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These 3-D Scans Are Digitally Saving Ancient Monuments Before ISIS Blows Them Up

If we can’t save them, we might at least be able to walk around a virtual ruin.

In August, ISIS militants blew up the legendary and beautiful 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel in the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria, saying that it promoted “idolatry.” At the beginning of October, they destroyed the equally historic Arch of Triumph leading to the site. Now, some experts are afraid the entire ancient city–one of the most spectacular ancient sites in the world–could be obliterated in as little as three months.

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Throughout the Middle East, hundreds of historic sites are now at risk of total destruction because of war.

A nonprofit called CyArk is racing to 3-D scan ancient architecture to digitally preserve it for the future, so it can later be recreated in virtual reality or rebuilt on the ground. In a new initiative called Project Anqa, they’re working with the International Council of Monuments and Sites to digitally document dozens of at-risk sites in the region, starting with Syria and Iraq.

“Right now it’s really a terrible time–in terms of the loss of life, obviously, but also in terms of the loss of culture that’s being brought on by the intentional destruction of a lot of these historic sites and monuments,” says Elizabeth Lee, VP at CyArk. “There’s a lot of devastation. But the sites that are in held territories are really a small fraction of significant sites in the region that are also at very high risk.”

The first monument to be 3-D scanned for the project was the Ziggurat of Ur in Iraq, originally built around 4,000 years ago, and restored in the sixth century B.C. A team of experts from China volunteered to scan the site using CyArk’s remote sensing technology.

Even though the sensors capture millions of points of data each second, it can still take two or three days to fully scan a monument. It’s a risky job in a place like Syria, so CyArk is keeping a low profile for each new scan.

“We’re being careful about how and when we publicize the work,” she says. “We’re trying to avoid too many specifics because we’re actively working to get people in the field in these projects.”

After the data is collected, it goes back to the office for processing, and is eventually safely stored more than 200 feet below ground in an ultra-secure old mine in Pennsylvania.

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The data can be turned into 3-D models, images, interactive virtual tours, and blueprints for reconstruction. “It’s like you’ve virtualized the site,” says Lee. “You can continue to work on that information and study it, plan future restoration efforts, without actually being in the field.”

Project Anqa is part of CyArk’s larger mission to document all of the world’s historic sites. Over a five-year period, they’re planning to digitally save 500 heritage sites.

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.

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