Paul Reilly and the origins of 3D Reconstruction

Archaeology is all about looking at the past to understand the present, and in a similar guise to fully understand the basics of modern theory we have to delve into its origins. For this purpose, today I would like to take you back to 1989, when computer Visualisation was in its infancy.

The paper “Data Visualisation in Archaeology” by Paul Reilly (1989), and the later book “Archaeology and the Information Age” by Reilly and Rahtz (1992), were a crucial stepping stone for popularising 3D Reconstruction and introducing the theoretical background that is still important today.

3D Reconstruction saw its first applications in archaeology as early as 1985, when Woodward created a model of Roman Bath and of Caerleon, adapting software originally designed for industrial engineering (Smith 1985; Delooze and Wood 1991; Palamidese et al. 1993). Between then and 1989, a number of models had been created. Yet, the theoretical background was quite sterile, partly due to a division of roles between the researcher (archaeologist) and the modeller (computer designer).

Reilly’s paper “Data Visualisation in Archaeology” (1989) starts with a common problem in archaeology: the abundance of data. Due to the destructive nature of the excavation methodologies archaeologists resort to extensive recording of contexts, generating vast quantities of information in the process. Reilly demonstrates through examples what it it possible to achieve with this data. Apart from distribution maps which are more GIS territory, he uses examples of WINSOM models to demonstrate the potential for presentation of 3D modelling. More importantly, he argues that

“[Modelling] allows the researcher to demonstrate in strong visual terms how the interpretation relates directly to the collected data. […] it stimulates the researcher to look for further information. This may involve the application of extra analytical experiments on the existing data, or it may require the formulation of a completely new research design to answer the outstanding questions. – Reilly (1989) pp.577”


“[…] reconstructions require the modeller to define explicitly each and every element in the model and their spatial relationship to one another. The definition of the model forces the researchers to reconsider the original data, which can focus attention on problem areas and gaps, thus causing them to observe, or record differently, certain types of evidence in a future investigation. – Reilly (1989) pp.578“

These ideas are found again in a section Reilly contributed to Burridge et al. (1989), in which he argues that 3D Modelling can bring to light discrepancies in the original data.

Following “Data Visualisation in Archaeology”, Reilly published a series of articles that helped solidify his theories. Reilly and Shennan (1989) look at presentation, arguing that 3D navigation can help understand archaeological contexts by displaying large quantities of data in a small amount of time. “Towards a Virtual Archaeology” (1990) provides an overview of examples in 3D Reconstruction, and demonstrates the use in recreating monuments. It also outlines how this software could be applied to the teaching of archaeological excavation. In his 1991 contribution to Computing in Archaeology, he emphasises the importance for analysis and presenting, while also recognising that realistic models may lead to the assumption of “absolute truth”. Many of the concepts here expressed are still exceptionally relevant to modern theory, and have been debated by scholars for the three decades following Reilly’s publications.

His most important contribution is however “Archaeology and the Information Age”, edited with Rhatz (1992). This collection of truly fascinating articles are the founding stone for all future 3D Reconstruction, as well as other fields of digital media in archaeology. “Archaeology and the Information Age” explores the use of 3D for interpretation, arguing that pretty pictures should not be the main goal.  Through various examples, Reilly demonstrates the potential of 3D modelling for analysis, citing the reconstructions of Sulis Minervae, Bath and many others. Other authors in the book discuss issues of accuracy, simulation and subjectivity (I particularly enjoyed Molyneaux 1992).

Throughout the 1990s Visualisation saw an exceptional rise in popularity and the theoretical background developed in these years is still applicable today. Yet it all started with a handful of researchers, of which Reilly was the forefront (with the help of Shennan and Rahtz). If you are just starting to get into Visualisation, reading some of his works is a great place to start.



Burridge, J. M., Collins, B. M., Galton, B. N., Halbert, A. R., Heywood, T. R., Latham, W. H., Phippen, R. W., Quarendon, P., Reilly, P., Ricketts, M.V., Simmons, J., Todd, S. J. P., Walter, A. G. N. and Woodwark, J. R. (1989). The WINSOM solid modeller and its application to data visualisation. IBM Systems Journal pp.548-568.
Delooze, K. and Wood, J. (1991). Furness Abbey Survey Project – The Application of Computer Graphics and Data Visualisation to Reconstruction Modelling of an Historic Monument. Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology pp.140-148.
Molyneaux, B. (1992). From virtual to actuality: the archaeological site simulation environment. In: Reilly, P. and Rahtz, S. Archaeology in the Information Age pp.192-198.
Palamidese, P., Betro, M. and Muccioli, G. (1993). The Virtual Restoration of the Visir Tomb. Visualisation pp.420-424.
Reilly, P. (1989). Data visualisation in archaeology. IBM Systems Journal 28(4) pp.569-579.
Reilly, P. (1990). Towards a virtual archaeology. In: Lockyear, K. and Rahtz, S. Computer Applications in Archaeology pp.133-139.
Reilly, P. and Rahtz, S. (1992). Archaeology in the Information Age. Routledge: London.
Reilly, P. and Shennan, S. (1989). Applying Solid Modelling and Animated Three-Dimensional Graphics. Surface And Solid Modelling and Image Enhancement pp.157-165.
Smith, I. (1985). Sid and Dora’s bath show pulls in the crowd. Computing pp.7-8.



3 thoughts on “Paul Reilly and the origins of 3D Reconstruction

    1. Dear Paul,

      Thanks for the response!

      The articles you have sent me are very interesting, and I really enjoyed reading them. I’m currently trying to approach the subject chronologically and I find it fascinating to see how ideas have changed and developed.

      I look forward to reading more soon and hopefully we will meet at some conference in the future. Do let me know if you are ever near Belfast.

      Thanks again and kind regards,

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