Science & Environment

Global effort launched to preserve precious sites

map Image copyright Curious Travellers
Image caption The initiative aims to place the reconstructions into a global map

UK researchers have launched a new effort to source photos of threatened or destroyed cultural landmarks and compile them into 3D reconstructions.

Their aim is to create an interactive resource that places the sites onto a navigable, online map.

The public can submit their own photos and the team will also use software to trawl the internet for relevant shots.

Dubbed "Curious Travellers", the project was announced on Thursday at the British Science Festival.

It is a joint effort from the universities of Bradford, Birmingham, and Nottingham's campus in Ningbo, China.

Project leader Dr Andrew Wilson, of Bradford University, said the initiative would span a huge range of sites and the team was open to suggestions as to what it should focus on - from ancient ruins razed by conflict in the Middle East, to Bradford's own Drummond's Mill, destroyed by fire in January.

"It goes across the globe, this issue," Dr Wilson told journalists at the festival.

The project, he said, was aimed at any sites damaged or destroyed by conflict, vandalism, neglect or natural disaster.

"We're never going to replace or physically rebuild monuments affected by these problems. But we can do more than just preserve their memory.

"We're calling on people to donate their images... and be part of the social media community, helping to direct where put our energy."

He hopes to respond to events that unfold during the project's initial one-year duration - offering the example of last month's earthquake in Myanmar which damaged several ancient temples.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Dozens of ancient temples were damaged by an earthquake in Myanmar in August

Photos will either be donated from peoples' private archives or taken from travel blogs and other online sources using web-scraping software that Dr Wilson's team will design.

Then the researchers will use software to re-assemble the monuments, buildings or artefacts in digital, 3D form - a technique known as "photogrammetry".

This is complex work, Dr Wilson said, particularly when the images come from a wide range of sources and the geometry of different lenses must be taken into account.

"It's not simply an issue of plugging things into extant software."

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This is not the only digital salvage initiative underway; other projects are already working on re-creating lost treasures from particular locations.

Dr Wilson said his team would be collaborating with those ongoing efforts, and hoped to compile a single resource that can bring many of these virtual landmarks together.

"The nice thing about the digital heritage arena is, it is very much designed around sharing data," he told the BBC.

"The ethos behind this is not to reinvent any data that's already been covered. Sites like Palmyra already have groups that are working in the aftermath of destruction there.

"We hope that our project complements all of this work, and that we will be sharing and talking to partner groups - essentially to make sure that this project has the widest possible reach."

Image copyright Mark Davis
Image caption Bradford's well-known Drummonds Mill burned to the ground in January

And the Curious Travellers project has the support of the UK's science minister, Jo Johnson, who said in a statement:

"Destruction of our world's monuments is a deliberate attempt to undermine a community's cultural identity. Thanks to the UK's technological advances, our holiday pictures could now help rebuild and preserve these great ancient sites for future generations."

The initiative's name, meanwhile, comes from a letter written by art historian Horace Walpole, Earl of Orford, in 1774: "At last some curious traveller from Lima will visit England, and give a description of the ruins of St Paul's, like the editions of Balbec and Palmyra."

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