When noted German archaeologist Kay Kohlmeyer ordered a 3D scan of the Temple of the Storm God in Aleppo's Citadel in 2009, which he spent over ten years uncovering, he did not imagine that one day it would become a battleground.
Even after the Arab Spring reached Egypt in 2011, Kohlmeyer and his colleagues had no way of expecting the battle to undermine Bashar al-Assad's regime that would endanger the Syrian cultural heritage.
Kohlmeyer 's 3D renderings of the temple's Bronze Age reliefs, depicting various religious scenes, remain some of the few examples of fully and properly scanned relic that could be preserved before the ongoing fighting blocked all access to Syria's historical treasures.
Kohlmeyer, a professor at Berlin's University of Applied Sciences (HTW), estimates that about 120-130 foreign initiatives, in addition to Syria's own Antiquities Service, are currently involved in the attempt to protect those sites – including the Citadel located directly on the border between regime- and rebel-controlled territories – but their possibilities are extremely limited.
“I admire their work, but what can they possibly do?” wondered Kohlmeyer, speaking with i24news. “They do some documentation, sometimes they place sandbags to protect important sites, but then the soldiers take them to protect themselves, leaving the relics uncovered.”
Foreign initiatives are mostly focused on digitalizing existing databases, training personnel for Syria's struggling cultural institutions, and drafting plans for the day after the fighting ceases, when the real work can begin.
But until then, as Islamic State jihadists are destroying any and all ancient religious site they encounter, and as private collectors try to acquire looted antiquities, the Syrian cultural heritage is in real danger of being wiped out, admits Kohlmeyer.
Some experts in the evolving field of virtual archaeology, believe that 3D imaging could be the answer to this problem. One initiative, “The Million Image Database Project” by Oxford's Institute of Digital Archaeology (IDA), hopes to hand out thousands of low-cost 3D cameras to volunteers from NGOs, museums, and government organizations across the Middle East, so they can take pictures of endangered relics.
Those images, says the institute – which works in collaboration with UNESCO and New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World – could later be used to create 3D renderings of those objects, through a technique called “Structure from Motion” photogrammetry.
The same method was also used by the IDA to create a replica of Palmyra’s Arch of Triumph, a 1,800-year-old Roman arch, which was destroyed by IS last year. The replica was unveiled in April in London's Trafalgar Square, before being installed last month at City Hall Park in New York.
Another replica of the arch went display in Rome’s Colosseum last week, alongside the human-headed winged bull of Nimrud, an Assyrian relic also destroyed by IS.
But Kohlmeyer is extremely critical of those initiatives. “For anyone who is familiar with the Palmyra arch, this so-called replica has nothing to do with the original. The general shape perhaps, but not the details. It's more of a Disney World display.”
Unlike with direct 3D scanning, which is performed on site, in photogrammetry there is much room for error, he explained, and relying on the photos of inexperienced amateurs could never produce a rendering accurate enough to later be used for research and reconstruction purposes.
“I doubt this is the right way, to be honest,” said the archeologist, referring to the IDA's plan to mass distribute cameras. “We also need to think about the fact that we are sending these people into a dangerous situation. Imagine there's a monument in IS territory and somebody comes with a camera – certainly he will be killed. Is it worth it, for an inaccurate result? I doubt it.”
It's simply too late to save Syria's antiquities, acknowledges also Kohlmeyer's partner of ten years, game design expert Thomas Bremer. “But we can learn from this situation. It should be the standard: If you find a site, scan it. If you have an important object, scan it. Especially in politically unstable countries, but not only there. Cultural objects can be destroyed in a museum fire, or they can be hit by a hurricane, but with a good scan you can at least preserve its memory.”
The two researchers hope to set an example with their model of the Storm God Temple, which is exact down to the millimeter. Besides using it for restoration (it includes, for example, a scan of parts of the Aleppo Citadel's outer walls, that were damaged in the fighting), in the future they intend to upload the rendering online to allow open access to it.
A more interactive experience would increase public awareness regarding threatened world heritage sites and for the importance of what might be lost, believes Kohlmeyer.
While a 3D image is no substitute for the original, stress the two experts, a precise rendering can also be used to create a museum display that would present the relic in its original environment or - in case of a fragment - in reconstructed form.
It would also allow to conduct further research without having to travel to the archaeological site or the object's location, and in the future, also work in collaboration with additional researchers in the same virtual space.
The potential of 3D scanning is slowly gaining recognition among scholars, in parallel to improvements being made in the field. Bremer's work to reduce the processing time of 3D scans, for example, is already allowing to perform in 15 minutes what was previously done in two days, thus cutting costs.
This is the future, he says. While the current attitudes towards this technology can be compared to how the internet was viewed in 1992, in the next 15 years these tools will be available to all.
Polina Garaev is i24news' correspondent in Germany.
3D imaging won't save Syrian cultural heritageÉcrit par Writing online
Publié dans: 17 octobre 2016
Making accurate renderings in retrospect is impossible, experts say, urging archeologists to learn the lesson
Publié dans culture
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