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Shattered Marble Map Mystifies Puzzlers

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« on: September 20, 2010, 07:12:29 am »

Shattered Marble Map Mystifies Puzzlers

    * By Mike Selinker Email Author
    * September 16, 2010  |
    * 7:50 pm

Think that 800-piece clown puzzle in your basement might be missing a few pieces? You’ve got nothing on this ancient mystery, as Jane Doh describes.

Ancient Roman Map Defies Puzzlers for Centuries, by Jane Doh

Drawing of the Forma Urbis pieces, from Wikimedia Commons

An unintentional jigsaw puzzle made of marble, over two millennia old, and missing most of its pieces has defied scholars and puzzle-solvers for centuries. Measuring 60 x 43 feet and carved in the 3rd century CE, the Severan Marble Plan of Rome captured the groundplan of Roman architecture in minute detail, even down to staircases, but only 10 to 15 percent of the intricately carved map has been found. Excavations for Rome’s new subway line this year may soon unearth further pieces to the puzzle, according to an article from Discovery News.

Roughly on a scale of 1:240, the Severan Marble Plan consisted of 150 slabs mounted on what was once the interior wall of the Temple of Peace (now the exterior wall of the Church of Saints Cosmas and Damian). During the Middle Ages, the Plan was slowly destroyed, parts of it ground up and repurposed into building materials, pieces broken and re-broken over centuries. Some pieces just fell to the base of the wall and were buried by time. The holes where the slabs were once anchored to the wall are still visible.

Ten years ago, the Stanford Digital Forma Urbis Romae Project, under the auspices of the Sovraintendenza ai Beni Culturali del Comune di Roma, started creating digital 3D scans and color photographs of the 1,186 surviving fragments and using shape-matching algorithms to try to fit together the pieces. The Project has released a publicly viewable database of the fragments, along with a custom application to view the 3D scans. The same laser rangefinder technology was used to scan Michelangelo’s David and is more regularly used by crime scene investigators to capture minute details to scale that the human eye might miss.

Far from a completely automated process, the human mind is still needed in the piece-matching process. According to Professor Marc Levoy of Stanford University, who had been profiled by Wired back in 1998, “The algorithms output many proposed matches, some less probable than others. The algorithms also don’t consider many kinds of evidence. For this, humans are needed.” This is why scans of the fragments are available to the public, to evaluate computer-assisted matches and to account for qualitative factors, such as literary and historical references or evidence gathered in the course of excavation.

The Stanford Digital Forma Urbis Romae Project is only the latest attempt to solve the Severan Marble Plan. Interest in the Plan has ebbed and flowed since the Renaissance, when scholars matched and identified approximately 250 pieces, relying on major landmarks like the Circus Maximus or the Colosseum as reference points. This pattern-matching continues to hold promise for fitting the fragments together, but the groundplan of Rome today is even further removed from the groundplan of Rome during the Renaissance, and there is no reference like the Plan itself. It’s like working on a jigsaw puzzle without having the box showing the finished product.

Fitting together the pieces by matching the shapes of the fragments is similarly problematic because the fragments themselves are far from “pristine.” In the early 17th century, a cache of fragments was discovered and used to build the “Secret Garden” of the prominent Farnese family. It isn’t until the early 20th century that over 450 fragments are recovered from the Secret Garden. Then, in the 18th century, pieces of the Plan were put on display at the Capitoline Museum, but in an attempt to make them fit into the wooden display frames, pieces were broken and edges sawn off. Models made from Renaissance drawings were also displayed alongside real fragments, adding to the confused provenance of the Severan Marble Plan.

Now imagine that, not only are most of the pieces missing, but someone has sawn off the edges of what pieces remain.

The excavations for Rome’s new C-line subway track, which runs directly through the most historical part of the city, are already underway. Unlike the previous subway construction projects, however, special care is being taken to preserve Rome’s heritage by tunneling far below the oldest layer of human habitation, as described in this video from the BBC News. Still, the subway stations to be built will puncture through the layers of history and possibly uncover further pieces of this monumental jigsaw puzzle.
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