Making A Digital Backup To Save The World’s Monuments

After the Taliban destroyed a 1,600-year-old mosque in Afghanistan, a group began racing to make 3-D digital copies of the world’s irreplaceable cultural sites.

Visit a place like Mt. Rushmore or the Giza Pyramids, and it’s hard to imagine it disappearing. But World Heritage Sites are being damaged or lost at a steady pace–whether it’s the 1,000-year-old mosque destroyed in the recent Syrian conflict or the pyramid in Belize bulldozed this year to make road gravel.


“We’re losing our heritage sites … faster than we, the human race, can physically conserve them,” said Ben Kacyra, who founded the nonprofit CyArk, short for Cyber Archive. The group’s goal is to digitally preserve World Heritage sites using 3-D laser scanning technology, starting with the 500 most at-risk places.

During the 3-D data recording process, a laser on a tripod spins around and sends out a pulsed beam of light, collecting millions of points of information. Through a painstaking process of scanning all around a monument and combining that data with photographs, a team creates a virtual version of the site that can be used in classrooms around the world or even to recreate the monument in the future.

So far, CyArk has preserved 100 monuments, including Angkor Wat and Chichén Itzá. They’ve already had the opportunity to help with restoration. Earlier this year, the Korean government finished rebuilding Sungnyemun, a 14th-century gate that was destroyed in a fire–luckily, after CyArk tech had documented the design. A royal tomb in Uganda, also destroyed by a fire, will later be rebuilt using its digital archive.

The work CyArk does hasn’t been replicated elsewhere. “Other groups are engaged in what we call the physical preservation of these sites–the brick and mortar. They’re out there trying to save a particular wall or facade of a building,” says Elizabeth Lee, vice president of CyArk. “We work alongside those groups and partner with them, but we’re really the only group engaged in using these technologies to preserve the heritage sites digitally, archiving that data, and making it available to the public.”

CyArk’s new push is to accelerate the pace of their work. “We want to respond to the urgency and the threats that face these sites that we’re losing on an almost daily basis,” says Lee. Over the next five years, the group aims to hit their goal of preserving 500 sites. The group is inviting the public, experts, and governments around the world to submit sites for consideration, with monuments facing the most threat getting priority.

After five years? “We see this as the first 500,” says Lee. “We hope that, through our efforts, we not only preserve 500 sites, but we create a system where we can go on and do the next 500, and the next 500 after that.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.