Monuments that stand as physical reminders of the ancient world and give insights into how our ancestors lived are being destroyed.
In 2015, militant group ISIS reduced some of the oldest and most treasured world heritage sites to rubble. The al-Lat Lion, which stood in the Syrian city of Palmyra for around 2,000 years, was demolished. ISIS also destroyed the Temple of Bel in the city, and was responsible for the destruction of several other landmarks.
But it’s not just human conflict that’s responsible for the damage caused to the world’s heritage sites. In April 2015, a major earthquake in Nepal killed more than 8,000 people and wiped out many of the nation’s cultural landmarks.
Recreating fallen landmarks in 3D
In response to such devastation, Iraqi national Ben Kacyra founded not-for-profit organization CyArk to ensure world heritage sites would exist for future generations.
CyArk uses a range of imaging techniques – from photogrammetry to airborne laser scanning (LiDAR) – to create 3D models of landmarks that are thousands of years old.
3D image of the Thai city of Ayutthaya
According to CyArk, the models are created by bouncing laser light off the surfaces of the monuments. As this happens, 3D scanners measure and record millions of points a second. These digital scans are accurate to within a few millimeters. They are used to create a detailed 3D data set of the structure.
Now, CyArk has teamed up with Google Arts and Culture to launch the Open Heritage project. The aim is to bring to a broader audience one of the most detailed 3D digital archives of the world’s archaeological wonders.
Images can be accessed in virtual reality
In a blog post about the partnership, CyArk CEO and chairman John Ristevski said: “Today we are releasing an initial set of projects that have been curated for launch and we are committed to adding as many sites as possible from our library over time as well as new sites as they are captured.”
Academics and anyone with an interest in the project can access the data, which can also be fully explored through a virtual reality headset, according to Wired.
Speaking in Wired, Ristevski said: “The mystery of what utility people might find in the data is part of the excitement. Some of the exciting frontiers are in virtual reality and augmented reality and we are excited to see what type of experiences people can build around heritage data – from immersive virtual tours to overlaying rich contextual information while you are on site – they all start with an accurate map of what is there.”
Syrian soldiers on the ruins of the Temple of Bel
Wired added that the data could also be put to use in further modelling and to assist in the reconstruction of damaged heritage sites.
3D-printing the past
CyArk and Google are not alone in their quest to preserve the past.
The Institute for Digital Archaeology (IDA) is also championing the virtual reconstruction of some of the world’s damaged and destroyed landmarks. It partners with organizations around the world to map, model and 3D-print statues, monuments and temples.
Alongside the al-Lat Lion and the Temple of Bel, ISIS also destroyed the Arch of Triumph in Palmyra. Following this in 2016, a replica of the monument was unveiled in London.
The two-thirds scale model, made from Egyptian marble, was created by the IDA using 3D-printing technology.
A replica of the destroyed Arch of Triumph
The IDA is collaborating with UNESCO, engineers at the University of Oxford, the government of the United Arab Emirates, and various academic partners, to create the Million Image Database, a project designed to capture 3D images of threatened objects.
The project provides local volunteers with 3D cameras. They then scour cities and heritage sites, particularly around conflict zones throughout the Middle East and Africa, to document landmarks in case they are destroyed.
In a post on the IDA website, the organization’s executive director Roger Michel says: “While recreated objects certainly need to be high quality – and ours are – they must also incorporate the efforts and aspirations of the people for whom they hold significance.
“In the end, local stakeholders must stand behind and participate in reconstructions for a finished object to be anything more than a cold piece of stone – no matter how much technology they embed.”