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August 24, 2015

3D technology rebuilds artifacts destroyed by ISIS

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The destruction of priceless antiquities by the Islamic State (ISIS) has horrified researchers worldwide, but 21st century technology offers one way of preserving ancient cultural heritage.

Using three-dimensional imaging and crowdsourcing, archaeologists with Project Mosul created a website where anyone can upload images of destroyed artifacts and contribute to a growing virtual museum.

Once uploaded, the two-dimensional photos are turned into 3D models using photogrammetry, which places images taken from different angles together like puzzle pieces to create a similar representation of the actual artifact. Since the team of volunteers creating the replicas often work from only a few photos, the measurements can never be completely accurate.

“It seems like magic,” said Matthew Vincent, one of the archaeologists who founded the project. “Taking those photographs and turning them into three-dimensional models, it’s you know, something that’s kind of hard to fathom.”

During the past year, reports that ISIS has been selling off and destroying thousand-year-old artifacts from ancient Iraq and Syria have steadily increased. Videos showing members of the extremist group smashing treasures in a museum in Mosul, Iraq surfaced shortly after the city was taken by ISIS.

The destruction of such artifacts prevents archaeologists from discovering more about the way people lived in ancient Mesopotamia, often referred to as the cradle of civilization, said Executive Vice President of the World Monuments Fund Lisa Ackerman.

Project Mosul’s methods can assist researchers in other situations where cultural sites are lost or damaged. In Nepal, where a powerful earthquake caused widespread destruction in April, efforts to digitally reconstruct artifacts are underway.

Project Mosul offers hope for future generations hoping to learn more about the past. “If the worst happens, and we lose sites, at least there’s a very powerful record of them,” Ackerman said.


Warm up questions
  1. What do archaeologists do?
  2. What protects ancient artifacts from being lost?
  3. What kinds of artifacts might be found in Iraq and Syria?
Critical thinking questions
  1. Why is ISIS destroying artifacts?
  2. Will future generations be able to learn as much from Project Mosul’s reconstruction of the artifacts as they would from seeing the real thing?
  3. Why is it valuable to learn about how people who lived thousands of years ago?
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