In Brief

New Digital Archaeology Effort Attempts to Capture Cultural Heritage Before It’s Gone

A photo republished by the AP shows ISIS destroying a tomb at the ancient site of Palmyra.
A photo republished by the AP shows ISIS destroying a tomb at the ancient site of Palmyra.

As ISIS and other groups continue to destroy important heritage sites and ancient artifacts, archaeologists and other onlookers continue to scramble to find ways to counter the destruction. The latest effort comes from an organization called the Institute for Digital Archaeology, which will distribute some 10,000 3D cameras in West Asia over the next year, in the hopes of documenting archaeological sites and objects before they’re gone, the Daily Beast reports.

“Digital archaeology, in my view, is the best hope that we have for preserving the architecture, the art history of these sites,” Roger Michel, the executive director of the institute, told BBC Radio. “It provides an opportunity not only to record this for posterity, for scholars to be able to crowdsource interpretative information about the data that we collect. It provides a deterrent for folks who might have in mind pilfering … the objects from these sites and selling them on the black market, by documenting the location of these objects and establishing a clear and permanent provenance for [them].”

The institute is a collaboration between Oxford and Harvard Universities, and its 3D photography venture, estimated at $2.3 million and officially titled the Million Image Database Project, has been five years in the making — although efforts are now being expedited as more and more ancient sites, particularly in Syria and Iraq, are facing high risk from ISIS’s destructive forces. “All of us realize this is a race against time,” Michel told the BBC. “We’ve completely changed the timetable for our project over the course of the last six months.”

The project description on the institute’s website explains:

We have created a heavily modified version of an inexpensive consumer 3D camera that will permit inexperienced users to capture archival-quality scans. The camera has the facility to upload these images automatically to database servers where they can be used for study or, if required, 3D replication. … Each camera contains an automated tutorial package that will help field users – local museum affiliates, imbedded military, NGO employees and volunteers – both to identify appropriate subject matters and to capture useable images. … All of the associated technology and software will be open-source to facilitate that goal.

The Daily Beast adds that UNESCO, NGOs, and local officials will help hand out the cameras, which cost around $30 each, and that programs at New York University and MIT have also been enlisted in the effort, the former for storing photographs in an open-source database, the latter for printing out scaleable 3D models of the ancient artifacts and sites.

The institute bills the project as “the first of its kind in both purpose and scale,” but it does follow other efforts aimed at preserving cultural patrimony. A host of Afghani scholars and experts have been wondering what to do about the Buddhas of Bamiyan, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, for over a decade; the question was revived this summer when a Chinese couple projected images of the towering sculptures in their original location in 3D. In the wake of ISIS’s trashing of the Mosul Museum in February, artist Morehshin Allahyari began modeling and 3D printing objects that were shattered or stolen by the extremist group — an effort that aligns with the work of Project Mosul, a volunteer group dedicated to creating digital 3D models of “recently destroyed cultural heritage in Iraq” that are housed in a gallery online.

While these projects arrive after the decimation, what the Institute for Digital Archaeology hopes to do is capture images of these precious objects and sites in 3D ahead of time, so that studying, modeling, and/or re-creating them accurately will be possible even if ISIS does get a hold of them. (In that it shares a kinship with Arches, a newly launched, open-source heritage inventory system.)

In a way, it’s a deeply pessimistic approach to the crisis, but also an honest and practical one. As Christopher Jones wrote in a piece for Hyperallergic earlier this year:

By erasing all evidence of both the pre-Islamic past and alternative interpretations of Islam, ISIS hopes to create a world where knowledge of any belief system except their own interpretation of Islam is forgotten forever.

As a result, the work of documenting what is lost takes on even more importance. Not only is it vital for future scholarship, it serves to remind the world of the existence of all that ISIS seeks to destroy.

The Million Image Database Project extends that vital work of documentation beyond what’s lost already to what might very well be.

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