Preserving Palmyra: Ancient City In Danger From ISIS


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3D prototype aspect of the theatre at Palmyra

This is Conan’s aspect prototype of the stage of Palmyra’s theatre. Copyright image by Conan Parsons, used with permission, all rights reserved.

The city of Palmyra is in danger like never before. Deliberate destruction by ISIS has already obliterated several of its major monuments. The continued threat of terrorist violence, coupled with bombing by Russian forces, means future generations face losing Palmyra altogether.

But work is afoot to preserve Palmyra’s monuments – in virtual form.

Palmyra Photogrammetry is an ambitious one-man initiative from archaeological geometrician Conan Parson, whose aim is to create a 3D model of the lost monuments of the ancient city.

Decoded Science spoke to Conan to find out what inspired him to undertake such an ambitious project, how he is proceeding- and how people can help.

Palmyra Photogrammetry

Conan Parsons set up Palmyra photogrammetry on the 22 August 2015, in response to the destruction of Bel Shamin.

Conan was already familiar with photogrammetry from his work for a commercial archaeology company in the UK, where he generated 3D models of archaeological structures for clients unable to attend site meetings.

But it was the work of Project Mosul, an initiative set up by researchers of the Initial Training Network for Digital Cultural Heritage, which inspired him to put his skills to use in Palmyra.

“I was inspired by Project Mosul, after seeing in the news their work on reconstructing artifacts that were destroyed in Mosul Museum by Islamic State,” Conan told Decoded Science. “Working as an archaeological geometrician I thought ‘I’m doing this for entire sites at work, if I can ask the public for their photos then maybe I can do the same on a larger scale’”

What is Photogrammetry?

The Monumental Arch, Palmyra

A photogrammetry arch under construction. Detail is limited as more photographs are needed. Copyright image by Conan Parsons, used with permission, all rights reserved.

Photogrammetry is a roughly defined as the science of making measurements from photographs- usually for maps, drawings- or 3D models for individual objects.

“Originally it was intended for use on specific objects but it also works for larger subjects too,” explained Conan.

The pictures used in photogrammetry can either be aerial or close range. For the purposes of his project, Conan has requested close range photographs from visitors to the site.

But how do photographs recreate actual objects?

“When there are enough photos covering all angles of the subject a point cloud (A set of 3D data points defined by X, Y, and Z coordinates) is created from the aligned photos,” explained Conan. “Using the meta data from the digital photos (such as ISO, shutter speed, aperture etc.) distances are estimated.”

The more photographs used, the better:

“As more photos are aligned these estimations become more accurate,” Conan continued. “Angles and shapes are then calculated from these measurements. Once the photos are all aligned and camera positions checked for accuracy unwanted objects (such as people, tools, detritus) a dense cloud is created as the next step, giving a good representation as to how the model will appear.”

This point cloud is used to create the barebones of the model using a computerized wireframe mesh as the basic form of the object in question. The model is then checked to see if it’s the correct shape and if necessary, the coordinates checked to eradicate any errors.

“Finally,” said Conan, “the photos are used again to create one large image which is then overlain on the mesh to create the final model.”

Progress to Date

To date, Conan has 3100 photographs donated by members of the public, which he has used to begin work on recreating the monumental arch, the tetrapylon and the theatre.

Other donors include Agisoft who have provided the project with a free license for the software Conan uses for his models. His employer, Oxford Archaeology, has also helped, loaning a laptop and secondary monitor to use until his crowd fund for his own hardware is complete.

“Originally I hadn’t intended to crowd fund anything!” said Conan. “But I tried running a ‘quick’ test of an area and quickly realized how out-of-date my laptop had become.”

International Interest

Worldwide support in Conan’s project is growing. Professor Meyer of Begen University has become the project’s largest donor, gifting 8GB of the photos to date and provided a map to help Conan scale and orient the models.

Project Mosul, Conan’s initial inspiration for the project, have also become involved. British archaeological societies such as BAJR and Modern Conflict Archaeology have thrown their weight behind the project in the form of social media support.
Conan’s work is also proving inspirational for others.

“I have had enquiries from PhD students who are writing papers that touch upon 3D reconstruction or conflict archaeology,” said Conan, who has also been asked to write and article about his work for Rescue News. “Also I have been approached by Erin Thompson, Assistant Professor of Art Crime at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.”

Palmyra in 3D

What is Conan’s ultimate hope for the project?

“The ultimate outcome would be a complete representation of the site in 3D,” Conan said,”but using tourist photos this is highly unlikely to be achieved. However, I am confident that individual buildings such as the Temples of Bel and Baal Shamin, the amphitheatre and tetrapylon, etc., will be recreated in their relative positions and gaps can be filled by other methods.”

The Palmyra project has also whet his appetite for future challenges.

“When I have done as much as I can, I can use then use the equipment on another project or otherwise help out project Mosul,” he explained.

In the meantime, Conan still needs as many photographs as possible taken from as many angles as possible so he can recreate Palmyra’s buildings as accurately as possible.

Can you help? If you have any photographs of Palmyra please email [email protected] and see their Facebook page for more details.

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