Caught in the crossfire of war and extremism, many of the world’s ancient monuments, particularly in Iraq and Syria, are being destroyed. But one California-based non-profit is on a mission to digitally preserve as many of these sites as possible in the coming year.
“We’ve seen a real increase in the … intentional destruction of cultural heritage in the Middle East,” said Elizabeth Lee, Vice President of CyArk, a group that uses new technology to create a free, online 3-D library of endangered cultural heritage sites.
Alarmed by the level of damage being inflicted on heritage sites, Lee said CyArk is working “as quickly as possible” to digitally render and preserve as many at-risk sites as possible.
The push is part of CyArk’s Project Anqa, launched in mid-2015 in collaboration with the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). In Arabic, the word Anqa means phoenix – a reference to the legendary bird that is reborn out of its own ashes. The initiative seeks to deploy international and local professionals to document endangered sites in 3-D before they are destroyed or altered.
CyArk has already finished the first project – the Great Ziggurat of Ur, in southern Iraq. One of the largest and best-preserved ziggurats of ancient Mesopotamia, the Ur ziggurat was built around 2100 BC by King Ur-Nammu in honor of the god Sin.
But completing the full Anqa project could take up to 18 months.
“What we’re doing in the first phase of the project is specifically looking at Syria and Iraq and targeting about a dozen sites that are at high-risk but are still accessible,” said Lee in an interview. “And then in the second phase, the project will be expanding to other countries in the region and seeking to do about 200 sites.”
Some heritage sites are inaccessible, particularly in conflict zones. But barring security concerns, CyArk hopes to focus efforts on highly-endangered sites and complete about 20 or 30 of them in the coming year as it moves into the second phase of the Anqa project.
The initiative goes hand in hand with the CyArk 500 challenge, which aims to accelerate the digital capture of 500 sites within five years. Twenty percent of the targeted sites have already been completed, including Somaliland’s Laas Geel, which means “The Camel’s Well.”
The 3-D model below shows rock art at Laas Geel’s shelters. The shelters, made of naturally occurring rock formations, feature some of the best preserved rock paintings in Africa
So how does this work?
CyArk’s digital recording consists of three phases. The first involves establishing a “point cloud” where 3-D scanners bounce laser light off a surface to measure millions of points per second and create a data set.
In the second stage, the data points are joined together to create small triangles, which in turn form a wireframe. They are then used to form a solid surface which generates a 3-D model similar to the one shown in the Laas Geel animation above.
Finally, the 3-D model is colored with photographs taken from the structure. It is then available for study or conservation.
“The data that we collect is highly-accurate,” said Lee. “So rather than just simply [take] a photograph of the site, with the information that we collect, you’re able to extract blueprints – information that can be used to help in the reconstruction or restoration of monuments.”
The digital records, backed up and secured offline in a Pennsylvania bunker, will give future generations access to these monuments should anything happen to them. They can also be used for virtual reality applications and other immersive technologies, although, as Lee put it, “there is no substitute for being able to visit these sites in person.”
“When we think about the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, all we have are artists’ illustrations of what those sites might have looked like – you know, the Colossus of Rhodes and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon,” she mused. “Wouldn’t be fantastic if we could – even if it’s just virtually … experience those places the way that they were? And that’s what this technology allows us to do.”