Holiday photos could help digitally reconstruct of some of the world's historic monuments

08 Sep 2016 12:52:56.647

Archaeologists from the UK are calling on members of the public to help them preserve the legacy of some of the world’s most important monuments and historic sites, including those most at risk in Syria and Libya.

Researchers from The University of Nottingham Ningbo China (UNNC) have joined forces with the Universities of Bradford and St Andrews and regional specialists to build a comprehensive online resource by digitally reconstructing archaeological sites that have been destroyed or are under threat as a consequence of recent conflict, terrorism and natural disaster. 

The Curious Travellers project is seeking out real life curious travellers who have made recent visits to ancient sites or monuments that are now at risk or have been damaged. 

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The hope is they will share their photographs and videos to build the new digital resource. The project will initially highlight sites in North Africa, including Cyrene in Libya, as well as those in Syria and the Middle East but it is open to historic sites around the world. The public are invited to upload material to the project website -

Dr Eugene Ch’ng, from the School of Computer Science at UNNC, will be leading on the computer architecture and crowd-sourcing interface of the project.

Dr Ch’ng heads up the newly established NVIDIA Joint-Lab on Mixed Reality (Visualisation and AI) at UNNC. The laboratory was established following his collaboration with NVIDIA.

Dr Ch’ng’s involvement with the Curious Travellers project was a continuation of his years of association with the IBM Visual and Spatial Technology Centre at the University of Birmingham on the Stonehenge Hidden Landscape research.

Dr Ch’ng said: “As well as leading on the big data work for mining the Web, I will be supervising a research fellow who will develop the software modules and crowd-sourcing applications, and provide support to develop the database needed to reconstruct the 3D models. The project is designed to provide rapid and substantive output that will be of immediate value to international heritage, conservation and site management.”

They will use these state-of-the-art Big Data methodologies to mine the web and social media for images and text, alongside opportunities for the public to engage with the project through crowd-sourcing activities.

The team of researchers will combine publicly donated content with other freely available resources drawn from travel blogs, the wider web and social media to recreate 3D models of monuments and ancient sites.

All reconstructed content will be placed in context using relevant site and landscape data. 

The project has received £305,000 in funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson said: “Destruction of our world’s monuments is a deliberate attempt to undermine a community’s cultural identity. Thanks to the UK’s technological advances, our holiday pictures could now help rebuild and preserve these great ancient sites for future generations.” 

The name “Curious Travellers” is taken from a letter written by the eighteenth century art historian, Horace Walpole, Earl of Orford to his friend Sir Horace Mann in 1774 - “At last some curious traveller from Lima will visit England, and give a description of the ruins of St. Paul’s, like the editions of Balbec and Palmyra”. 

The Bradford Visualisation team, based in the School of Archaeological Sciences at the University of Bradford will lead in the reconstruction of monuments as 3D models.

Site context reconstruction will be led by remote sensing specialists from the School of Earth Sciences at the University of St Andrews. 

Ultimately the project will provide an important framework for government bodies and heritage organisations that can be used for interpreting, presenting, conserving and managing other heritage sites around the world. 

Dr Andrew Wilson from the University of Bradford said: “Curious Travellers is a strategic response to tragic circumstances. We now have the opportunity to harness digital documentation methods, crowd sourcing and novel web applications to better serve the conservation and management of globally important heritage. Contributions from members of the public are vital to the success of this project and we very much hope people will sift through their own collections for useful material.”

Professor Vincent Gaffney, Anniversary Chair in Landscape Archaeology at the University of Bradford explains: “The immense media coverage relating to the destruction of prominent sites in Syria hides the true scale of cultural destruction due to conflict, looting and other forms of cultural vandalism. Recently, specific sites have also been targeted in Libya and if we look back over time, we can identify the widespread loss of other sites, for example those throughout Afghanistan in the early 2000s where the Bamiyan Buddhas were destroyed.”

Dr Chris Gaffney, Head of the School of Archaeological Sciences at the University of Bradford said: “This project is unique as it collates both public data and generates heritage information that can be used where archaeological evidence has been damaged or destroyed. The long-term legacy of this project is the establishment of a framework that can be used anywhere in the world to help preserve vital information about historic sites.”

Dr Richard Bates, Senior Lecturer in Earth Sciences at the University of St Andrews said: “We will never be able to physically rebuild all the monuments affected by recent conflicts, or natural disasters, but we hope to do more than preserve their memory through this project. We hope that people across the world will come together and respond with their images to be part of this project.”

Dr Richard Cuttler, UK-based International Heritage Consultancy MOSPA, said: “By integrating 3D heritage models into a spatial framework developed as a historic environment record tool we are providing the infrastructure for antiquities departments, museums and local authorities to be able to catalogue and manage heritage assets into the future.” 

Dr Gareth Sears, Senior Lecturer, University of Birmingham said: “The ancient site of Cyrene in Libya offers an important test case for us. Whilst the current stability and security of Libya remains fluid and travel advisories warn against all travel, we can benefit from previous systematic and detailed archaeological investigations at this world heritage site. A public appeal for imagery allows us to compare the accuracy of photographs against measured records, including 3D site scan data.”

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Notes to editors: The University of Nottingham has 43,000 students and is ‘the nearest Britain has to a truly global university, with a “distinct” approach to internationalisation, which rests on those full-scale campuses in China and Malaysia, as well as a large presence in its home city.’ (Times Good University Guide 2016). It is also one of the most popular universities in the UK among graduate employers and was named University of the Year for Graduate Employment in the 2017 The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide. It is ranked in the world’s top 75 by the QS World University Rankings 2015/16, and 8th in the UK for research power according to the Research Excellence Framework 2014. It has been voted the world’s greenest campus for four years running, according to Greenmetrics Ranking of World Universities.

Impact: The Nottingham Campaign, its biggest-ever fundraising campaign, is delivering the University’s vision to change lives, tackle global issues and shape the future. More news…

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More information is available from Dr Eugene Ch’ng in the School of Computer Science at The University of Nottingham Ningbo China,; or Beck Lockwood, Campus PR, tel: 0121 451 1321; mobile: 0778 3802318; email:
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