Back To the Fu­ture

3D tech­nol­ogy is pre­serv­ing threat­ened ar­chae­o­log­i­cal trea­sures for pos­ter­ity.

Reader's Digest International - - Contents - BY SUSANNAH HICKLING

AS YVES UBEL­MANN DODGES TRAFFIC ON PARIS’S Place de la Con­corde it’s clear he’s a man on a mis­sion. To­day’s mis­sion is tak­ing him to the iconic Grand Palais mu­seum com­plex just off the Champs-Elysées, which is host­ing the first ex­hi­bi­tion to show­case the work of his com­pany, Iconem, an in­no­va­tive start-up that uses cut­ting-edge tech­nol­ogy to bring the glory of the an­cient world to life.

Ubel­mann, 37, is an ar­chi­tect who spe­cial­izes in the world’s an­cient mon­u­ments, many of which are fast van­ish­ing as a re­sult of armed con­flict, ur­ban de­vel­op­ment and nat­u­ral dis­as­ters such as floods and earth­quakes. His work takes him from Pom­peii and Rome to Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, from Oman to Haiti

and back again to his na­tive France.

“Ar­chae­ol­ogy was al­ways a big in­ter­est of mine,” he says. “Dur­ing my ar­chi­tec­ture stud­ies and af­ter I qual­i­fied, I vis­ited many ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites in dif­fer­ent coun­tries and I was shocked to see how quickly they were de­te­ri­o­rat­ing.”

Ubel­mann uses drones to take thou­sands of aerial pho­to­graphs of his­toric sites un­der threat. He then ap­plies com­puter al­go­rithms that can take mea­sure­ments from those images and trans­form them into ul­tra-pre­cise 3D dig­i­tal mod­els, in a process known as pho­togram­me­try.

These 3D mod­els can then be used to make maps, pro­vide an ar­chive for the ar­chae­ol­o­gists and his­to­ri­ans of the fu­ture and—cru­cially—re­veal to the public the ar­chi­tec­tural won­ders of the past.

His Sites Eter­nels ex­hi­bi­tion in Paris is a strik­ing il­lus­tra­tion of his work. The 360-de­gree floor-to-ceil­ing pro­jec­tions of re­con­structed sites from the Mid­dle East plunge vis­i­tors in a star­tlingly de­tailed world of tem­ples and mosques, grand arches and Cru­sader cas­tles.

“The images sup­plied by Iconem take vis­i­tors on an amaz­ing im­mer­sive voy­age into the heart of these of­ten in­ac­ces­si­ble sites,” says Jean-Luc Martinez, di­rec­tor of Paris’s Lou­vre mu­seum, which col­lab­o­rated on the ex­hi­bi­tion.

UBEL­MANN IS ALSO A BUSI­NESS­MAN, em­ploy­ing 10 peo­ple who turn his images into pho­to­re­al­is­tic dig­i­tal mod­els on over­sized com­puter screens in cramped of­fices in Paris’s tra­di­tion­ally arty Mont­par­nasse area. His fam­ily have had links to Mont­par­nasse and to art and ar­chi­tec­ture for gen­er­a­tions. At the end of the 19th cen­tury his great­great-grand­fa­ther was a teacher of draw­ing in the very street where Iconem has its of­fices, while his grand­fa­ther was—like Yves—an ar­chi­tect who worked on the con­ser­va­tion of an­cient mon­u­ments, in­clud­ing Mont-Sain­tMichel in Nor­mandy.

“From an early age I was steeped in a cul­tural bath that opened my eyes to his­toric mon­u­ments and to draw­ing,” says Ubel­mann. “I draw of­ten. I use it to en­rich my un­der­stand­ing of ar­chi­tec­ture. It’s a fam­ily tra­di­tion!”

As a teenager, he vol­un­teered on ar­chae­o­log­i­cal digs and, af­ter qual­i­fy­ing as an ar­chi­tect in 2006, his work took him to Italy, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and Pak­istan, study­ing an­cient build­ings and their set­tings.

