Patty Gerstenblith | Display At Your Own Risk


Technology and Cultural Heritage Preservation
Patty Gerstenblith, DePaul University College of Law

Patty Gerstenblith, Technology and Cultural Heritage Preservation, in Andrea Wallace and Ronan Deazley, eds, Display At Your Own Risk: An experimental exhibition of digital cultural heritage, 2016.



With the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, particularly in Syria and northern Iraq, which has made it extremely difficult to monitor the situation on the ground or engage in physical preservation, technology as a means of preserving cultural heritage has come to the fore. Archaeologists have long used evolving technological methods, based on various scientific disciplines, to ensure retrieval and study of all aspects of past human life, including dating methods based on carbon-14 dating of organic materials and thermoluminescence tests of ceramics and fired materials. But the use of technological innovations to study, protect, and reconstruct the remains of the past has developed at a rapid pace over the past five years, urged on by wreckage caused by the destructive forces of armed conflict and looting of sites, particularly in the Middle East.

The term ‘preservation’ of cultural heritage has come to signify a variety of methods and goals and is often used interchangeably with other more specific terms. If we view preservation as an over-arching concept, we may categorize preservation into four steps or aspects: (1) documentation; (2) protection; (3) conservation and reconstruction; and (4) replication or reproduction. This essay will examine three of these aspects of cultural heritage preservation, omitting the third step. Conservation and restoration of sites and cultural objects are long recognized methods of preservation. They routinely utilize various scientific techniques and are often largely based in chemistry and other physical sciences, depending on the material from which the site, structure or object is made. However, although a specialist in conservation may disagree, this field has not seen the same recent explosion in applications of technological and scientific methods that have been harnessed to advance the other three aspects of preservation. This essay is therefore limited to examples of developments in the three aspects that have occurred during the past five years – a date that happens to coincide with the outbreak of the ‘Arab spring’ conflicts, which have been disastrous for both human life and human history throughout much of the Middle East and North Africa.

Figure 1 CyArk, Assyrian Collection of the British Museum, The Black Obelisk, © CyArk,, accessed: 22 April 2016.

Figure 1:CyArk, Assyrian Collection of the British Museum, The Black Obelisk, © CyArk,, accessed: 22 April 2016.


Documentation of moveable and immovable cultural materials in the absence of conflict has long been a method for expanding knowledge about the past and for securing the physical integrity of objects. While documentation is not, by itself, a method of preservation or protection of objects and sites, it may be said that in order to preserve something, one needs to know what one has. Archaeologists, anthropologists, art and architectural historians, and urban historians have long surveyed sites and physical structures as a means of determining and recording extant remains. Documentation of museum and other collections has long been a fundamental practice of cultural, historical, and artistic studies. Today such documentation is carried out largely through inventories based on digital photography when available and is crucial to the recovery of objects that may be stolen and to allowing further study when the objects themselves are not available.

In a relatively recent innovation, several groups are utilizing laser and digital technology to record and document the world’s cultural past. One such organization, CyArk, uses ‘new technologies to create a free, 3D online library of the world’s cultural heritage sites before they are lost to natural disasters, destroyed by human aggression or ravaged by the passage of time’ (CyArk n.d.). The technology uses 3D scanners that measure points resulting from bouncing a laser light off the surfaces of structures. The data points are then joined to produce a solid 3D model, which is coloured based on photographs, resulting in a ‘photo-real 3D model’ which may be used for further study, education and, when feasible, conservation of the original. While this method holds significant promise for digitally ‘preserving’ cultural sites, particularly the built environment, the only site located in the region most under threat in Syria and Iraq that is listed as one of the CyArk projects is the Nineveh region, located near the modern Iraqi city of Mosul.

On a larger scale, the Getty Conservation Institute and the World Monuments Fund have partnered to create the Arches project. This is an ‘open source, web- and geospatially based information system that is purpose-built to inventory and manage immovable cultural heritage’ (Getty Conservation Institute n.d.). The prototype of the Arches project was the Middle Eastern Geodatabase for Antiquities (MEGA)-Jordan, an inventory of archaeological sites in Jordan, which allows entry of data with basic computer skills and equipment (MEGAJordan n.d.). MEGA-Jordan contains entries for more than 10,000 sites and is used for management of construction and development near archaeologist sites as well as a means of protecting sites.

