The bombing of Palmyra's archaeological site in Syria has been massively spread on social media. Sadely, it's not an isolated example. The archaeological heritage of the Middle East and North Africa, which is of international significance for all periods, is under increasing threat. Several projects, from England, Italy, Cyprus aim to preserve and study these treasures before they totally disapear.
Among others, Oxford and Leicester universities will record endangered sites. The University of Bologna is reopening perspectives on an ancient urban landscape. Cyprus University of Technology coordinated a project to rebuild in 3D precious artefacts from the Mosul Museum in Iraq.
Mapping race of the most sensitive archaeological sites
The Geospatial Technologies Project is an initiative of the Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), uses geographic technologies such as remote sensing, geographic information systems (GIS), global positioning systems (GPS), and volunteered geographic information (VGI) to advance research and documentation capabilities across the fields of human rights, humanitarian response, cultural heritage, environmental justice, and human security.
Before it’s too late, the least that can be done thanks to new technologies is to record and map ancient sites in the Middle East before they are destroyed by warfare, looting and urban expansion. EAMENA (Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa), launched by researchers at Oxford and Leicester universities (funded by the Arcadia Fund), will record the archaeological heritage of sites across the Middle East and North Africa using satellite and aerial photography.
The team will record and monitor the sites using tools such as Google Earth to record the remains, which includes tombs, settlements, forts, towns, cities and farming systems going back thousands of years.
Persepolis is a Unesco World Heritage Site in Iran; the city was built by King Darius I (520–486 BC). As a result of modern-day human pressure and intensive cultivation, what landscape does remain of the Achaemenid period is disappearing over time. Remnants of ancient settlements are hard to locate. Thus, the only way do to so while still preserving the ancient remains is to embark on studies that combine archaeological survey methods.
That was precisely the aim of the EU-funded ‘Settlement and landscape organisation of the Persepolis region’ (SELOPERSE) project, as well as to define the layout of what appears to be an uncommon loose and very open scheme of the ancient city. A joint Iranian–Italian expedition was formed to carry out the work. Intensive survey methods such as field walking and geophysical surveys as well as excavations in certain areas were used to prove the hypothesis on the ancient urban landscape.
One of the main results was uncovering sections of a monument from the early Achaemenid period, which helped provide details on the city’s development. Farther our works allow us to suggest an extent of the Persepolis Royal Precinct thanks to the discovery of a new monumental complex. Furthermore, surveys on the foothills of the area revealed quarry remains. These provide evidence for outlining the limit between the city and its territory.
Fieldwork also allowed for a way to test new methods for surveying landscaped areas by developing adaptations of field strategies using prototype instruments. For example, focusing on the magnetic properties of soil provides a way to trace ancient human activity. Researchers investigated many dozens of hectares via large-scale sampling. The maps obtained reveal a part of the mosaic of interwoven built and unbuilt areas that shape Persepolis city.
With the project findings, new directions in research have emerged that can be useful for planning international programmes on the Achaemenid settlement system over the entire ancient Near East.
Destroyed Mosul artefacts to be rebuilt in 3D
It didn’t take long for the scientific community to react. Two weeks after the sacking of the Mosul Museum by a group of ISIS extremists went viral on Youtube, researchers launched Project Mosul to virtually restore damaged artefacts and make them accessible from virtual museums.
‘We assume that much of the museum’s contents were looted, and anything small enough to be easily removed will be appearing soon on the antiquities market. Anything too large to remove for sale, appears to have met a violent end at the hand of ISIS extremists. In both cases, it is possible to virtually recreate the lost items through the application of photogrammetry and crowdsourcing. Given enough photographs, digital or scans of analogues, it is possible to reconstruct the artefacts and create digital surrogates of those artefacts. This provides two immediate benefits: helping to identify looted items and recreating destroyed items.’ the project website reads.
The result of this virtualisation process is already showcased on the project website, where 3D models of artefacts such as the Lion of Mosul are made available. With only a dozen of pictures taken from different angles, the team is able to create a faithful copy of the original artefact.
Gathering these pictures, however, will not exactly be a walk in the park. The Mosul Museum is closed since the outbreak of the Iraq war in 2003, which means relevant images can prove very difficult to find. Pictures of the destroyed museum objects, including Assyrian and Hatrene artefacts, will be retrieved from Open Access repositories of Flickr and Picasa, the EU digital library Europeana and anyone else willing to contribute images of his/her own. The team is also calling on volunteers to help them to sort and tag pictures, process them, take care of coding, etc.
Project Mosul is coordinated by Matthew Vincent and Chance Coughenour, who are also members of the ITN-DCH (Initial Training Network for Digital Cultural Heritage: Projecting our Past to the Future) project.
ITN-DCH’s ultimate goal is to boost the added value of cultural heritage assets by re-using them in real application environments such as the protection of cultural heritage, education, tourism industry, advertising, fashion, films, music, publishing, video games and TV. If successful, Project Mosul, will be a case in point for such novel applications.