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Saving world heritage sites through digital preservation
15 February 2017
By Megha Merani
When Islamic State posted a video showing its militants blowing up Iraq’s 3,000-year-old Babylonian temple of Nabu last June, the United Nations’ cultural agency called the destruction an “attack on the world’s shared heritage”.
Had the monument been scanned three-dimensionally and digitally preserved while still standing, it could have been precisely rebuilt, according to Callan Carpenter, a vice president at California’s Autodesk, which offers 3D design and engineering software.
“It’s like preserving DNA and then you could reproduce that at some point - this is like cultural DNA,” Carpenter told Zawya Projects.
Autodesk says its software makes renovation, construction verification and complex modelling projects more efficient.
At Italy’s ancient city of Volterra, a team of architects, engineers, historians and students used innovative technologies including drones, photogrammetry and laser scanning reality capture techniques, together with Autodesk ReCap 360 software, to digitally record key historical and archaeological sites last year.
Such technology would be useful in the Arab world where, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 21 out of 55 world heritage sites are in danger.
“Never in recent times has heritage suffered such massive destruction as in the Arab region, notably in sites such as Nimrud in Iraq, Palmyra and Aleppo in Syria,” UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova told Zawya Projects in an emailed statement.
“This heritage is much more than a vestige of the past, it bears cultural values and resources that are essential to people’s social cohesion, resilience and self-confidence.”
Saving cultural DNA
Natural disasters, deterioration, conflict or deliberate destruction threaten centuries, even millennia, of world heritage.
For example, Iran’s ancient Citadel, or Arg-e Bam, used most extensively during the dynastic disputes of the 18th and 19th centuries and once one of the world's largest mud-brick complexes, was added to the list of World Heritage in Danger after a devastating earthquake in 2003.
Various technologies, such as photographic, laser or sonar scanning, can be used to 3D scan and preserve historical sites and structures, Autodesk’s Carpenter said.
It could even be deployed to record districts of a city, he added.
“I think it is another way of preserving your heritage,” said Carpenter. “It’s a way of ensuring that these important sites, and this important part of the history and culture of the people, no matter what happens in the short run, war and disaster and all the terrible things, it will always be there and maybe someday can be recreated.”
A laser scanner sends out a single beam of light and measures point-by-point a structure or site, Carpenter explained. The record of 3D data is stored in the form of point clouds that can be processed to create accurate 3D models of the structure.
“Think of it as pixel by pixel... we are literally gathering millions or billions of light returns off an object,” he said.
Autodesk says its 3D-textured mesh models can serve as a contextual model in city planning, such as for future restoration, new and retrofit projects, virtual tours for public relations purposes, tourism, as well as historical documentation and research.
Autodesk completed a project last year to reality capture the USS Pampanito, a United States (US) Navy submarine that completed six World War II patrols in the Pacific Ocean, sinking six enemy ships.
The Smithsonian Institute in the United States has 3D captured its collection including a high-resolution 3D scan of the ‘Columbia’, the spacecraft that carried astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin and Michael Collins to the moon.
Need to build awareness
Carpenter said he was not aware of any efforts to scan the Middle East’s historical sites, but that it may be due to lack of awareness of the technology.
“It’s certainly is something worth highlighting because there’s 15,000 years of history in this peninsula that we ought to be thinking about and preserving,” he said, adding the region’s rich heritage provided an opportunity to use the technology for preservation and also to inspire future designers.
“It’s much easier when you have an actual model that you can work on rather than building things from scratch.”
Carpenter said there were so many sites in the Middle East that should have been, or could still be, 3D-scanned.
“The Pyramids, Petra,…..… this is the cradle of civilization. Everywhere you look there’s something worth preserving and worth scanning,” he said.
UNESCO’s Bokova said the organization was doing everything it could to safeguard and share the region’s heritage, documenting damage and fighting against illicit trafficking of cultural artefacts.
© Zawya Projects News 2017