Apr 21, 2016 | By Tess

The ancient Semitic city of Palmyra, which thousands of years ago was a hub for commerce and trade and which in more recent times has been known for its impressive ruins and stunning ancient colonnades, temples, and arches, has been at the center of many recent news stories. For those perhaps unfamiliar, the ruined city of Palmyra has become a crucial point in the fight against ISIS, as the militant group, which held the ancient city up until last month, tragically destroyed many of the historic site’s buildings. Now, on a more positive note, many efforts have been made to help rebuild (both symbolically and literally) the ancient city in an effort to stand in solidarity against ISIS.

One such effort is being conducted by French startup Iconem, which specializes in 3D scanning technologies and has dedicated itself to digitally preserving archaeological remains that are in danger of destruction or disappearance since its founding in 2013. The company, which is working in collaboration with Syria’s Directorate-General of Antiquities & Museums, has been deployed to the recently recaptured city of Palmyra in order to 3D scan and digitally restore five monuments that were badly damaged by ISIS forces: the temple of  Bêl, the temple of Baalshamin, the monumental arch, the valley of tombs, and the Palmyra museum.

Using a number of techniques and processes, including photogrammetry, drone 3d scanning, and image comparisons, Iconem is working on reconstructing 3D models of the monuments, from both before and after the violent damage, which will allow the restoration efforts to see where exactly damage occurred, even down to the millimeter.

The process, which began just days after the Syrian army retook Palmyra, consisted of sending drones equipped with cameras to the scene to take as many photographs as possible to create a fully comprehensive 3D model of the city. Since beginning, the team at Iconem has taken about 20,000 images of the site, which they have been able to stitch together using photogrammetry processes. Using an algorithm and spatial properties from the photos and the drones, Iconem is able to effectively triangulate the space, rendering not only the physical form of the scanned monuments, but their texture and colors as well.

In an interview about the 3D scanning process, Yves Ubelmann, the founder of Iconem, explained how shocking the damage to the ruins actually was. “We were the first on the scene, even ISIS’s installations were still there, it was shocking. Between 2006 and 2009, I had worked on the construction of a room in the Palmyra museum, which I found to be completely ravaged this time around. Seeing this vandalized and pillaged version of what we had constructed just years earlier really made me realize the violence of the destruction as well as the transient nature of the monuments. We often think that archaeological sites are eternal, but this is false, and this is what truly justifies the work we do.”

The 3D models of the ancient Syrian city will be made available through Iconem's growing Syrian Heritage online database, which was launched on March 16th and where you can currently look at the Citadel of Palmyra in 3D. The company's page, which you'll notice features a number of "coming soon" boxes, will complete its collection of twelve Syrian monuments and heritage sites by May 2016. Currently, they are featuring Palmyra, the Jableh Theater, Ugarit, and the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. Notably, not only will the 3D models of Palmyra be available to the public to consult and even 3D print, but they will be used to help in the restoration process by providing detailed records of the before and after. The restoration of Palmyra's monuments is expected to take up to five years.

Iconem’s restorative effort is just one of many recent projects aimed at reconstructing Palmyra. Earlier this week, for instance, a 20 foot tall replica of Palmyra’s Arch de Triumph, made using 3D imaging technologies and constructed from Egyptian marble, was unveiled at Trafalgar Square in London. The project, which was presented by London’s mayor Boris Johnson, was a joint effort between Harvard University, the University of Oxford, and Dubai’s Museum of the Future. The arch replica, which will first travel from London to New York and Dubai for display, is expected to eventually be erected in Palmyra near the site of the original arch.

Additionally, another effort, known as #NewPalmyra, has gained popularity in the maker community, as it has as its goal the open sharing of digital files surrounding the Syrian city’s monuments and archaeological ruins. The digital archaeology project is hoping that by having 3D scans and models of the ancient city’s ruins available to the public, there will be a platform through which people can 3D print models of the ruins and create a productive discourse about Syria’s cultural heritage.



Posted in 3D Scanning



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