Can 3D printing save history?

Palmyra s famous Arch of Triumph

360 degree photos and video are most associated with virtual reality, but 3D modelling is now being used to faithfully reconstruct – and even 3D-print – ancient monuments and artefacts. Palmyra in Syria is an UNESCO World Heritage Site, a 1,800-year-old Roman monument all but destroyed late last year by Daesh.

While the 250,000 people killed, 6.5 million displaced and 4.8 million refugees since 2011 (UN estimates) are the real tragedy of the Syrian conflict, the speedy resurrection of Palmyra's famous Arch of Triumph using 3D photos and 3D modelling techniques is being hailed as a defiant act. The message? If they knock it down, we have the technology to rebuild it – and quickly.

3D printings of the site from the New Palmyra Project s data

3D printings of the site from the New Palmyra Project's data (Image Credit: New Palmyra Project)

Pioneering project

Reconstructed using a 3D computer model created from photographs, the Harvard University-based Institute for Digital Archaeology (IDA) last week displayed in Trafalgar Square, London, a life-size replica of the Arch of Triumph. The replica will arrive at the now secure Palmyra site later this year.

Not only is it a pioneering project for a new generation of digital archaeologists, but it's all happened very quickly. So very quickly, in fact, that some worry that it's become a propaganda tool for the Assad regime. Others think it a defiant message to anyone disrespecting critical world heritage. Either way, there's no doubting that technology will play a huge role in resurrecting Palmyra and other world heritage sites.

Palmyra attracted around 150 000 tourists a year before the Syrian War

Palmyra attracted around 150,000 tourists a year before the Syrian War (Image Credit: Wikimedia)

Eye in the sky

Given the anticipated vandalism of Daesh, 2014-15 saw something of a rush to 3D-scan world heritage sites in Syria. Digital archaeologist Bassel Khartabil started his New Palmyra Project, CyArk and the Lahore University of Management Sciences digitally documented heritage sites in Pakistan, and the IDA populated its open-source Million Images Database, capturing millions of 3D images of threatened objects.

After the capture of Palmyra, before and after satellite imagery from UrtheCast was consulted by the UN to confirm the site's devastation. UrtheCast's goal is to monitor all world heritage sites daily – close-up 3D scans are one thing, but the world's heritage sites need constant monitoring. From the skies above.

Something missing Palmyra as UNESO photographed it last week

Something missing? Palmyra as UNESO photographed it last week (Image Credit: UNESCO/F. Bandarin)

Drones and 3D printing grids

A team from UNESCO has just visited Palmyra to assess the damage, armed with radar to scan beneath the monuments, and with drones to produce 2D aerial images of them from the air. Faithful reconstruction demands precision, so the entire site will again be mapped in 3D.

"A machine in one or two hours gives you a perfect reconstruction of an object … before it would take weeks and weeks," Francesco Bandarin, assistant director-general for culture at UNESCO, told the Wall Street Journal.

The New Palmyra Project extensively photographed the site using 3D cameras

The New Palmyra Project extensively photographed the site using 3D cameras (Image Credit: New Palmyra Project)

However, the main work has already been done. The IDA already had 360-degree images from Palmyra in the Million Image Database, and has therefore been able to accurately reconstruct the Arch of Triumph using proprietary cement-based 3D printing techniques. A 3D printing grid will be set up on the site itself to repair other sections.

Top Image Credit: Institute for Digital Archaeology