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How Lasers, Radar, and Local Economies Are Helping Save World Heritage Sites

An interview with Global Heritage Fund: the techies of cultural conservation.
Cuidad Perdida. Image: Gavin Rough

Archeology is often viewed as a painstaking science involving scalpels, toothbrushes, and methodically detailed notes. Well, to a large extent, that remains an accurate perception. But it doesn't mean that lasers can't be thrown into the mix too.

The Global Heritage Fund, a non-profit based in Silicon Valley, is eager to employ novel technological approaches to the evergreen problem of protecting cultural history. Since the organization was founded in 2001, they have used LIDAR laser technology, ground-penetrating radar, satellite maps, and crowdsourcing to help preserve and promote heritage sites.


I spoke with Executive Director Vince Michael about how these methods have helped Global Heritage Fund achieve its primary goal: encouraging communities to become actively involved in the preservation of their local heritage sites. Be warned: this interview will inspire wanderlust.

Motherboard: How does Global Heritage Fund select its candidate sites?
Vince Michael: We factor in the community development at the front end. We don't adopt a site just based on the fact that it's threatened. It would be nice to, because there is plenty of that. But we also look for opportunities for partnerships that can make it a successful project.

Our basic model is this: you can pour all the money you want into a heritage site. But unless the community, its ultimate stewards, benefit from that site, it's wasted money. It'll be gone in a generation. If you can get the local community to benefit from it, it will be in their interest in the long term, and they're the only ones who can preserve it in the long term. Even if your interest is only heritage, the only way to do that is community.

"We track more than 700 sites in the developing world through this crowdsourcing database."

On the flip side, on the community side, we think about sustainable development. If I build a factory in India, an office building in Malaysia, a store in Guatemala—I can move all those things. I can't move the Taj Mahal or the Great Wall of China. So, if I can make a heritage site an economic generator for the community, that's permanent and sustainable.


How do lasers help in the preservation of these sites?
Global Heritage Fund does both above and below ground heritage sites in developing countries. About half of them are archeological and half are architectural, and interestingly, a lot of laser technology can be used for both.

The remains of Gobekli Tepe. Image: Teomancimit.

If you think about it, the traditional approach to archeology is quite destructive. You're digging a hole into the past, and you're charting everything and recording everything. But you're also looking for a needle in a haystack to some extent. Laser technology gives you the opportunity to try to figure out where the needle might be before you start digging.

That's one of the advantages of the airborne LIDAR technology. We use close-scale laser technology for actually scanning individual stones in order to reconstruct walls. So, you can actually use this technology at both the macro scale and micro scale.

What other technologies does Global Heritage Fund use?
We have used ground-penetrating radar in India, which is a way of scanning the surface to figure out where is the best place to dig. For example, we've [used GPR] at Rakhigarhi in Haryana state. It's fascinating because it's a Harappan site, which is the Indus River Civilization—the oldest civilization in the world. It's also largely unexcavated, and there's a community built on top of parts of it. So you really want to be careful to figure out where's the best place to dig so you don't disturb the community.


Then we also use our database, Global Heritage Network. We track more than 700 sites in the developing world through this crowdsourcing database. People can apply to be a site monitor—they can upload photos of the site, update information, upload reports on the site. So, some of the sites are pretty well documented whereas others could use a site monitor because we're depending on local sources.

It's something we would definitely like to grow and get more people involved with. There are about 1,100-1,200 people involved now that tend to be mostly professionals in the field or people with professional interest in heritage. But there's plenty of room for that to grow.

You're also partnering with another preservation company called Cyark, which can provide 3D imaging of heritage sites. What projects will you be working on together?
Cyark is a not-for-profit in Oakland and they do traditional point-cloud renderings, which are done with a base station. These are really precise scans. It's a thousand lasers going out, and then in a computer being turned into a full-scale three-dimensional model of something that's really big, like Mount Rushmore. We're partnering with them on a proposal to scan one of the oldest Peruvian sites in Lima.

The idea is that they could be used by other researchers and scholars. You have permanent documentation of the structure. If anything happens in the future, you have effectively a much more accurate way to reconstruct or preserve [sites] than you would by the traditional methods of drawings or photographs.


Cyark has this plan to do 500 sites across the world. We work at about six to eight major projects each year, and a similar number of what we call investigations which are minor projects that might become major projects later. At each site, we look at the potential for tools we can bring in, what tools we can afford to bring in, and what tools make the most sense.

Sometimes, you get sites and they've already been scanned. For example, Gobekli Tepe in Turkey is an 11,000-year-old site, the world's oldest temple, and it has already been scanned. So we didn't need to worry about bringing it in on that project. That one, we focused on conservation, development, and security.

What is GHF's strategy for incentivizing communities to be involved in the conservation of their local heritage sites?
We do like to get people involved in the actual conservation and preservation. For example in Banteay Chhmar, in Cambodia, there are local people who have been trained as stonemasons to do restoration. In Turkey, some people are trained in conservation, other people doing security. There are job opportunities.

Tourism is a possibility as well. We've been working with community-based tourist organizations that get people to do home-stays. There's a collection of local leaders who form sort of a tourism council that tries to take advantage of tourism opportunities.

"The idea is to not just focus on pure 'here's a heritage site, let's bring tourists.' Maybe there's also intangible heritage locally."

At the same time we're very careful not to overdo tourism because you can see plenty of places in the world like Angkor or Machu Picchu where the tourism's been overdone. That can ruin the resource, and that kind of tourism leaves out the locals. One of the great ironies is that Angkor, which gets three million visitors a year, is in Siem Reap, which is the poorest province in Cambodia. One of the things we try very hard to do is to figure out what are the best ways to capture any [economic] increase in the local community.

For example, we're doing a project in Guizhou, which is the poorest province in China. We're working with a local Chinese NGO that helps communities market what they do. So, one community makes silver, another community makes paper, but maybe they need to increase its value a couple times in order to make it sustainable. They figure out a way to do that whether it's marketing, or a business, or production techniques.

The idea is to not just focus on pure “here's a heritage site, let's bring tourists.” Maybe there's also intangible heritage locally: things that people do, longtime traditions that also have value either by producing goods and services for a wider market.

Our model is to say: “how can this be part of the regular life of a place? How can we revitalize it; find use for it?” We're trying to preserve the past in ways that are useful for the future.