The Arc/k Project founder Brian Pope watched in horror as ISIS made moves to erase all vestiges of the city of Palmyra after the extremist group captured it from Syrian government control in May 2015. Since then, ISIS has damaged or destroyed many of the ruins of this two-thousand year old ancient center of multiculturalism. ISIS destroyed structures, including the 1st century Temple of Bel and the 1,800-year-old Arch of Triumph, which made the ancient city so revered. We knew our team had to step in and exercise our talents in photogrammetry to accurately preserve image sites in the city using photos prior to its destruction and rendering them into state-of-the-art 3D models and a compelling virtual reality experience.
This original endeavor for Syrian heritage preservation has enabled our organization to test the technique of crowdsourced photogrammetry, conduct educational video conference training with Syrians, and collaborate with academics to explore a methodology for teaching anthropology in social virtual reality. We continue to identify opportunities for further research, advocacy, application, and technical developments.
By sharing cultural heritage sites in novel ways and in digital spaces, Arc/k has witnessed the power of place for those who were privileged to have visited, and to many who never will. 3D models are not just about raising awareness. They can also be used as an accurate representation for future rebuilding and continued scholarly study – even after the physical may be lost or destroyed.
Creative Process for Virtual Palmyra
Crowdsourced photogrammetry is a technique of analyzing thousands of photos to reconstitute lost, damaged, or destroyed sites in 3D and in virtual reality. Arc/k gathered more than 10,000 images and photographs of the artifacts captured by tourists, academics, and surveyors between five and ten years before ISIS arrived. After analyzing photos and adapting photogrammetry software to accept photos from many cameras and lenses, we are able to achieve viable, detailed 3D models of the ancient ruins in Palmyra. We hope these models can be used to educate and to restore or rebuild the destroyed sites.
Virtual Reality Experience of Palmyra
The Arc/k Project has worked with the nonprofit The Day After, an independent Syrian-led civil society organization that works with technical experts and representatives of institutions with the goal of enhancing the protection of Syria’s cultural heritage. The organization empowers local Syrian communities of heritage professionals and civil society activists who work to protect museums, cultural heritage sites, and collections. Through videoconferencing, Arc/k trained The Day After team from their Heritage Protection Initiative in Syria how to use photogrammetry techniques to document cultural sites and process the data into 3D models. Through training and feedback, a group of Syrians has documented sites, including UNESCO world heritage sites Dead Cities and Krak des Chevaliers.
Social Virtual Reality Experience — Portals to the Past
In 2018, we hosted a social virtual reality experience of ‘Portals to the Past’ with the University of Oklahoma. We worked with the former Head of Emerging Technologies to be a part of the Oklahoma Virtual Academic Laboratory (OVAL) project. The immersive platform welcomed over twenty students and professors from across the world as Dr. Al-Azm discussed Syria’s historic, UNESCO-recognized city of Palmyra. In this innovative multi-person virtual reality experience, Dr. Al-Azm led the group through the digital spaces, providing historic frameworks and context for the region, as the participants simultaneously interacted with the environment.
Virtual Reality Research
The Arc/k Project continues to identify challenges or gaps that exist when working with a virtual site. Virtual reality tours and videoconference lectures are becoming more common in a multi-disciplinary curriculum. Studying history through virtual reality helps students engage in the culture and heritage of these places, especially if they are physically destroyed or inaccessible (due to COVID-19, climate change, civil war, etc.).
EXPLORE THE COLLECTION
Visit our online Archival Collections and explore the Cultural Heritage of Syria Collection
Perpetuity Palmyra Keeping Palmyra Alive Through Digital Preservation
Perpetuity | Palmyra consists of several sites: the Temple of Bel, the Arch of Triumph, The Roman Theatre, and the Fakhr-al-Din al-Ma’ani Castle in Palmyra, Syria.
Ongoing developments of this project include:
- Gathering more photos of the sites pre-destruction
- Adding numerous other sites to our existing VR experience in order to capture the city in its entirety
- Refining our existing sites to a more exact level of detail
- Connecting with like-minded individuals and institutions to support advocacy, research and development
We want to push our Palmyra experience to its most immersive and full-scale potential. The Palmyra project is an additive process and will grow as more data is gathered from numerous collections, archaeological surveys, and tourists over the last 50 years.
Scope of Work
- Innovation in technique of crowdsourced photogrammetry to digitally restore and preserve cultural heritage of sites in Palmyra: the Temple of Bel, the Monumental Arch of Palmyra, Palmyra Castle, and the Roman Theater
- 1-on-1 video conference sessions with The Arc/k Project to train The Day After team on the ground in Syria how to use photogrammetry techniques to capture cultural sites, including UNESCO world heritage sites Dead Cities and Krak des Chevaliers
- Training with Syrian colleagues on how to use photogrammetry software to process data into 3D models
- 3D documentation of UNESCO World Heritage Sites
- Digital preservation of cultural heritage sites in Syria
- Exchange of training and translation services
- Successfully tested a methodology for teaching Palmyra in social virtual reality with twenty academics and students
- Partnered with Science Gallery Venice for an Augmented Reality project based on the Severan Arch at Palmyra, Syria
- Donated our digital Palmyra environment for the 2021 NETCHER Final Forum: Results & Recommendations Networking Experiences in the Fight against Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property
- Economic Crisis, War, Terrorism, Political Unrest, Looting and Destruction of Cultural Heritage
- The Day After, Heritage Protection Initiative
- Dr. Amr Al-Azm, The Day After, Shawnee State University
- University of Oklahoma Libraries and Oklahoma Virtual Academic Laboratory project (OVAL)
Sponsors and Support
- Professor Christian Meyer Jorgen from University of Bergen in Norway donated relevant photographs for the project
- We received Palmyra image donations from the Manar Al-Athar Project based at the University of Oxford
- The American Center of Oriental Research (ACOR) in Amman, Jordan donated images for Palmyra
Video Preview: Portals to the Past: A Guided Tour through Virtual Palmyra
Interview with Dr. Amr Al-Azm: Interview
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