The Technology That Will Resurrect ISIS-Destroyed Antiquities

On October 5, 2015, the world watched in horror as Islamic State forces blew up the iconic 2,000 year-old Arch of Triumph in the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria. This carefully orchestrated act was the climax of a 10-month rampage of destruction and mass executions perpetrated by ISIS at the UNESCO World Heritage site. With Palmyra secured and a fragile Syrian truce in place, some news stories have given the impression that the worst wave of heritage destruction is over.

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The Arch of Triumph in Palmyra as seen on January 15, 2013.

In fact, satellite photography is revealing a shocking picture of the ongoing, systematic destruction of churches, mosques, antiquities, and museums throughout Syria and parts of Iraq and threats to heritage sites elsewhere in the Middle East. But that hasn’t stopped courageous local archaeologists and citizens from risking their lives to combat the devastation, aided by specialists outside the war zone who are deploying satellite and 3D imaging to help monitor, record, and replicate ancient sites.

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A digital reconstruction of the Arch of Triumph.

“It’s the worst cultural heritage crisis since World War II,” says Michael Danti, an archaeologist at Boston University. “And technology can help us keep up with the destruction and expose who’s responsible.”

Documenting the Destruction

Danti leads a team that publishes a weekly report documenting attacks on sites in Syria and northern Iraq. Known as ASOR Heritage Cultural Initiatives and funded by the U.S. State Department, the team draws on a wide range of images, from Cold War-era CORONA spy photos to constantly updated, high-resolution coverage provided by the commercial satellite operator DigitalGlobe. Since the full extent of damage to ancient sites is not always visible from space, ASOR’s bulletins are also based on a network of over fifty on-the-ground informants, including local citizens, refugees, Syrian archaeologists, and NGO workers. Some informants report from inside ISIS-controlled areas at great personal risk. (Danti lived in Raqqa, the ISIS “capital,” for 20 years, and many of his contacts spring from personal connections made during that time.) Social media from inside Syria and Iraq is another rich source of tips for the ASOR team; sometimes, they get to know about acts of destruction before ISIS can publicize them.

In its first year of operation, ASOR recorded 722 heritage attacks in Syria and 90 in Iraq. During that period, ISIS grabbed global headlines with its flagrant acts of demolition at World Heritage sites including the blowing up of Palmyra’s Temple of Bel, the smashing of sculptures in the Mosul Museum, and the destruction of the Assyrian city of Nimrud with sledgehammers, power tools, and finally explosives. But the satellite images reveal a huge increase in less conspicuous acts of destruction: looters’ pits that are visible from space as pockmarks disfiguring sites across the region.

Looting as Organized Crime

ASOR’s analysis shows that in the first four years of the Syrian conflict, more than 3,000 sites have been looted, nearly an order of magnitude increase over the pre-war period. The evidence implicates all parties in the Syrian war, including Assad’s military, but the most intensively ransacked sites are clearly the handiwork of ISIS. “Cultural heritage always suffers during conflict,” Danti says, “but what’s new is that ISIS has turned cultural destruction into a systematic business.” For instance, ISIS issues “dig” permits and hires contractors to bulldoze sites, while charging 20% sales tax on looted items.

“The international community has still not fully woken up to the industrial scale of the looting,” Danti says. “It’s a highly organized trafficking organization that provides a major source of income to ISIS.”

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The entrance to the Temple of Bel is all that remains standing of the ancient building after ISIS forces brought down the rest.

Beyond the illegal antiquities trade, ISIS engages in “cultural cleansing,” destroying historic and modern churches and mosques to demoralize the Shia, Christian, Yezzidi, and other minorities that their ideology brands as “apostate.” Space imagery has again proven crucial in tracking the destruction. Such images have helped a team of Czech scholars to assess the impact of a demolition campaign targeting sacred structures in Mosul following the city’s capture by ISIS in June 2014.

