Editorial Feature

How Lasers Can Preserve Millennia of Human History

Discover the ways CyArk is digitally mapping the world's heritage sites 

In 2001, the Taliban in Afghanistan blew up a series of enormous ancient Buddhist statues carved into the rock faces at Bamiyan. The destruction of the Bamiyan buddhas was met with outrage and lamentation around the world. These monuments had stood for nearly two millennia, weathering centuries of political tumult and change. In a single day, they were reduced to dust.

Their destruction was at once a cynical publicity stunt, calculated to draw the attention of the international community, and a fanatical act targeting the pre-Islamic past of Afghanistan. With puritanical zeal, the Taliban sought to impose their brand of Islam on both the present and the past of Afghanistan. The monuments were a reminder of the layered history of the country, which, over the centuries, has been home to a multitude of cultures and faiths. As testaments to the complexity of Afghan history, the buddhas were not allowed to stand.

Moved by the demolition of the statues in Bamiyan and other threats to cultural heritage, the civil engineer Ben Kacyra founded CyArk in 2003. The organization uses cutting-edge laser scanning technology to digitally map structures and archaeological sites in precise detail. This imagery can be used to study far-flung sites and helps build a digital archive of the world’s monumental cultural heritage. But it also allows another more radical use. With the thorough laser mapping provided by CyArk, preservationists can better restore cultural heritage sites that are damaged or even destroyed.

Large pagodas in Bagan (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

In 2013, CyArk launched the 500 Challenge, an ambitious plan to map 500 different world heritage sites in five years. Its geographical scope is vast and its potential services immense. Take, for instance, the temple complex at Bagan in Myanmar. In August 2016, an earthquake damaged many structures on the site. Luckily, researchers with CyArk had mapped parts of Bagan earlier that summer. Their detailed scans of the nearly millennium-old temples can help in the restoration of damaged buildings.

A photogrammetry reconstruction of Chamber 9 in Laas Geel, Somalia (From the collection of CyArk)

Projects range into the deep past. For instance, in a remote region of Somaliland, a self-declared independent state within internationally-recognized Somalia, archaeologists have found caves that boast Neolithic rock paintings composed between 9000 BCE and 2000 BCE. Laser scans of the caves will safeguard the record of this little known site that sits in a volatile region.

Rock art in the naturally occurring rock shelters in Somaliland (From the collection of CyArk)

Other CyArk projects are significantly more contemporary. They include the documentation of the remains of the Honouliuli Internment Camp in Hawaii, where many Japanese Americans were held in detention during World War II. Students mapped the site, which has nearly disappeared, and used their digital reconstructions to remember a period in American history when the state betrayed the ideals of the nation and discriminated against its citizens.

Some monuments open up a history that reaches far beyond the borders of one country. The Portuguese settled in the uninhabited islands of Cape Verde off the coast of West Africa in the middle of the 15th century. The remains of the Portuguese citadel at Ribeira Grande, also known as Cidade Velha or “old town,” still stand even though the settlement declined in the 18th century. Cidade Velha is considered the first of the slaving emporiums that would strew the west coast of Africa in subsequent centuries, pumping out shackled human beings to Europe and the Americas. Cape Verde’s old town is a monument to the grotesque Atlantic slave trade that was so central in making the modern world.

CyArk scanning the for in Cidade Velha (From the collection of CyArk)

A heritage site can also serve as a rallying point for a nation, a sign of a country’s shared identity rooted in a deep past. Geghardavank or the “monastery of the spear” sits in the Azat valley in Armenia. Legend has it that the spear with which Jesus was stabbed at the crucifixion was brought to this corner of Armenia by the apostle Jude. With numerous older chapels cut into the rock, the main monastery building itself was built in the 13th century.

CyArk enlisted Armenian high school students to help in the 3D laser scanning of the complex. The organization has also done similar mapping work on a very different Armenian site, the ruined capital of Ani, which was one of the great cities of the world in 10th and 11th centuries but now sits desolate within the borders of modern-day Turkey.

CyArk and students scanning the monastery (From the collection of CyArk)
Scaled map of the Geghard Monastery (From the collection of CyArk) 

Conflict roils several parts of the Middle East, destroying lives and threatening monuments. Syria has been wracked by years of civil war. The militant group ISIS are the most well-known vandals, having deliberately targeted the ruins of the city of Palmyra among other ancient edifices. In an effort to preserve the country’s great wealth of cultural sites, researchers have mapped numerous structures, complexes, and fortifications. These include the Al Azem Palace in Damascus, a magnificent Ottoman-era courtyard home built in the 18th century. The palace enjoys greater protection and security than many other important monuments in the war-torn country, but it has been destroyed in the past. The building was significantly damaged by the invading French in 1925 and was only restored in 1965. It has now been added to CyArk’s database of digitally mapped cultural heritage. If not entirely safe from the devastation of war, it has been secured from another kind of devastation, that of being forgotten.

Despite the best efforts of preservationists, it may not always be possible to protect the physical remains of important cultural heritage sites. Threats to cultural heritage come not just from the cudgels of groups like the Taliban and ISIS. Natural disasters like earthquakes and floods can damage important cultural sites. Urban sprawl, pollution, and general neglect can allow monuments to crumble to the ground. Laser mapping and digitizing sites provides a fundamental defence against forgetting. A monument doesn’t simply disappear when it is destroyed, but when it can no longer be remembered.

Aerial view of the Al Azem Palace in Damascus (From the collection of CyArk)

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Words by Kanishk Tharoor
Credits: All media
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