Mapping the Via Appia in 3D

Developing a 4D geographic information system for archaeological purposes
Image: LisArt (CC License) Image: Scott Lusher

The Via Appia was one of the earliest and strategically most important roads of the Roman world, dating from the fourth century BC. It connected Rome to Brindisi, Apulia, in southeast Italy, and was referred to by Roman poet Statius as “the queen of the long roads”. As a consequence of the Roman custom of cremation and burial outside the city walls – commonly alongside arterial roads – the most opulent and prestigious funerary monuments were erected all along the Via Appia, rendering the first miles of the Via Appia into a boastful necropolis. At the end of the 19th century, the Via Appia became one of the first archaeological parks in the world. A romantic landscape full with ruins of funerary monuments was shaped has been preserved ever since.

The “Mapping the Via Appia” project aims at a thorough inventory and analysis of the Roman interventions in this suburban landscape. The research focuses on a section of two kilometers that covers parts of the fifth and sixth miles of the Via Appia, supplemented with a research area that covers the hinterland as far as nearly one kilometer northeast and about 2.5 kilometers southwest of the road. Based on the physical remains in combination with historical sources, archaeologists aim to reconstruct the functioning of the road in antiquity. The study area contains more than 2000 archaeological objects directly alongside the road. The biggest difficulty for the archaeologists is that the archaeological remains are scattered alongside the road and often not in situ.

In trying to interpret the ‘life’ of these remains, the researchers document all the archaeological objects in the field in high detail; decorations, traces of erosion, cuts and location are considered to form key elements. However, in order to query this dataset systematically and to develop 3D reconstructions, the researchers need a 3D Geographic Information System. Being able to virtually explore the area in a 3D landscape and highlight attributive information given in the field provides tooling which aids the archaeologists to reconstruct the road. Show for example all objects that contain a specific type of marble and have a certain type of architectural feature dating to a specific period allows archaeologists to reconstruct the objects and their relationship to past landscapes. However, a 3D Information System in which highly detailed features can be stored, spatially analyzed, and integrated with conventional geospatial information has, due to the lack of computational power, not yet been produced for a complex research area.

The Mapping the Via Appia project gives the opportunity to develop a 4D (3D + time) Geographic Information System for archaeological purposes. The use of a 4D GIS in archaeology is not yet widespread. 4D GIS in general is still very much in development, challenging this project to be progressive and innovative. The project aims to develop a highly detailed 4D GIS enabling archaeologists to analyze complex archaeological sites and landscapes.


  • Maurice de Kleijn
  • Maarten van Meersbergen
    Netherlands eScience Center
  • Stefan Verhoeven
    Netherlands eScience Center