Tuesday, 24 March 2015




Last month, the museum world – and much of the general public – watched in horror as ISIS destroyed irreplaceable artifacts at the Mosul Museum in Iraq. In the propaganda video released by ISIS, members of the Islamic-extremist group smashed and defaced statues using sledgehammers and power tools. Mercifully, it later came to light many of the objects were reproductions, but many genuine Assyrian artifacts were either looted or destroyed.

ISIS fighter destroys face of statue with power tools.
An ISIS fighter defaces an Assyrian statue. Source
As often happens, the Internet has rallied to the cause. The Initial Training Network for Digital Cultural Heritage has spearheaded a crowdsourcing project to recreate the destroyed and looted artifacts virtually. Project Mosul will use photographs to recreate the objects in 3-D with a technique called photogrammetry.


By taking measurements from multiple photographs, photogrammetry can recover exact surface points to develop 3-D models of objects or places. The different photograph angles create a stereoscopic image, much in the same way our eyes do. Software then overlays the photograph textures and colours. There's no special equipment necessary. A simple point and shoot camera and some 3-D modeling software will do the job.

Incense table with god Nirgul relief.
Incense table with god Nirgul relief. Source.
Using this technique, Project Mosul has already partially reconstructed five damaged objects based on photos submitted by the public. These include a lion relief, an iron gate and an incense table. Many of the submitted photos are vacation shots, combined together to show an object from multiple angles.

Photogrammetry has been used by museum conservators and researchers for years, but usually when examining archeological sites or large objects that can’t be taken back to the lab for analysis or restoration. Photogrammetry can help examine the complex surface of a fresco in a an Egyptian tomb, for example, or record every aspect and texture of a statue that can't be moved from its original location. It can also map an archeological site, making detailed models of terrain change and distance between areas.

Photogrammertry of Egyptian hieroglyphs
Photogrammetry process of an Egyptian tomb wall. Source.
Appropriately, the British Museum made 3-D images of some of their Assyrian reliefs back in late 2014 for the CyArk project using photogrammetry. CyArk aims to develop 3-D models of heritage sites, with photogrammetry as one of the main techniques for digitization.


The purpose of these 3-D models is two-fold for Project Mosul. They can not only help with restoration, but also help identify looted artifacts that may appear on the antiquities market. However, getting photographs to recreate objects may be a bit more difficult than first throught. The Mosul Museum has been closed since 2003, meaning digital photographs are harder to come by.

Project Mosul is asking the public to join in the preservation efforts by providing pictures of artifacts, help code the framework for the project's website, mask images and process artifacts, or simply spread the word to those who may have visited the museum.

Virtual objects will never be the perfect replacement for what was lost, but it helps keep the object's memory alive and lets the museum world fight back. 

1 comment:

  1. Jenny, these are very valid questions and conclusions - I recently attended a conference where one of the presenters was fully opposed to the digitization of rare books because the digital version cannot fully replace the physical version. But I do not think this is the purpose of a digital collection - it cannot replace the artefact but it can preserve things that are lost, as you point out, or provide alternative interpretations of objects. Lucky for us, museum studies scholars, these discussions continue and are very visible.