000 years, added narratives to the giant ‘canvases’ formed by sandstone rocks scraped clean and polished by the movement of glaciers across the landscape.

The images are etched into the rock surfaces so that, as the sun rises and then falls in the sky, the figures can be seen to gain a sense of movement.

The people behind the technology

Displays will introduce visitors to the scanning, machine learning and interactive 3D-visualisation technologies used by Bauhaus Weimar, Technical University Graz, and St Pölten University of Applied Sciences to record, analyse and breathe life into the Pitoti. 

The 3D Pitoti team members attending next week’s event will engage with visitors who will be given the chance to experience the scanner, UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), computer-based sectioning, and the Pitoti ‘oculus rift’ virtual reality experience, made possible by using advanced imaging systems which are creating a new generation of ‘real’ images.

The live demonstration of the interactive 3D Pitoti children’s app, developed by Archeocamuni and Nottingham University, is likely to prove popular with younger visitors who will have the chance to handle the technology and ask questions.

Also taking part in the event will be the renowned craftsperson Lida Cardozo Kindersley who will demonstrate the art of letter cutting into stone as an intensely physical process.

Cambridge archaeologist and film-maker Dr Frederick Baker believes that the Valcamonica images may have been one element in a kind of ‘proto-cinema’ that might have involved other ‘special effects’.

“When I first saw the Pitoti, my immediate thought was that these are frames for a film. Initially I envisaged an animated film but over time I’ve come to realise that the quality of colour, the play of light and shadow, and the texture of the rocks, make the Pitoti much more sophisticated than 2D animated graphics. That’s why we need to work in 3D.

“Many of the images in Valcamonica are contemporary with classical Greek art but are an under- appreciated form of art. I believe that the Pitoti are an example of minimalism, an early precursor to work by Alberto Giacometti and Pablo Picasso. They can be just as powerful as the classical art of Athens and Rome in their own way.

"By showcasing our project in the neo-classical setting of Downing College, we are highlighting this clash of visual cultures and using the digital to raise the appreciation of what has been seen as ‘barbarian’ or ‘tribal’ art.”

Members of the 3D Pitoti team captured many images of people, deer, horses and dogs found on the Valcamonica rocks. The digitised images gave the project what might be seen as a ‘casting directory’ of thousands of ‘characters’ in order to create imagined narratives.

The creation of moving images using pixels, or dots, echoes the making of the Pitoti which were pecked out of the rock by people striking the surface with repeated blows to produce lines and shapes.

The University of Nottingham

Dr Sue Cobb, Associate Professor, from the Faculty of Engineering at The University of Nottingham, who led the international team of scientists, said: “Thanks to the 3D Pitoti project, archaeological sites and artefacts can be rendered in stunningly realistic computer-generated models and even 3D printed for posterity.

Our tools will give more people online access to culturally-important heritage sites and negate the need to travel to the locations, which can be inaccessible or vulnerable to damage. 

“We overcame a number of technical challenges to innovate the technology, including developing a weatherproof, portable laser scanner to take detailed images of the Pitoti in situ in harsh, rugged terrain; using both a UAV and glider to take aerial shots of the valley for the computer model and processing huge masses of data to recreate an immersive, film-quality version of the site in 3D.

“With our new story-telling app, users can scan and animate 3D Pitoti images to construct their own rock art stories from the thousands of fascinating human and animal figures discovered so far.

"The aim is to show to public audiences that with archaeology there isn’t a single answer to the art’s meaning – there are theories and interpretations - and to teach the importance of the rock art as a biographical record of European history.”

Pitoti Prometheus

Next Monday’s event will include a test screening of a 15-minute 3D generated film called ‘Pitoti Prometheus’ which reimagines the story of Prometheus (who, according to legend, created men from clay) by animating digital images captured in Valcamonica. The fully finished film will be launched later in the year.

The film’s 3D engineer Marcel Karnapke and film-maker Fred Baker (contributing via Skype) will take part in a discussion at the end of the day, enabling the audience to ask questions about the film and the unfolding of an ambitious project which breaks new boundaries in terms of European cross-disciplinary collaboration.

“We use the word ‘pipeline’ to describe the end-to-end process that starts with the scanner on the rocks and ends with the immersive interactive 3D laboratory at the Bauhaus University Weimar,” says Dr Baker. 

On the morning of Tuesday 19 January, a series of talks and workshops, aimed primarily at academics and rock-art enthusiasts, will take place at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. The two days of events are the official culmination of the 3D Pitoti project. For details of Monday’s event, which is free of charge, go to

The two days of events are the official culmination of the 3D Pitoti project. For details of Monday’s event, which is free of charge, go to .

— Ends —

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Notes to editors: The University of Nottingham has 43,000 students and is ‘the nearest Britain has to a truly global university, with a “distinct” approach to internationalisation, which rests on those full-scale campuses in China and Malaysia, as well as a large presence in its home city.’ (Times Good University Guide 2016). It is also one of the most popular universities in the UK among graduate employers and the winner of ‘Research Project of the Year’ at the Times Higher Education Awards 2014. It is ranked in the world’s top 75 by the QS World University Rankings 2015/16, and 8th in the UK by research power according to the Research Excellence Framework 2014. It has been voted the world’s greenest campus for three years running, according to Greenmetrics Ranking of World Universities.

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Story credits

More information is available from Dr Sue Cobb, Associate Professor, Faculty of Engineering, The University of Nottingham, on 0115 95 14007 or

Emma Lowry - Media Relations Manager

Email:  Phone: +44 (0)115 846 7156  Location: University Park

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