Archaeologists over time have focused less on the excavation of sites and have turned instead to less destructive (and less costly) methods of research that allow them to recover information. These techniques include survey, carried out through field survey (or field walking) and the use of aerial reconnaissance, such as drones, to map remains (Hill et al. 2014). Other technologies, such as ground-penetrating radar, permit archaeologists to map structures located below the surface (Urban et al. 2014), while still others allow aerial survey in parts of the world where forests and other vegetation preclude the use of more standard aerial surveillance (Preston 2013).

Particularly following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the ensuing large-scale looting of archaeological sites in southern Iraq, archaeologists turned to the use of remote-sensing techniques, primarily aerial photography and satellite imagery, to document the looting of sites (Stone 2008). The loss of the contextual information, as well as of many of the artefacts that were considered less desirable on the international market, produced a devastating effect on our knowledge and understanding of the past. In some cases, archaeologists compared recent satellite images with older aerial photos taken of the same sites to detect rates of damage and destruction caused not only by looting but also by other threats to archaeological heritage, such as irrigation, farming, and development (Hanson 2012). Extensive mapping of archaeological looting has been carried out now in Egypt (Parcak 2015). In one innovative project, aerial photography is combined with on-the-ground research both to delineate the site and to document looting patterns over time (Salopek 2014).

The damage and destruction of cultural sites in Syria and Iraq caused by all sides in the conflict, which began in March 2011, and much publicized by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), have turned research away from documenting what of the past remains to documenting what has been lost. Several academic and research groups, based both in the United States and in Europe, use various forms of remote-sensing and satellite imagery to document the ongoing destruction of cultural and religious sites in Syria and northwestern Iraq (Wolfinbarger et al. 2014a; 2014b; al Quntar et al. 2015; Casana 2015). These efforts may be useful when the conflict ends for purposes of both reconstruction and war crimes prosecutions for those who destroyed cultural heritage in violation of international law.


Physical protection of sites during time of armed conflict or natural disaster is much more difficult to achieve than documentation of what is preserved or what is destroyed. However, the use of geospatial technologies is now providing one such method through the creation of ‘no-strike’ lists (sometimes also called cultural inventories). International law, primarily through the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property during Armed Conflict as well as customary international law, prohibits the targeting of cultural sites unless excused by imperative military necessity (Gerstenblith 2014). In order to avoid targeting of cultural sites and to minimize collateral damage to such sites, those responsible for targeting must have access to information as to where such sites are located.

The symbol of the Blue Shield is designated in the 1954 Hague Convention as the cultural equivalent of the Red Cross or Red Crescent to mark cultural property to be protected and to signify cultural heritage professionals. Founded in 1996, the International Committee of the Blue Shield consists of 23 national committees and 24 national committees in the process of formation. These committees are tasked with working with the military of their respective States to make them aware of their obligations to protect cultural heritage. One of the more active is the US Committee of the Blue Shield, which has undertaken the responsibility of creating ‘no-strike’ lists for the areas of the world that are subject to current conflict, including Libya, Syria, and Iraq (USCBS n.d.).


Replication or reproduction of cultural objects and even of sites on a larger scale is also not a new phenomenon. What is termed ‘replication’ here should be distinguished from the making of forgeries, which are intended to deceive as to the true origin of a particular work. Museums and even theme parks have long made replicas, and the accuracy of such replicas is dependent on available technology and the scale to which the replica is made. However, with the recent destruction of both sites and objects in the Middle East, particularly that perpetrated by ISIL, the desire to adapt new technologies to enable greater authenticity and greater accessibility to sites and objects has spurred the production of replicas.

