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Destroyed by ISIS, artifacts may find new life after 3D reconstruction

To date, Islamic State militants have damaged 200 historic sites in the Middle East, according to the United Nations, and destroyed hundreds of artifacts. Now a pair of cyber-archaeologists are trying to put these ruined ancient works back together. NewsHour’s Ivette Feliciano reports.

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  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    This video appears to show members of the Islamic State, or ISIS, using sledgehammers to destroy artifacts at a museum in Mosul, Iraq, earlier this year. Some artifacts were thousands of years old, like this winged bull from ancient Mesopotamia.

  • LISA ACKERMAN:

    It's not a euphemism to refer to Iraq and Syria as the cradle of civilization.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Lisa Ackerman is Executive Vice President of the World Monuments Fund, a New York-based organization focused on cultural heritage preservation.

  • LISA ACKERMAN:

    It's not just the physical remains that are going away but potentially our knowledge of how rich these regions are and the many different kinds of people that have traversed that terrain over a very long period of human existence.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Now, two Europe-based archaeologists, Chance Coughenour and Matthew Vincent, are deploying three-dimensional computer technology to save this history. They spoke to NewsHour via Google Hangout.

  • CHANCE COUGHENOUR:

    We both have a background in digital cultural heritage and the preservation of heritage, and I suggested that maybe we could find a solution to crowdsource images from people and reconstructing the artifacts in 3D."

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    What began as a desire to document lost antiquities became Project Mosul with a website for anyone to submit pictures and videos of destroyed artifacts in Iraq.

    The team hopes to create a virtual museum.

  • MATTHEW VINCENT:

    It seems like magic. I mean when you think about taking photographs and taking those photographs and turning them into three-dimensional models, it's you know, something that's kind of hard to fathom.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Transforming two-dimensional images into 3D reconstructions requires a team of volunteers using "photogrammetry," which estimates measurements from existing photos to create models.

    Here's how it works: In this recreation of the Lion of Mosul, 16 pictures taken from different angles — seen here as blue squares — are aligned to find common features.

    Those overlapping features — represented by black dots — are then connected, and a virtual texture is wrapped onto the model.

    Because these replicas often rely on only a few photos — without actual measurements of the objects — they can never be exact.

  • CHANCE COUGHENOUR:

    This is in essence, kind of a reverse engineering way of going about finding images that line up or match or were taken from a particular angle that are supportive of creating a three-dimensional model."

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    So more pictures make a better model.

  • MATTHEW VINCENT:

    Often times we may have hundreds of images for a single artifact. In this case we may have a dozen. You know, so simple there is no way for us to really speak to the accuracy, and which is why we often emphasize that the most important part of what we get with these reconstructions is the visualize representation."

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    The project isn't just focused on the Middle East. In April, Nepal was hit by a seven point eight magnitude earthquake leaving many ancient sites damaged. Project Mosul is now hosting the 3D reconstruction of artifacts destroyed in Kathmandu's Durbar Square during the massive earthquake.

  • LISA ACKERMAN:

    It's this incredible opportunity to at the very least get a good handle on what materials are out there, and demonstrating that if the worst happens, and we lose sites, at least there's a very powerful record of them.

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