School of Architecture's DHARMA project sheds light on Roman Forum

Author: Susan Guibert and Kara Kelly

Considered one of the most celebrated meeting places in the world in all of history, the Roman Forum served for centuries as the epicenter of public and political life in ancient Rome. It was the site for political speeches, elections and processions; the venue for criminal trials and commercial ventures. In short, the birthplace of Western civilization.

School of Architecture's DHARMA project in Rome

Today, the ruins of majestic statues, monuments, shrines and temples surround what was once the Roman Forum, and for decades, these structures have been the subject of dozens of historical architecture studies.

Thanks to sophisticated scanning technology — Digital Historical Architectural Research and Material Analysis (DHARMA) — a University of Notre Dame School of Architecture student research team led by Assistant Professor of Architecture Krupali Uplekar Krusche is able to document the Roman Forum and other World Heritage Sites with the use of a 3-D laser scanner that provides high-speed, long-range scanning for projects that are difficult to document by traditional methods. (Watch the video)

Until the DHARMA team’s work on the Roman Forum, no 3-D scans existed. Combining 3-D documentation with meticulous hand measurements, the students on the DHARMA team can create blueprints that would not otherwise exist for these ancient structures. If the landmarks were ever to completely deteriorate or be destroyed, this information would be essential to their reconstruction.

The technology also has the potential to keep such a catastrophe from happening in the first place, identifying otherwise invisible areas of deterioration, allowing for repair and prevention of further damage.

“This research is based on understanding and documenting World Heritage Sites. It isn’t documentation on how they look or how they are measured, but to understand how they were built and what kind of techniques were utilized in constructing them,” Krusche says.

This method of scanning not only helps researchers visualize the appearance of structures with exceptional precision, but it recently helped correct long-held misperceptions about the original appearance of one of the temples of the Roman Forum.

Most architectural historians believed that research conducted during the 1980s had produced renderings that precisely captured the original appearance of the whole Temple of Vespasian and Titus, a memorial to the Roman emperors who ruled from A.D. 69 to 81. Conventional wisdom among architects and historians is that the temple had a portico six columns wide. About three of those columns stand today.

But a new discovery by Mason Roberts, a 2013 graduate of the School of Architecture, calls into question the accuracy of that research. Comparing those 1980s drawings of the original temple with the work of the school’s DHARMA team, Roberts at first thought he had made a mistake.

“I aligned the columns and moldings from (the 1980s) drawings — which is considered the most accurate depiction — with DHARMA’s high-tech images, and they didn’t match.”

He showed the discrepancy to Krusche, wondering if his measurements were wrong. In fact, the laser scans that the team produced during a summer 2012 trip to Rome were more precise.

“The precision of our technology and the abilities and skills of our students allow for holistic understanding of monuments of the past,” Krusche says. “Mason, through his abilities as an architect and a researcher, broke a widely held perception and factually came to a different conclusion.”

This technology can be applied to any structure or statue, and closer to home, the DHARMA technology was recently used for scanning an iconic image that keeps watch over Notre Dame’s south quad: the famed statue of Notre Dame founder Rev. Edward Sorin, C.S.C.

An exhibition highlighting the DHARMA team’s discoveries will be on display at the Roman Forum from April through October 2014. “The Past and Present of the Roman Forum” will feature DHARMA-captured 3-D scans of the forum’s temples and shrines, in addition to students’ watercolors. The exhibition will include touch screens illustrating how the ancient sites have evolved over time.

Contact: Krupali Uplekar Krusche, 574-631-2314,

Originally published by Susan Guibert and Kara Kelly at on September 04, 2013.