Laser scanners to preserve the past

A flak-jacketed German surveyor using digital technology on a trip to Iraq in 2010 to document the ruins of ancient Babylon.
A flak-jacketed German surveyor using digital technology on a trip to Iraq in 2010 to document the ruins of ancient Babylon.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

NEW YORK •Only the bas-relief bull and serpent-dragon gods were present to see the two flak-jacketed German surveyors and their security guards painstakingly moving laser equipment through Iraq's most famous archaeological site, the ruins of ancient Babylon.

Nervous about working in a country that had been tearing itself apart for years, Mr Dirk Hausleigner and Mr Erwin Christofori concentrated on the four-day task at hand - laser-scanning the towering 2,600- year-old walls of Ishtar Gate and the nearby Nabu-sha-Khare Temple, which was partly, and damagingly, reconstructed during Saddam Hussein's era.

"We were a little bit nervous, yes," Mr Hausleigner said about his trip to what was once the neoBabylonian capital of Nebuchadnezzar II, the biblical king, now a pile of partly excavated remnants 80km south of Baghdad.

"But you feel honoured to see this place and to preserve it because it is world heritage."

The trip was in 2010, before the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, achieved worldwide notoriety with its relentless campaign to destroy and loot ancient sites across Iraq and Syria.

Babylon survived because it lies further south and east than its less fortunate ancient neighbours of Nimrud, Hatra and Palmyra, which are within the jihadis' selfproclaimed Islamic caliphate.

But what seemed back then to be a straightforward job of conservation planning - albeit with an unusual degree of three-dimensional precision - today appears to have been a prescient use of digital technology in a conflict zone that others are now scrambling to adopt.

Faced with the apparent impotence of governments and international agencies to stop ISIS' fanatical levellers, other cultural organisations are trying to create 3D records of heritage sites to preserve them, at least in digital form, for future generations.

"We were ahead of the curve on this," said Mr Jeff Allen, a programme director with the World Monuments Fund, the New York- based non-profit charity that commissioned the laser scan and that works at Babylon with the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage.

"We scanned the gate thinking, 'You never know, there might be a problem in the future' and, lo and behold, there is a problem throughout Iraq."

The damage inflicted on antiquities in Iraq and Syria pales beside the hundreds of thousands of people killed and millions uprooted in countries whose structures may never return to what they were. But attacks on people and their cultural heritage are inextricably linked, those charged with protecting it argue.

"Cultural cleansing is a war crime that it is now used as a tactic of war," said Ms Irina Bokova, directorgeneral of Unesco, the United Nations cultural agency, in a speech last month.

"This is not a choice between protecting people or protecting culture. It is part of the same responsibility because culture is about belonging, identity, values, common history and the kind of world that we want to live in."

Cultural organisations are working with Iraqi and Syrian experts, drawing on local knowledge and providing equipment and training, to create digital records of endangered ancient sites.

The site of Babylon needs laborious and costly conservation work if its vulnerable monuments are to be preserved in the real world, not just virtually. However, tens of thousands of Babylonian artefacts already lie far from ISIS reach in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin because they were excavated by German archaeologists in the early 1900s.

Mr Markus Hilgert, director of the Museum of the Ancient Near East at the Pergamon, said it would be possible one day to 3D scan the material in Berlin, combine it with the digital model already done in Babylon and create a physical walk-through exhibition combining every stage of the ancient city.

"The idea is to have a virtual reunification of the archaeological objects extant in Babylon and Berlin," he said. "This is what is so important about the time we are experiencing. We have to learn again that cultural objects, elements of culture, have very much to do with who we are, what we identify with, how we orient ourselves in this world."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 29, 2015, with the headline 'Laser scanners to preserve the past'. Print Edition | Subscribe