In response to the photos posted by ISIL in February 2015 of intentional destruction of artefacts on display and stored in the Mosul Museum, Matthew Vincent and Chance Coughenour initiated Project Mosul, now known as Rekrei. By combining archaeological knowledge, web development and photogrammetry, the goal is ‘to promote digital preservation of lost cultural heritage using crowdsourced data in a cooperative, open-source project’ (Rekrei n.d.). The project works by crowd-sourcing as many photographs as possible of the destroyed objects that were taken before their destruction. From the composites or ‘digital surrogates’ made from those photographs, faithful replicas may be produced through three-dimensional printing (Biggs 2015). The Project Mosul website posts images of the objects reconstituted through 3D printing of these composites. The crowdsourcing function serves not only to reconstruct the object itself but can also assist in law enforcement efforts if the portable objects have been sold onto the market, rather than being destroyed. Individuals who made replicas are invited to post images on the 3D Gallery maintained on the website, and both movable objects and sections of destroyed immovable structures, such as the Temple of Bel and the Elahbel Tower Tomb at Palmyra which ISIL destroyed in the summer of 2015, are reproduced.

A similar project, #NewPalmyra, started in the fall of 2015, after the widespread publicity given to the intentional destruction of the Temple of Bel, the Temple of Baalshamin, and several of the tower tombs at the World Heritage Site of Palmyra, dating to the Roman period and located in central Syria. The goal of #NewPalmyra is to create a virtual reconstruction of the site. It also aims to create a broader network of scholars, artists, technologists, architects and others to create the models and other artistic works to be shared in the public domain (#NewPalmyra n.d.).

In another project, sponsored by the Institute for Digital Archaeology, Italian architects are recreating the Triumphal Arch from the Temple of Bel using 3D robotic printers in the Carrara Mountains. The recreation went on display in London’s Trafalgar Square in April of 2016 and may be exhibited in New York’s Times Square before it is taken to the site of Palmyra, from which ISIL was expelled by Russian and Assad regime forces in late March 2016 (Euronews 2016; Bacchi 2016; Institute for Digital Archaeology n.d.).

The Institute for Digital Archaeology (the IDA) combines the documentation aspect of cultural heritage preservation with efforts to aid in reconstruction. Founded in 2012 as a cooperative project among Harvard University, the University of Oxford, and Dubai’s Museum of the Future, its original purpose was the use of new forms of technology, including digital imaging and 3D printing techniques, to document historic and archaeological remains. The documentation projects range from recording of Ptolemaic inscriptions, other epigraphic and text-based projects, to recording of sites in Sicily, study of ancient Greek ceramics and transcription of a newly discovered palimpsest text in the Vatican Library. In perhaps its most ambitious project, the IDA is creating the Million Image Database, modeled on Wikipedia but with the goal of collecting images to document heritage objects and sites throughout the world. The IDA distributes small 3D cameras to volunteer photographers to collect images of heritage objects and sites, while also digitizing paper archives and collecting images from institutions and individuals who donate them to the project. The Million Image Database is expected to become available in April 2016.

As the goal of the IDA is stated, which could apply to all of the projects discussed here, with the adoption of the most modern technologies to preserve the past, we ‘can put these crucially important repositories of our cultural identity and shared history forever beyond the reach of those who would destroy them’ (Institute for Digital Archaeology n.d.). Remote-sensing, crowd-sourcing, digital imagery, three-dimensional reproduction and other technologies have all contributed to maximizing our ability to recover and understand the past and to preserving the memory of the past from the displacement and destruction that we are now witnessing in the Middle East. Out of the ashes of this destruction have emerged the unexpected benefits of new ways to study, understand, and appreciate the past.

The ability to use these advanced technologies to re-create objects of the past poses some new questions as well. For example, if the faithful reproduction is allowed to be and is accepted as a substitute for the original, does it matter whether we still have the original or is the reproduction sufficient as a means to study, observe, and enjoy the past? This also leads to questions about who has the right to re-create and determine the authenticity of the past. One such example is the protest against the plans to reconstruct the site of Palmyra while the conflict is still on-going, without adequate participation by a large cross-section of the Syrian people (both specialists and the general population), and without time for reflection of what should be preserved, what should be discarded, what should remain in a newly ruined state, and what of the destruction caused by ISIL should be preserved to become part of the cultural memory of more recent as well as the ancient past. The proposal to place at the site the reproduction of the triumphal arch created by the Institute for Digital Archaeology has received particular opposition and the unveiling of the replica of the Arch in London was greeted with controversy and disapproval, with it labelled as ‘Disneyland’ archaeology (Bacchi 2016).

