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SYRIAN HERITAGE: World’s Largest 3D Archaeology Database to Save Syrian Heritage

Mosquée des Omeyyades - @ Iconem

3D reconstitutions of the ancient Syrian heritage, threatened by war, are now available in the Syrian Heritage online database.

Iconem has teamed up with Inria, Microsoft and the École normale supérieureto use drones fitted with cameras to overfly threatened sites in Syria and process the resulting images with a groundbreaking automatic photogrammetry application. From the thousands of photographs taken, the technique makes it possible, without human intervention, to obtain 3D models of structures that are accurate to the millimetre. Iconem has used the technique to digitise a number of archaeological sites threatened by the war in Syria. 3D reconstitutions of important Syrian sites that are threatened by the war will be available in an online database, known as Syrian Heritage.

“We have a single heritage, a single memory, we must save it or we will be condemned by our children and our grand children”, said Maamoun Adbulkarim, Director-General for Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) in Syria last August, following the destruction of the Temple of Bel at Palmyra.

Syria, a heritage in peril

The conflict that has torn Syria apart since 2011 has damaged or destroyed a large number of heritage sites. What with the voluntary vandalism of Daesh, and the demolition, looting or damage caused by the fighting, the archaeological treasures of the country are today more threatened than ever. It is clear that we are dealing with an emergency.

3D Digitalisation : a salutary solution in termes of preventive archaeology 

Yves Ubelmann and Philippe Barth - @ Iconem

French start-up Iconem decided to act. As a historical partner of the DGAM, the company travelled to Damascus in December 2015 to deliver both equipment and technical training to teams on the ground. Thanks to this technology transfer, Syrian archaeologists are now equipped with a new solution to save the memory of sites in peril: 3D digitisation.

The technology is based on an image shooting protocol involving a very large number of photographs combined with a groundbreaking image reprocessing technique known as photogrammetry. Photogrammetry algorithms analyse these thousands of images and exploit the similarities between the pictures to reconstruct a point cloud, i.e. a 3D version of the archaeological object. Comprised of millions of facets or polygons, these 3D models are so precise that they represent true digital “twins” of the heritage sites, salutary for preventive archaeology.

ICONEM, Explorers of the impossible

“With these measurements, we can now conserve the memory and knowledge of these threatened Syrian sites, and above all transmit this knowledge to future generations. In addition, the data will enable us to prepare the way for future restoration work. We will thus be helping to prevent the annihilation of an exceptional historical and cultural heritage, at a time when it is more vulnerable than ever”, explains Yves Ubelmann, co-founder of the start-up.

Over the years, Iconem has forged especially close links with heritage protection bodies in a large number of countries. Having used its drones to scan archaeological treasures in Afghanistan (Bamiyan valley, Mes Aynak), after digitising the renowned Roman city of Pompeii and following operations in Iraq, Oman Pakistan and Haiti, Iconem is now putting its experience relative to threatened sites at the service of Syrian archaeology.

A preventive operation, carried out jointly with the DGAM

At the outcome of its training mission in partnership with the DGAM, the start-up launched a vast campaign to digitise Syrian heritage sites.

“Faced with the dramatic events that are affecting our country, we appealed to Iconem. Their expertise and experience with threatened sites helped us to react quickly and set up a programme to counter the violent destruction of our heritage”, explains Maamoun Abdulkarim, Director-General of Syrian Antiquities. This solution offers our archaeological sites a real hope of renaissance, and will allow their memory to be safeguarded whatever happens. The operation that the DGAM has carried out with Iconem will enable us to prevent an irreparable loss for humanity.” 

An unprecedented database

Thanks to their surveys, Iconem and the DGAM have constituted the largest 3D database of Syrian sites in the world, representing all the major periods in the history of the country. Information concerning the locations scanned is being posted progressively on the Iconem and DGAM websites, where users can discover the sites through virtual interactive tours, computer generated videos or scientific documentation (sections, elevations etc.). Three of these archaeological sites are already freely accessible: the Omeyyad Mosque, the Ugarit site and the Theatre of Jableh. The entire collection will be available at end May.

Above and beyond their 3D digitisation work in Syria, Iconem has a long-term ambition to preserve the memory of archaeological sites around the world and transmit that memory to future generations via a dedicated online hub accessible to the general public. 3D digitisation is one of the most effective ways of transmitting a heritage that may otherwise be destined to disappear.

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Iconem was founded in 2012 by Yves Ubelmann with the vision of developing digital solutions to investigate, understand and share cultural heritage.

Keywords: Syrian heritage Databases Archeology 3D