Cultural heritage goes digital - and 3D
An EU-funded training network used advanced imaging techniques to scan and reconstruct ancient artefacts and monuments in digital form. This opens many opportunities for conservationists, researchers and museums - in both preserving Europe's cultural heritage and educating people.
© Dmitry V. Petrenko - fotolia.com
Europe’s cultural heritage is a rich legacy from our common past. It can be tangible such as monuments, manuscripts and ornaments or intangible like songs, theatre and ceremonies. It is integral to our common identity and our shared view of where we came from. Great efforts are made to protect and conserve these structures and objects.
The trail-blazing EU-funded ITN-DCH project took an innovative approach to protecting Europe’s cultural heritage for future generations. Rather than conservation or restoration, it focused on the digital preservation of cultural objects.
Using advanced photogrammetric and laser-scanning techniques, both land-based and airborne, the project demonstrated how ancient monuments, Byzantine church interiors and in-situ archaeological finds and the landscapes around them could be captured as three-dimensional digitised images in fine detail.
By including information on materials, construction and composition of these objects they created a valuable digital resource for researchers and conservationists. Drawing on technologies from virtual reality and computer gaming, they then developed virtual avatars and educational applications to guide visitors through 3D reconstructions of these sites.
The project has raised much excitement and interest in the EU and worldwide says project leader Marinos Ioannides of the Cyprus University of Technology.
“ITN-DCH is the largest digital heritage project worldwide it is a first!” he says. “The challenge we faced was to integrate a cadre of young researchers from many different disciplines such as computer scientists, engineers, material scientists, archaeologists and to help them work together to define the methods, guidelines and protocols that cultural informatics needs to write the story of the past and preserve it for the future.”
Putting the IT into heritage
ITN-DCH is a training network funded through the EU’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie programme. The project partners include leading universities, cultural institutions, museums and archives, and companies active in cultural heritage.
Twenty research fellows from a range of academic disciplines focused on several case studies to test the general approaches, guidelines and protocols created for this developing field of cultural informatics.
In Cyprus, the team used advanced photogrammetric and laser-scanning techniques to capture the Byzantine Asinou Church a UNESCO site with world famous icons and frescos of outstanding value.
They also recorded the priest of Asinou performing the liturgies. From this digital record, they reconstructed a virtual 3D representation of the church, which visitors can view online, along with an explanation of the icons from a priest-avatar. Some 30 000 people visit the Asinou frescos each year. “Now we can take the monument to them!” says Ioannides.
At the ruins of the major Roman town of Carnuntum in Austria, existing documentation, objects and images from extensive earlier excavations were collated and digitised. From these, whole buildings, streetscapes and a so far unexcavated wooden amphitheatre were brought back to life as 3D representations.
Further case studies involved an early iron-age archaeological dig in Bavaria where grave objects such as jewellery were digitally captured at the site. At Donaustauf castle on the Danube, aerial images were acquired to generate a complete model of the original hilltop monument and its surroundings.
An important event in 2015 saw two of the research fellows launch a crowd-funded project to digitally preserve Iraqi monuments being destroyed by the Islamic State in Mosul, says Ioannides. They collected images of these artefacts worldwide and used them to refine digital reconstructions.
“Their wonderful efforts got a lot of television and press publicity from across the globe,” he adds. “When we started the project in 2012, cultural heritage was not a hot topic for funding. Today, there is a great deal of interest within Europe. At a recent presentation to EU officials, over 80 experts were present from many fields, not just research, which gives us hope that digital heritage will get more support in the future.”
The success of ITN-DCH is such that the Cyprus University of Technology, as coordinator, has been awarded a UNESCO Chair in Cultural Heritage. This mandate is to set up the first worldwide MSc and PhD courses on digital heritage. Ioannides has been appointed as the director of the newly established UNESCO chair to set up and oversee this network.
“Digital cultural heritage is now a hot topic,” says Ioannides. “We see this in the growing number of conferences and the huge interest from museums and archives. “Through ITN-DCH we have given Europe a networked group of trained young researchers who can help lead this field into the future and many of them are carrying on this work today.”
The Cyprus University of Technology has also the European Research Area Chair (ERA CHAIR) on Digital Cultural Heritage.
To mark 2018 as the European Year of Cultural Heritage, Cyprus will host the prestigious EuroMed conference on Digital Heritage in October. There, Ioannides and his team will hold a workshop in cooperation with EU institutions to discuss future needs.”