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Under-threat ancient sites scanned for virtual reality experience

Under-threat ancient sites scanned for virtual reality experience

April 16
21:05 2018

Ancient historical sites that are threatened by natural disaster or conflict can be explored online under a new initiative harnessing the latest laser scanning equipment and virtual reality technology.

Aztec temples in Chichen Itza, cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde and rock art sites in Somaliland are among 27 sites that can be seen from today as the result of a partnership between Google Arts & Culture, the London cultural arm of the search group, and CyArk, a US not-for-profit group specialising in capturing archaeological data.

Ben Kacyra, an expert in 3D laser scanning technology, was prompted to set up CyArk after seeing footage of the Taliban destroying the 1,500-year-old Bamiyan Buddhist statues in Afghanistan. The organisation aims to record sites threatened by conflict, natural disasters, pollution or human development and has documented hundreds of locations since its foundation in 2003.

Google has taken CyArk’s data, gathered by handheld or tripod-mounted laser scanner or drones, and presented it in a three-dimensional format alongside commentary from historians and links to explanatory articles and commissioned videos.

CyArk gathers data through handheld laser scanners and drones

The project selected one site — an ancient Buddhist temple complex in Bagan — as the subject of an experiment designed to test the limits of what could be done with 3D data on computers, mobile phones and virtual reality headsets.

CyArk had visited the temple complex before a devastating earthquake in 2016. Returning after the disaster, it was able to show the precise extent of the damage sustained to the buildings, constructed between the ninth and 13th centuries on the banks of the Irrawaddy river.

Online users of the Bagan project can control their path on-screen or wearing virtual reality headsets to “travel” through the building and zoom in on its colourful murals and architectural elements.

A scan of the Al Azem Palce in Damascus © CyArk

Chance Coughenour, programme manager at Google Arts & Culture, said: “No one can physically enter this building right now because it’s at risk of collapse.”

Researchers have also captured images of the Al Azem Palace in Damascus, Syria, with its 18th century Ottoman era courtyard; the temple of Echmoun in Lebanon, built in the seventh century BCE; and Roman ruins of Stabiae, near Pompeii, where excavations have uncovered more remains than can be protected from the elements.

Elizabeth Lee, CyArk vice-president of programmes and development, said its data were already being used by specialist academics and architectural historians but the group hoped the initiative would broaden access to teachers and the general public.

The spectacular courtyard of the Al Azem Palace in Damascus © CyArk

She added there was “a huge need” for CyArk to reach sites it had not yet recorded. Two places the organisation is considering are Iraq — off limits during successive conflicts — and Libya, which contains sites of enormous historical importance such as Leptis Magna, built during the Roman era.

CyArk’s data are available via Google on request to anyone who fills out an online form, as long as it is for non-commercial uses. “There’s a little bit of trust,” said Ms Lee. “We’re opening it up in good faith — the majority of users will respect that.”

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