“Mosul was a crossroads of culture and peaceful co-existence during medieval times,” says Karl Novacek, an archaeologist at the University of Olomouc in Moravia. “Many different ethnic traditions gave rise to a unique style of sacred architecture that’s barely been studied.” The space images show that 38 monuments—mostly early Islamic mosques—have either been reduced to ruins or completely razed and turned into car parks. The images are part of a database in which the team is assembling all the records, archives, and photos they can find of the lost monuments, many of them scattered among scholars and the collections of local people. “If we succeed, we could create a base for future architectural restoration,” Novacek says.

The Promise of Digital Restoration

Besides tracking what’s been lost, digital technology opens up new possibilities for a post-war future that’s faced with the challenge of restoring iconic structures. The Syrian government’s Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums is already collaborating with ICONEM, a Paris-based architecture firm, to produce “before” and “after” 3D models that anyone can access to zoom in and study wrecked sites in extraordinary, stone-by-stone detail. For example, Krak des Chevaliers, one of Syria’s best known 11th century Crusader castles, was severely damaged when government forces finally drove rebels from the hilltop in 2014. ICONEM programmers designed a “bot” to roam the web and harvest thousands of pre-war photos of the castle, which they then assembled and used to generate a “point cloud” representing a partial 3D model of the Castle. They can superimpose a layer showing recent damage on top of the pre-war model. This may well provide an indispensable visual guide for any eventual attempt to restore the site.

Tour through ICONEM's digital reconstruction of Krak des Chevaliers.

The potential of 3D printing to replicate sites generated worldwide headlines in April, when a two-thirds scale model of Palmyra’s Arch of Triumph was erected in London’s Trafalgar Square; the Arch may travel to New York in the Fall. The model was, again, recreated from pre-war photos and was programmed to drive a massive stonecutting machine at a quarry at Carrara in northern Italy, next door to where Michelangelo obtained marble for his statue of David.

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ICONEM used pre-war photographs to build a 3D model of the Temple of Bel.

The aim of the project was to erect a symbol of cultural resistance in the face of ISIS and to raise public awareness of the heritage threat and was partly the work of an innovative Oxford-based venture known as the Institute for Digital Archaeology. In collaboration with UNESCO and leading universities and foundations, the institute’s major goal is to compile a comprehensive library of 3D imagery of threatened sites across the Middle East that they’re calling the Million Image Database. To create the image bank, the plan is to distribute 5,000 pocket 3D cameras to volunteers and heritage workers across the region. The Institute’s director, Roger Michel, says their ambitious mission is “to rebuild the landscape of the Middle East and the great symbols of our shared cultural heritage that have been destroyed.”

Can Replicas Replace What’s Lost?

But when peace finally comes, will the new replication techniques match the quality of what’s been lost? And how will local communities respond to the results? “That’s part of a wider debate about the changing meaning of these places,” says Allison Cuneo, a member of the ASOR team. “Palmyra is no longer simply a tourist site. ISIS child soldiers carried out executions in the amphitheater and left behind a mass grave of civilians. How can clean-up and restoration efforts pay homage to that fact?”

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A satellite image of Palmyra's amphitheater.

Meanwhile, ISIS and other extremist groups still pose a dire threat to the Middle East’s ancient cultural treasures. Among the most serious current threats outside Syria, Libya poses the gravest concern. As a shaky coalition government is still taking shape, ISIS forces are converging on coastal Greco-Roman cities such as Cyrene and Leptis Magna that are scarcely less imposing or extensive than Palmyra itself. Meanwhile, in Egypt, security at ancient sites is unraveling. Space archaeologist Sarah Parcak, who used satellite imagery to detect a possible new Norse site in Newfoundland in NOVA’s recent show “Vikings Unearthed“, recently applied the same techniques to study the looting of ancient Egyptian sites. She has documented a 50% jump in looting at four major sites since the 2011 revolution.

With all the human suffering of the Syrian war and the refugee crisis, why should we care about endangered heritage? Michael Danti stresses that the issue goes far beyond the concerns of archaeologists. “ISIS is practicing cultural terrorism,” he says, “as they target and eliminate the identity of entire sections of society in a way that’s directly comparable with Nazi atrocities.” By supporting the efforts of local heritage workers to protect and reclaim sites, scientists can help embattled communities hang on to hope and a sense of community in a time of terror.