In line with their emphasis on new technologies, these groups also tend to favour free access, either by foregoing entirely rights to which they might be entitled under relevant copyright law or by releasing material under a Creative Commons licence. Conversely, any rights to which such a group would be entitled would be very ‘thin’ as the underlying works are typically in the public domain and the reproduction is generally intended to be as faithful to the original as possible. Moving beyond copyright, some of the projects discussed here implicate patent law because they involve creating open-source software; yet, the same open approach prevails.

Whereas economic rights are often relinquished, attribution is often claimed. This emphasis on the moral right of attribution alone may seem altruistic but may also mask an economic motive. The products of these technologies probably have relatively little economic value, particularly given the limited nature of the copyright protection. Most of these groups subsist on grants to fund further work, rather than on the sale of their products. Therefore, attribution, as a means to achieve the recognition required for future grant successes, helps to ensure the necessary economic support. It remains to be seen whether these open approaches signify the future trend of cultural institutions generally or will remain common only among smaller projects restricted to the preservation of cultural heritage through the use of innovative technologies to document, protect, and reproduce the past.



Works Cited

#NewPalmyra n.d., available at:

al Quntar, Salam, et al., ‘Responding to a Cultural Heritage Crisis: The Example of the Safeguarding the Heritage of Syria and Iraq Project’ (2015) 78:3 Near Eastern Archaeology 154

Bacchi, Umberto, ‘Palmyra Arch in London: ‘Unethical’ reconstruction of ‘Disneyland’ archaeology criticized’, Int’l Bus. Times (19 April 2016), available at:

Biggs, John, ‘Project Aims to Resurrect the Artifacts Destroyed by ISIS’, Techcrunch (17 March 2015), available at:

Casana, Jesse, ‘Satellite Imagery-Based Analysis of Archaeological Looting in Syria’ (2015) 78:3 Near Eastern Archaeology 142

CyArk n.d., available at:

Euronews, ‘Italian architects reconstructing Palmyra’s Triumphal Arch’ (9 April 2016), available at:

Gerstenblith, Patty, ‘Beyond the 1954 Hague Convention’ in Robert Albro and Bill Ivey, eds, Cultural Awareness in the Military: Developments and Implications for Future Humanitarian Cooperation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014)

Getty Conservation Institute n.d., Arches Project, available at:

Hanson, Katharyn A., Considerations of Cultural Heritage: Threats to Mesopotamiam Archaeological Sites (unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, 2012)

Hill, Austin, et al., ‘Mapping with Aerial Photographs: Recording the Past, the Present, and the Invisible at Marj Rabba, Israel’ (2014) 77:3 Near Eastern Archaeology 182

Institute for Digital Archaeology n.d., available at:

MEGAJordan n.d., available at:

Parcak, Sarah, ‘Archaeological Looting in Egypt: A Geospatial View’ (2015) 78:3 Near Eastern Archaeology 196

Preston, Douglas, ‘The El Dorado Machine: A new scanner’s rain-forest discoveries’, New Yorker (5 May 2013), 34

Rekrei n.d., available at:

Salopek, Paul, ‘Drones: Archaeology’s Newest Tool to Combat Looting’, National Geographic (2014), available at:

Stone, Elizabeth C., ‘Patterns of looting in southern Iraq’ (2008) 82 Antiquity 125

Stone, Elizabeth C., ‘An Update on the Looting of Archaeological Sites in Iraq’ (2015) 78:3 Near Eastern Archaeology 178

USCBS n.d., available at:

Urban et al., ‘Ground-penetrating radar investigations at Marj Rabba, a Chalcolithic site in the lower Galilee of Israel’ (2014) 46 Journal of Archaeological Science 96

Wolfinbarger, Susan, et al., Ancient History, Modern Destruction: Assessing the Status of Syria’s World Heritage Sites Using High-Resolution Satellite Imagery (2014a), available at:

Wolfinbarger, Susan, et al., Ancient History, Modern Destruction: Assessing the Status of Syria’s Tentative World Heritage Sites Using High-Resolution Satellite Imagery (2014b), available at:


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