A team of digital surveyors is working to create the world’s largest 3D database of archaeological sites in Syria, focusing on those at risk of destruction. Last week, French 3D digitization agency Iconem launched Syrian Heritage, a project organized with the Syrian Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) to preserve a patrimony increasingly threatened by warfare and violence, namely at the hands of ISIS. The team specializes in digitizing cultural heritage and has previously focused on regions in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti, Italy, and elsewhere.
Three sites in the war-torn country are currently accessible on Syrian Heritage: the 8th century Umayyad Mosque, also known as the Great Mosque of Damascus; Ugarit, an ancient port site; and the Roman-era Jabley amphitheater. Each has its own page, which offers a brief history of the site; videos showing high-resolution, digitally reconstructed views; and elevation plans. Three-dimensional models published on SketchFab also allow you to interact with select sections of each site by zooming in to examine incredibly precise details. Each piece of the intricate mosaics on the Great Mosque’s Pavilion of the Treasury, for instance, is captured. Many of these visuals, however, are unfortunately not captioned, which does remove context necessary to understanding these sites. Still, the project is an important preventative measure, as the countless attacks and acts of cultural destruction in the past year alone have proven.
“The unquestionable strength of digital archaeology is its capability to save a site’s knowledge and memory,” Iconem co-founder Yves Ubelmann told Hyperallergic. “This makes it an invaluable tool for researchers, historians, and archeologists, and — beyond them — the general public. It is also a great way to make sure that their memory will be passed on to future generations.”
Iconem — comprised of architects, engineers, and graphic designers — started working with DGAM in 2014. A small team visited Damascus last December, where members trained local archaeologists on their field survey techniques to help them collect visuals for the database. The typical information-gathering process involves conducting relatively fast photographic surveys of the area of focus with a drone then using photogrammetry to process and stitch together the stream of photographs and reconstruct 3D versions.
“When the conflict in Syria started, foreign archaeological missions had to leave the country, and I was really sad to see Syrian archaeologists find themselves on their own, with very limited resources, to try protecting priceless heritage sites from destructions,” Ubelmann said. “It was only natural for us to make this technology freely available to Syrian archaeologists.”
New sites will be uploaded to Syrian Heritage about every two weeks until late May, and the entire collection will cover all major periods of the country’s history. Among those to be featured are the old Damascene houses and the Azem Palace from the Ottoman period, and the medieval Citadel of Damascus. Iconem is also working to digitally capture sections of the National Museum of Latakia, in addition to the collections of several major museums around the country. As events of the last five years show, these institutions are far from safe from human devastation.
Iconem is not alone in its mission; digital archaeology is a field that is expanding and developing rapidly, especially as technologies advance. Many other organizations are also working to digitally capture and reconstruct objects and places under threat, whether from conflict or from natural elements. The Million Image Database operates similarly, distributing cameras to participants in areas around the world to document still-standing archaeological sites and objects. Ubelmann notes, however, that “the results are often better when the field shooting is done by a small number of very well trained and very well equipped professionals, rather than by a large number of contributors, who may not have the same level of equipment and expertise.” The nonprofit CyArk is also building a library of 3D versions of international heritage sites, and has challenged itself to digitally preserve 500 locales within the next five years. Syria has already lost many of its treasures, from the Temple of Bel to the Mar Elian monastery; no measures may fully guarantee saving more from destruction, but efforts such as Syrian Heritage are taking significant steps to ensure that irreplaceable structures and objects will endure elsewhere.