In late 2020, long-simmering tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan over a disputed territory escalated into war. Over six weeks, missiles, drone attacks, and heavy artillery fire erupted throughout the region, known as Nagorno-Karabakh. In the end, a ceasefire was called, and the region came into the formal jurisdiction of Azerbaijan.
For teenage students in the city of Stepanakert, the de facto capital of the contested and ethnically Armenian region, the war brought a sudden significance to a recently completed after-school project. By happenstance, they created a valuable digital record of what’s become a highly contested historical monument.
In the summer of 2019, 23 students in Stepanakert had undertaken a 3D scan of a local historic site, the Dadivank Monastery. A cluster of stone buildings on a site that dates back to the 5th century, it’s regarded as one of the most important sites of medieval Armenia’s Christian history. With the region and the monastery now in the hands of Azerbaijan, a Muslim-majority country that has challenged the Armenian roots of the monastery, the students’ scan may represent a critical source of historical data.
The project was led by the TUMO Center for Creative Technologies, a free after-school program, focused on using technology to teach students coding, robotics, 3D animation, video and music production, drawing, and creative writing. Three centers in Armenia, including its main location in the capital Yerevan, serve more than 20,000 students a year. A new location in Stepanakert had about 1,200 students before the war. The center brought in U.S.-based scanning expert Jay Perez to lead the workshop that resulted in the 3D scan and detailed models of the monastery buildings. A 3D walkthrough of the monastery is now available online.
The project was intended to introduce the students to emerging technologies used both for historic preservation and new construction–skills that could help prepare them for future jobs in the preservation and building industries, according to Marie Lou Papazian, executive director of the TUMO Center. Unexpectedly, the scanning project has created a precise digital record of a contested space.
“It’s a very precarious situation,” Papazian says. “Those lands and those monuments are Armenian monuments, but [Azerbaijan] is announcing that they are not Armenian monuments.”
The scan documents both the interior and exterior of the monastery complex, which was built over the course of several centuries, and includes detailed wall frescoes, stone carvings, and Armenian stone crosses, known as Khachkars. By mounting a 3D scanner at various points inside the monastery’s walls, the students captured the space down to a resolution of between 1 and 3 millimeters, and drones were used to photograph the exteriors. This record, she says, could become important if the monastery is altered or damaged under its new jurisdiction.
“They will probably not destroy it. But throughout time, they can do a lot of things. They can erase a lot of layers,” she says. “Armenian carvings could disappear, Armenian cultural symbols could disappear, others could appear suddenly.”
“It’s scary that not only natural disasters can destroy cultural heritage, but mankind can destroy cultural heritage. We’ve seen that in Syria and Iraq,” she adds.
The future of the monastery and the region are still open questions. For now, the TUMO Center in Stepanakert continues to operate, though it only serves about half the amount of students as before the war. Papazian says the center has bought another 3D scanner and plans to continue documenting historic sites in the region. “We want to scan the rest of whatever is still accessible to us,” she says. “Capturing all that, in case anything happens, is very, very important.”
Having the students continue this work is also critical, she says, both as preparation for real-world jobs but also as a form of cultural ownership. “They live there, and it’s their cultural heritage. They have to be in charge and understand it,” she says. “It belongs to them also.”