The year in heritage: digital scanning promises a brave new world


Earlier this year, archaeologists (as well as every 40-year-old whose childhood dream was to be the next Indiana Jones) were thrown into wild excitement when radar scans revealed that Tutankhamun’s tomb may contain a secret chamber. The discovery gave credence to a theory that Nefertiti—the chief consort of Tutankhamun’s father—is buried in the concealed room. Although a follow-up examination drew contradictory conclusions that require further tests, investigations that could lead to “the discovery of the century” are possible only because Nicholas Reeves, the archaeologist who proposed the theory, had access to three-dimensional, forensically accurate imaging data recorded in high resolution. He studied the surface and shape of the walls from the comfort of his New York office some 9,400km away from the Valley of the Kings. 

The enormous potential of applying three-dimensional imaging technology to the world’s heritage is not lost on the wider heritage community. In fact, its use has increased exponentially in recent years thanks to considerable advances in scanning capabilities. Making use of this technology is particularly appropriate now as threats to heritage are at an all-time high because of war, climate change, urban encroachment and, sadly, neglect. 

The executive director of the UK arm of the heritage preservation organisation World Monuments Fund, John Darlington, cites the falling cost of technology as a contributing factor. “Five years ago, drones were beyond the reach of the average individual, but today they are ubiquitous,” he says. Drones, along with various types of two and three-dimensional recording, are being used by Factum Arte to document the Cross River (or Ikom) monoliths in eastern Nigeria. 

Factum Arte is also working with the University of Basel and Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities on creating a scanning and training centre for the Theban Necropolis, so locals can learn and pass on the skills required to record their heritage. The centre will move to the newly restored Stoppelaere’s House—a 20th-century building designed by the late Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy—in March 2017.

Training is also integral to the efforts of the California-based firm CyArk, which has worked with government and non-government groups to train 15 staff from Syria as part of Project Anqa, an emergency documentation initiative focused on at-risk heritage sites in the Middle East and North Africa. Since the project’s launch in 2015, Iraq’s famous Ziggurat of Ur and two sites in Damascus—the Bimaristan Nur al-Din and the Madrasa al-Jakmakya—have been recorded using light detection and ranging technology. A CyArk spokeswoman says that, after training, the Syrian teams were able to record the two sites “in a matter of months, despite the constant physical and political challenges they face in doing so”.

Adam Lowe, the director and founder of Factum Arte, says that while technology can “transform how we understand cultural heritage by bringing out the dynamic nature of objects” and laying bare details suggesting how they have been cared for over the years, it must be interpreted by those who understand what they are looking at. “Doctors interpret scans, they don’t take them. We need connoisseurs to read the data.”