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Google Unveils Incredibly Detailed 3D Models of At-Risk Heritage Sites

“Open Heritage” features digitized, 3D models of over 25 locations from around the world, signaling the start of a major chapter for the field of digital archaeology.

Various reconstructions of Eim Ya Kyaung in Bagan, Myanmar (all images courtesy Google Arts & Culture)

Over the last seven years, Google’s Arts & Culture platform has offered web users a growing library of digitized artworks, photographed with unparalleled, high-resolution. While it has long partnered with museums to make these images accessible, the tech company has now begun a more ambitious project, collaborating with digital archaeologists to spotlight heritage sites threatened by natural disasters, war, tourism, or urbanization.

Its latest online collection, “Open Heritage,” features digitized, 3D models of over 25 locations from around the world, from the ancient Mayan metropolis of Chichen Itza in Mexico to the protected Watangi Treaty Grounds in New Zealand. Each was created by CyArk, a nonprofit that has been engineering incredibly detailed 3D versions of heritage sites since 2003 with the intention of archiving and freely sharing the results with the public.

CyArk’s 3D model of Rock Art in Somaliland

While CyArk’s own website presents many of these models, it does not have the resources to publish all of its data, although people could request files through somewhat troublesome processes. It has also held the copyright for its digital models until now; on Google Art & Culture, they are available under a CC license.

“Open access has always been a part of CyArk’s mission, but over the years it has been a challenge to actually provide access to the data due to the challenges of hosting large data sets and also how to make it available in formats that could be easily used,” a CyArk representative told Hyperallergic. “[Google’s platform] allows us to serve a much broader audience than we could serve using the single site-by-site request and provide access that we had done in the past, usually through an FTP or mailing hard drives.” The advancements in software, she added, also make it easier for people to download and remix the data.

The partnership signals the start of a major chapter for the field of digital archaeology, which has been growing rapidly in the last decade, but has, for the most part, remained a relatively cozy community shaped by archaeologists, scholars, and 3D scanning enthusiasts. Google’s involvement thrusts these files into a global spotlight, inviting anyone with internet access to examine the painted fauna on cave ceilings in Somaliland, or even virtually enter the Ananda Ok Kyaung temple in Bagan, Myanmar. Placed beside the museum collections on Arts & Culture, Open Heritage also argues that these sites, like priceless and carefully guarded paintings and sculptures, deserve the world’s attention.

3D point cloud of TeotihuacĂĄn in Mexico

Making available these technically astounding models to raise awareness of at-risk sites is a noble idea, but some scholars are hesitant to praise this mission. Archaeologist (and Hyperallergic contributor) Michael Press expressed concerns about how the project is packaged, particularly about the language used in promotional material that purports to speak for a universal experience.

“The need to preserve as much as we can of the past and the very idea of shared or global or universal heritage are not universal, but recent developments in the West in particular,” Press told Hyperallergic. “Projects like this may seem innocent, but I don’t think we think nearly carefully enough about the implications.”

A press release I received exemplified this thoughtless marketing with its subject line: “Google teams up to preserve the world’s ancient sites (think Indiana Jones!).” Lest we forget, the fictional professor was not the most ethical man; on the contrary, he was a looter, less concerned with preserving locations he visited than raiding them for their treasures.

CyArk’s 3D model of ChichĂ©n ItzĂĄ in Mexico
CyArk’s 3D model of Ayutthaya in Thailand

For art crime specialist Erin Thompson, Open Heritage raises the question of what these digital models leave out. From an architectural perspective, they are packed with an impressive amount of information. A temple in Bagan, for instance, is reconstructed as it appears before and after a 2016 earthqake damaged the 13th-century structure. A detailed, 3D point cloud scan of El Castillo at Chichen Itza illustrates the millimeter precision of the laser technology (LiDAR) CyArk used to scan the site. Yet, the structures leave out the people who once passed through them, and this absence, for Thompson, erases histories vital to our understanding of these sites.

“There’s no hint of human presence — no reminder that people live near them, care about them, and have different interpretations of them than American viewers might,” Thompson told Hyperallergic.

Process of 3D scanning in TeotihuacĂĄn

CyArk wants people to learn about sites they may not know much about, but it also uses the data it captures to support on-site conservation efforts. Many of its projects begin because a local group needs help recording a structure, its spokesperson said, and CyArk will provide them with all data at no cost, with the help of third-party sponsors. After the earthquake shook Myanmar in 2016, its team visited Bagan at the request of UNESCO and the Myanmar Department of Archaeology to document the damage. This information was then used to assist stabilization and restoration efforts.

CyArk’s spokesperson also clarified that Google did not pay CyArk to provide the data sets on Open Heritage, although Google provided financial support as part of the team’s relief effort at Bagan. In addition, the company supported hosting costs “associated with making our datasets downloadable through the platform we created,” the spokesperson said.

In its current form, Open Heritage only presents a fraction of the models CyArk has created. (While Google claims the group represents the largest 3D collection of heritage data, Sketchfab actually has a far greater gathering of similar models.) The nonprofit is planning to add more sites overtime, with a goal to publish nine more in a second stage.

CyArk’s 3D model of the Brandenburg Gate
CyArk’s 3D model of the Waitangi Treaty Grounds
CyArk’s 3D model of Waitangi War Canoe
CyArk’s 3D model of the Temple of Echmoun in Lebanon
Reconstruction of Eim Ya Kyaung in Bagan, Myanmar
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