Cultural Heritage Imaging

Reflections on Threats to World History by chicaseyc

Our guest blogger, Matt Hinson, is a junior at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He spent the summer as an intern at CHI. Thanks, Matt!

ISIS destruction at Nimrud

Screen shot from ISIS video of the destruction of Nimrud, April 2015

During my summer internship at Cultural Heritage Imaging (CHI), I learned a great deal about the danger facing many of the world’s treasures as well as the efforts to save them. My background in international history leads me to believe that international law and policy can help to address many of the dangers. I have also learned how CHI is contributing to the revolution in how we interact with information and deal with these cultural heritage threats.

The variety of projects that CHI undertakes demonstrates the wide range of threats facing cultural heritage. Although some of CHI’s most recent projects have dealt with weathering and natural deterioration, it is important to understand the other risks to humanity’s greatest treasures. One can categorize tangible cultural heritage sites into natural formations, historic structures, including cities and sculptures, and inscriptions. Complex rock formations, the cities built by ancient cultures, works of art, and monuments are all included. It is also important to recognize cultural heritage sites that hold symbolic value to a specific community or group. Many of these are protected by national parks and museums, but only to a certain extent. Multiple forces continue to threaten this material.

Threats can be divided into man-made and natural. The man-made category encompasses destruction from conflict, construction, and development. Human neglect can also be included as a potential danger to the survival of important sites. War has become one of the most widely observed man-made threats to cultural heritage, particularly in ongoing conflicts in Africa and the Middle East. Groups fighting for ideological reasons, such as religious fundamentalists, have attempted to destroy artifacts that contradict their beliefs. The recent destruction of the ancient city of Nimrud by the Islamic State is one prominent example. Conflict areas tend to encourage looting of historic sites, leading to sales of antiquities on the black market. Often the lure of financial gain from the development of sites that contain important heritage outweighs the cultural value that is at risk. One example is the impending destruction of an ancient Turkish cave city after the completion of a dam that will put it under water.

In most parts of the world, environmental threats to cultural heritage are more prevalent than man-made ones. For monuments, statues, and other structures made of stone, weathering is a common means of loss. Precipitation, especially acid rain, and other kinds of exposure to water can lead to the gradual erosion of stone, rotting of wood, and general deterioration of sites and monuments.


National Park Service (NPS) map of the 105 US parks vulnerable to sea level rise. From “Strategies for Coastal Park Adaptation to Climate Change”:

Environmental damage caused by climate change is accelerating the destruction. Rising sea levels are predicted to have a particularly devastating impact on many cultural sites. A recent study shows that predicted sea level rise over the next years will put 80% of Icelandic cultural sites at risk. According to the National Park Service (NPS), natural heritage sites in the US are also at risk. The NPS reports 105 parks as “vulnerable to sea level rise.” The effect on weather patterns due to climate change, particularly the increase in severe weather events, could pose major threats to cultural heritage sites beyond normal historical weathering.

How can these various threats be addressed? Archaeological preservation is one common method of physically excavating and preserving important historical artifacts. Moving objects to museums has successfully preserved different forms of cultural heritage throughout time. Digital imaging, practiced here at CHI, is a powerful tool to be used alongside archaeological methods to provide additional, more detailed information for the historical record. Digital representations of cultural heritage sites can be used to monitor the rates of change at these sites as well as preserve their shape and cultural significance. The re-creation of cultural heritage with digital methods also impacts how information is shared: an artifact that may be thousands of miles away can be viewed by anyone anywhere in an accurate digital form. This also allows objects and sites to stay in their original locations while providing access to their digital representations.

From my perspective, a crucial element in furthering the protection of cultural heritage is the legal and political protection of these sites. International law has developed to protect the things that have been identified as most sacred to communities around the world, including human dignity, life, and freedoms. Cultural heritage must be worthy of the same kind of protection every day as well as in wartime. Although some institutions already exist to defend cultural heritage, UNESCO, for example, I believe we must govern the protection of artifacts and sites with laws just as we do in cases of war crimes and sovereignty.

Another lesson I take away from my time at CHI concerns the changes in our interactions with information and knowledge. I am familiar with the usual media in our repositories of knowledge: text, photographs, video, and audio. While these media convey interpretations and descriptions of their subject matter, they rarely can stand as accurate representations of sites and objects. The potential that three-dimensional imaging brings to human interaction with information can be enormous. Many historical and cultural wonders previously limited to a particular geographical area could be made accessible to others, leading to progress in historical and interpretive research. Expanding research on these 3D methods, such as the ongoing work at CHI, can lead to highly effective ways of contributing to this revolution in information.

RTI study of the Sennedjem Lintel

The Sennedjem Lintel from the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. Lower left left shows the surface color and shape. Upper right shows an enhanced surface shape.

CHI has exposed me to a lot of these problems facing world heritage sites but has also introduced me to the preservation and information successes that are possible with different methods and technologies.