Stepping into the Past: Exploring the Ancient Synagogue of Bet Alpha in Real-Time 3D

Recent interest in digital humanities has given rise to research methods that allow for immersive, pluralistic explorations into the past. This paper presents a 3D, navigable model of the ancient synagogue of Bet Alpha to demonstrate the benefit 3D modeling offers archaeologists in conceiving of how ancient peoples experienced their art and their architecture. The Bet Alpha model, in this paper, will be used to explore synagogue-seating capacity, the archaeoastronomy of synagogue art and architecture, and the visual-effect of dynamic lighting upon the building’s mosaic floor. In addition to the exploration of research questions, 3D modeling also proves useful pedagogically. With the use of a simple, affordable virtual-reality viewer, such as Google Cardboard, an instructor can take his or her students on a first-person journey through antiquity. This paper and presentation will display the value of 3D modeling on the aforementioned areas of synagogue research as well as the pedagogical benefits of modeling and exploring ancient environments with students in virtual reality. Concerning methodology, the Bet Alpha model was produced using a combination of drafting software (AutoCAD), 3D modeling software (3DS Max and Blender), structure-from-motion software (PhotoScan) and video-game editing software (Unity3D). The final model of the synagogue was then exported and loaded onto two platforms: first, it was loaded onto a web-server so that it could be accessed and explored via a first-person playable character by anyone with an active internet connection; and second it was loaded onto the website SketchFab, which allows anyone with a virtual-reality viewer to explore the model in 360 degrees. By the time of the SBL annual meeting, an updated version of the Bet Alpha model will be presented in relation to the questions posed above with a focus on methodology of digital production and the pedagogical usefulness of modeling ancient art and architecture. The final model (currently a draft) will be viewable online at and also viewable via the Oculus Rift, one of the newest 3D headsets currently on the market.