More than words: a study on the visibility of hand gestures in public spaces

Case studies of Forum Romanum and Mayan Tikal




Forum Romanum, hand gestures, non-verbal communication, public gatherings, Pyramid no. 3 in Tikal, visibility analysis


Hand gestures play an important role in human communication. Although the study of their repertoires and roles for past communities is a popular field of research, there has been no attempt so far to study their visibility during public events. The aim of this study was to determine the maximum number of people who could see hand gestures well enough to understand their meaning. Using gestures taken from ancient Roman rhetorical treatises, which we divided into three classes related to the detail of the gestures (fingers, hand, arm, or arms), we conducted a series of experiments to determine the maximum distance from which each class of gestures could be seen. We used the results, including regression analysis, to conduct visibility analyses for two case studies: one on the rostra on the Late Republican Forum Romanum in Rome; and the other on Pyramid No 3 in the centre of Late-Classical Mayan Tikal. We used the calculation of the areas where gestures were visible to estimate crowd sizes by drawing on crowd behaviour observation during contemporary public gatherings. They show not only how many people could have potentially seen the gestures, but also what percentage of the theoretically available space could have been occupied by people who had the potential to see them. According to the findings, only a little under half (44.8%) of the maximum possible audience were able to detect all types of gestures (various levels of detail) at the LR Roman Forum, while at Pyramid No 3 in Tikal, just a mere 16.7% were able to do so. We believe that the results presented and the methodology used can be applied to analyse any public space, regardless of place and time, thus providing a valuable tool to comprehend past public assemblies.


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Author Biographies

Kamil Kopij, Jagiellonian University

Assistant Professor at the Chair of Classical Archaeology, Institute of Archaeology, Jagiellonian University. His interests revolve around the archaeology of ancient Rome, including issues related to propaganda and political image-making during the late Roman republic. He is also interested in using modern methods to study past public events and public spaces.

Kaja Głomb, Jagiellonian University

A doctoral student in social sciences, her research focuses on cognitive processes relating to witness testimony, including facial recognition and the role of witness emotions and characteristics in testimony. Additionally, she conducts research in methodology that includes testing new experimental methods, such as using VR to induce psychological states.

Szymon Popławski, Wrocław University of Science and Technology

An architect in addition to his design activities, specializing in the study of Greco-Roman Egypt. He is currently preparing a dissertation on ancient building techniques of the el-Alamein region. Part of his research is related to the reconstruction of ancient architecture in a virtual environment. In a published project, he was responsible for creating three-dimensional models of Roman contiones, which allowed further acoustic and proxemic analyses.


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How to Cite

Kopij, K., Głomb, K., & Popławski, S. (2023). More than words: a study on the visibility of hand gestures in public spaces: Case studies of Forum Romanum and Mayan Tikal. Virtual Archaeology Review, 14(29), 1–13.




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