Million Image Database Preserves World Cultural Legacies
By Mick O'Leary
The city of Palmyra in central Syria is one of the world’s great archaeological treasures. For centuries, it was a principal node on the great Silk Road trade route between Asia and the West. At its apex of wealth and importance during the first and second centuries, it amassed a stunning stock of public architecture that was rich with Greco-Roman and Persian influences. Because of its architectural splendor and high state of preservation, Palmyra was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980.
One of the city’s most revered treasures was the well-preserved Triumphal Arch built by the Romans. In October 2015, it was reduced to a pile of rubble by the Islamic State (IS) group, which had taken the city in May. The arch’s destruction ranks high among the agonizing travesties in IS’s short but devastating history of cultural desecration. The group has left a trail of destroyed antiquities across the Middle East, all in the name of religion and ideology.
The arch, however, has been reincarnated by a team of dedicated and determined scholars and volunteers from the Institute for Digital Archaeology (IDA; digitalarchaeology.org.uk), whose efforts at cultural preservation and restoration are fortified by the latest in high-tech gadgetry. Working from IDA’s collection of 3D photographs, sculpture robots carved a 20-foot-tall, 11-ton replica of the arch. (Watch here—bit.ly/2ddbQUn—for a fascinating video of the arch’s construction.) It was first displayed in London in April 2016 and then in New York in September.
The arch photographs are part of IDA’s Million Image Database
(millionimage.org.uk), a vast collection of photographs of archaeological remains and antiquities, from a region with the world’s oldest cultural legacy. It’s a unique historical record and, furthermore, a blueprint for continuing that record’s existence.
IDA and Cultural Heritage
IDA was founded in 2012 as a joint venture among Harvard University, the University of Oxford, and the Dubai Future Foundation that “promotes the development and use of digital imaging and 3D printing techniques in archaeology, epigraphy, art history and museum conservation.” IDA says that the threat to the world’s archaeological legacy is “conflict or natural disasters.” More specifically, Mohammed Abdullah Al Gergawi, managing director of the Dubai Future Foundation, states that IDA stands against the threats of ruthless ideology. “By using digital techniques to map and preserve monuments and other aspects of shared human history, we are able to ensure that nobody can deny history or dictate that their narrative or ideology stands above the shared story of all humanity and our shared aspiration to live together in harmony,” he says.
IDA has a small team of archaeologists and technicians who are supported by a larger group of volunteers. It has a number of ongoing archaeological, technical, and educational projects, including its flagship, the Million Image Database.
The Million Image Database
The Million Image Database focuses on the rich archaeological heritage of the Middle East. It covers fourteen countries, including Tunisia, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Turkey. Nepal is the only non-Middle Eastern country that is represented.
The database has photographs from 143 sites that are chosen for their architectural and historical significance and for the degree to which they are threatened. For some of the countries, there are only a few sites, while Jordan has 15, and Syria has 53. The number of photographs per site also varies; some have just a handful, while others have dozens.
The photos represent the entire inhabited history of the area, starting with the earliest settlements from the 10th millennium B.C. up to noteworthy modern structures. The pictures cover a range of views, from full cityscapes and large-scale public and religious buildings to smaller structures, sculptures, carvings, and artifacts.
From 3D to Restoration
The pictures in the database have varied provenance. There are historical and recent photos from published sources, submissions from private collections, and pictures taken by IDA volunteers.
Conventional 2D photos support the Million Image Database’s mission to preserve history. Its mission to replicate history depends more on the 3D photos, which have the immense advantage of being more suitable for high-tech restoration projects, such as that for the Triumphal Arch. As the Palmyra tragedy demonstrates, IDA’s restoration program is of profound cultural and historical importance.
IDA developed its own field-ready 3D cameras. Equipped with these, volunteers throughout the region have been working diligently to create a comprehensive 3D photographic record. The focus is on threatened sites, determined by a consultation between IDA and UNESCO, which, as part of its World Heritage project, has compiled a list of sites in particular danger (whc.unesco.org/en/158).
IDA’s workers have faced desperate deadlines in the face of IS’s destructive advance through the region. IS’s first high-profile cultural destructions took place in Iraq in 2014. IDA’s volunteers were active in Palmyra in summer 2014, less than a year before IS took the city and continued its cultural havoc.
3D Glasses Needed
The Million Image Database has a portal for browsing by country and, within a country, by site. Each site entry has a short annotation that explains the history and significance of the site and features a scrollable list of the photos. (To help with viewing the 3D photos, the portal provides a link to a handy guide for making your own 3D glasses.)
The photos are not identified or otherwise classified by period, type, provenance, etc. Access tools are limited to browsing by country and site or searching by country, site name, or site annotation. It would be nice to browse and search by artifact, period, provenance, etc., but given the exceptional and even harrowing circumstances of the Million Image Database’s “collection development,” it’s highly gratifying just to have the photos themselves.
IDA’s Digital Outlook
In 2015, IDA initiated another digital restoration project, the Paper Archive Database (millionimage.org.uk/the-paper-archive-database). It shares the Million Image Database’s mission of cultural preservation, but works with documents instead of structures. The 10-year goal is to digitize 10 million paper documents—books, prints, photographs, squeezes, rubbings, and field notes—from libraries, museums, and private collections worldwide. It’s expected that the Paper Archive Database’s content will eventually be integrated into the Million Image Database.