Technology helps archaeologists in race against ISIS

Chuck Bednar for – @BednarChuck

Archaeologists are turning to high-tech means in a desperate attempt to protect many of the Middle East’s most important archaeological treasures from the radical militants of ISIS, but in some cases it may already be too late, according to recent media reports.

As BBC News reported on Tuesday, the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria – once home to ancient caravan routes and the sandstone Tower of Elahbel, was taken over by ISIS in late May, and the militants reportedly destroyed the 1,900-year-old Lion of Al-lat statue located there.

In order to try and prevent similar occurrences from happening elsewhere, researchers from the Institute of Digital Archaeology (a joint Harvard University/Classics Conclave venture) are now working to virtually preserve relics in the region from the Islamic State’s onslaught.

Led by archaeologist Roger Michel, researchers at the Institute are hoping to flood the area with 3D cameras and recruit locals to capture as many images of historically significant landmarks as possible before it’s too late. Michel told the BBC that his team hopes to have between 5,000 and 10,000 cameras in the field over the next three to six months.

Digital preservation and other high-tech archaeology

“If we can’t protect these things at the ground, we can at least preserve a highly detailed record of what’s there,” he explained to the UK media outlet. He and his colleagues are reportedly relying on a team of volunteers, local museums, and other non-governmental groups to assist with their digital preservation efforts, but there have been many challenges to overcome.

For one thing, Internet access is sporadic in the desert regions, and the cameras need to have long battery life because of the limited access to electricity, Michel told BBC News. The cameras also need to be able to upload large files so photographers can get their pictures to the NYU Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, where they will be stored, and/or to the MIT Three Dimensional Printing Laboratory, where they will be printed.

Michel’s team isn’t the only one using technology to try and preserve archeological wonders. As part of their Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa project, researchers from the Universities of Oxford and Leicester are using satellite imagery and aerial photography to create a new open-access database of sites and their conditions.

Similar techniques are also being used elsewhere. Dr. Damian Evans from the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient and his colleagues have been using lidar, a type of radar that uses laser light instead of radio waves, to examine sites near Cambodian temples at Angkor Wat, while a UK team has been using ground-penetrating radar to study Stonehenge, the news outlet added.


Follow redOrbit on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Instagram and Pinterest.