In February, video footage emerged appearing to show ISIS fighters destroying artefacts at the Mosul Museum in Iraq. Figures in the video pushed over statues and took sledgehammers to the museum's ancient relics.
Since then, a project has been underway to restore these artefacts of cultural heritage—digitally.
Project Mosul is gathering images of the destroyed pieces to make 3D digital versions of them. Ultimately, it wants to put together a whole virtual museum to remember the lost treasures.
Matthew Vincent and Chance Coughenour are both part of a European project called ITN-DCH, or Initial Training Network for Digital Cultural Heritage: Projecting our Past to the Future, which is all about documenting and heritage digitally.
When the ISIS video went around, the pair discussed it on their Facebook page as an example of something they wished they'd been able to document. Coughenour added a comment suggesting they could crowdsource images. "That would be an amazing response to ISIS! Reconstruct whatever they deconstruct," Vincent replied. Project Mosul was born.
"We noticed that it started to take off rapidly," said Coughenour. A main initial challenge was—and still is—actually getting hold of images, as the museum has been inaccessible since 2003 and the start of the Iraq War, and digital cameras weren't as common before then. But as the project got picked up by the press, word got out.
Three women who had worked in Iraq, University of Arizona conservationist Suzanne Bott, US Army Colonel Mary Prophit, and Deakin University researcher Diane Siebrandt, stepped up with an initial collection that got the project off the ground. "I think it was over 150 images we got of just the museum," Vincent said. The project's first 3D reconstruction is of a lion, and used 16 images.
The process works as follows: volunteers pool their photos on the site, where more volunteers can sort through them to pick out different artefacts and mask out surrounding details so only the artefact is visible. The final step is to use photogrammetry software to render a 3D model. This works by combining information from images taken at different angles to get a sense of depth and so on. 3D display website Sketchfab stepped in to host the models.
"Now on the website, there are more models that volunteers have produced than we produced initially," said Vincent.
While some people are excited about the prospect of 3D-printing the models, the team warned that the fidelity probably isn't really there as there isn't enough overlap between the images.
"We have to make it clear that we're respecting Iraq's wishes on this and trying not to usurp their heritage."
It's not just a technical challenge; working with heritage preservation, particularly under such political circumstances, raises obvious cultural issues. The duo is reaching out to authorities in Iraq in the hopes of getting formal support for the project.
"We have to make it clear that we're respecting Iraq's wishes on this and trying not to usurp their heritage," said Vincent.
Some reports suggest that destroyed artefacts in Mosul included replicas, but the team said that, even if some were not originals, the project is still worth it to draw attention to the issue and to mobilise actions at sites that were definitely original and are now destroyed.
They're now hoping to get more volunteer coders onboard, and after Mosul they'd like to turn their attention to other nearby areas such as Hatra and Nimrud, Unesco world heritage sites that have also been reportedly destroyed by ISIS.
But they're keen to emphasise that they are just in the business of preserving heritage; in this case their work is in response to intentional destruction but it could just as well be in response to a natural disaster. "We're heritage professionals, we're not warriors," said Vincent.