Digital archaeology and restoration in Nepal

Digital archaeology - New Palmyra

Digital archaeology and digital preservation are two related fields with strong links to many ITGS topics and concepts, and they make great classroom material. Recently I came across an excellent blog post from The Longest Way Home which describes the use of digital archaeology technology in Nepal.

Durbar square, Kathmandu
Destruction in Kathmandu’s Durbar square (Source: UNDP / CC-BY-SA)

Earthquakes in April and May 2015 badly damaged or destroyed hundreds of Nepal’s famous temples and other historical buildings, including several UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Areas such as Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, the Changu Narayan Temple, and the Swayambhunath Stupa are all major tourist attractions that suffered heavy damage. Unfortunately the age of these sites meant many were irretrievably damaged and only photographs (and in some cases drawings) are available as a record of their existence.

Digital archaeology in Nepal

Digital archaeology - Nepal
3D temple model (Source)

This is where digital archaeology and digital preservation technology steps in. Groups such as the Digital Archaeology Foundation Nepal are taking steps to digitally record monuments before they suffer further damage, and in the hope that they might one day be restored.

In the case of very badly damaged buildings, existing photographs – such as those taken by tourists – can be used to reconstruct a pre-earthquake digital likeness of the temple.

The foundation’s website contains a wealth of material, including images of the scanning and modelling processes, and even some sample 3D models to view, and is well worth a visit. They have broken down the digital preservation process into three phases. Phase 1 involves the capture of digital data from existing sites. Phase 2 is the consolidation of that data with other data (for example, digital photographs which may show missing elements, surface textures, and so on). Phase 3 is the completion of digital restoration of the archiving of the data for future generations.

Digital archaeology in other countries

Tikal National Park, Guatemala
Mayan temples in Tikal

Digital preservation has occurred in other countries. Recently the BBC covered groups attempting the digital preservation of temples in Syria which are at risk of destruction by terrorist groups – New Palmyra is one such project. The Institute for Digital Archaeology is another example. My ITGS textbook site also covers the use of digital preservation techniques at sites including Tikal, Chichen Itza, and Angkor. Of the sites linked there, CyArk has an excellent and interactive range of models and projects.


Digital archaeology – ITGS activity ideas

Researching and analysing digital archaeology and digital preservation case studies is an excellent ITGS activity. There are myriad links to all aspects of the ITGS triangle, including:

Strand 1: Issues of social and ethical significance occur throughout the digital archaeology process – from the decision to document or scan the sites, to the storage, use, and distribution of the collected data. The digital archaeology examples in this article also raise some of the lesson common ITGS social and ethical issues. Several of the archaeology groups mentioned above, for example, are volunteer based and are not linked to governments. The policies which govern their operation and the accuracy and use of the data they collect would be worthy of investigation. This also has links to intellectual property issues.

Strand 2: Digital preservation has several other potential uses besides the processes mentioned in the articles above, and these could fit into different branches of strand 2.

Strand 3: Digital sensors, portable recording hardware, and GPS systems seem to be commonly used, as well as newer, developing technologies such as 3D scanners and 3D printers. The Digital Archaeology Foundation have suggested using crowdsourced data from projects like Photosynth, which could bring its own range of benefits and issues. Students might also want to investigate the way 3D models could be presented on the web, using formats such as X3D and VRML.

Links to TOK: ITGS topics like this raise several TOK-related knowledge questions. One example might be “what counts as an historic artifact?”. If, for example, we use 3D technology to scan and then repair or rebuild an ancient temple, to what extent is that temple actually a modern temple? We might also ask how, in the History Area of Knowledge, we measure the historical value of different artifacts and sources.

Other examples of digital archaeology

Do you know of other examples of digital archaeology? Places, sites, or artifacts that have been digitized for preservation? Feel free to leave a comment below!



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