“The Iconem images take vis­i­tors on an

im­mer­sive voy­age into the heart of these in­ac­ces­si­ble


It was in Afghanistan that he was re­ally struck by what was hap­pen­ing to the coun­try’s re­mark­able her­itage. He saw that loot­ing of an­cient arte­facts, coins, ce­ram­ics and sculp­tures was wide­spread. Else­where in the coun­try, vi­o­lent floods had car­ried off a 16th-cen­tury mon­u­ment, while at an im­por­tant Bud­dhist site mud walls were crum­bling un­der the desert sun.

PHYS­I­CAL RECONSTRUCTION JUST wasn’t fea­si­ble in many of the coun­tries he vis­ited. “You can’t just block the growth of a town, you can’t pro­vide a mil­i­tary guard for all the sites— armies are of­ten un­der at­tack—so loot­ing is in­evitable. And the au­thor­i­ties are of­ten im­pov­er­ished, and try­ing to deal with con­flicts.

“The ma­jor­ity of gov­ern­ments in the coun­tries where we’ve worked want to pro­tect their her­itage, but there’s a lack of funds, a lack of or­ga­ni­za­tion.” Ubel­mann also dis­cov­ered that many sites were not even clas­si­fied as his­toric mon­u­ments. Some were to­tally un­known. “It’s very wor­ry­ing,” he says.

He started to think about an al­ter­na­tive to re­build­ing. “That al­ter­na­tive was to set up agree­ments to doc­u­ment sites dig­i­tally. We might have lost the sites, but we will have pre­served their mem­ory. This is very im­por­tant, be­cause of­ten they are sites that have not been stud­ied. What as­ton­ished me, and what as­ton­ishes me to­day, is that there is no in­ter­na­tional pro­gram of doc­u­men­ta­tion.”

UNESCO is able to fo­cus only on

small per­cent­age of ar­chae­o­log­i­cal re­mains that are clas­si­fied as World Her­itage Sites. Ubel­mann, how­ever, is also pas­sion­ate about the hun­dreds of other sites. “These are the sites we need to pro­tect the most. If we lose them, we lose all ev­i­dence of their his­tory, of lives lived.

“I turned the prob­lem over in my head for quite a while,” he con­tin­ues. “And it was while look­ing for a means of doc­u­ment­ing sites that I found two emerg­ing tech­niques.”

In the late 2000s drones and pho­togram­me­try were de­vel­op­ing in par­al­lel. A cam­era mounted on a drone could com­press two months of la­bo­ri­ous sur­vey­ing us­ing tra­di­tional meth­ods into a few hours.

Pho­togram­me­try used soft­ware which could pro­duce pre­cise 3D mod­els from as few as two images. Ubel­mann be­lieved he could com­bine these tech­nolo­gies to mea­sure, map and recre­ate an­cient sites with pin­point ac­cu­racy. He could even in­tro­duce old pho­to­graphs to show how they had changed over time.

He teamed up with for­mer he­li­copter pi­lot Philippe Barthélémy, who knew how to fly drones, and in 2010 they set off for Afghanistan to test the gad­getry at Mes Ay­nak, a spec­tac­u­lar 5,000-year-old Bud­dhist com­plex. It was packed with trea­sures, in­clud­ing hun­dreds of stat­ues of Bud­dha, but was due to be de­stroyed so that cop­per re­serves be­neath the sur­face of the site could be ex­ploited.

The race was on to doc­u­ment it be­fore it dis­ap­peared for ever. There was just one big prob­lem: Mes Ay­nak had been an Al-Qaida train­ing camp and home to Osama bin Laden. It was still mined.

But with Philippe op­er­at­ing the drone and Yves con­trol­ling the cam­era from the ground and film­ing man­u­ally with a cam­era mounted on a tall pole, they sur­veyed the en­tire area in ten days with­out set­ting foot inside the com­plex. They were able to re­con­struct it dig­i­tally with stun­ning ac­cu­racy.

THE SUC­CESS OF THEIR FIRST EX­PE­DI­TION caught the at­ten­tion of other coun­tries try­ing to solve their own ur­gent con­ser­va­tion prob­lems as well as at­tract­ing in­vestors. Iconem was launched in 2013 and in 2015 drone man­u­fac­turer Par­rot in­vested 1.4 mil­lion eu­ros in the busi­ness.

Be­ing a pri­vate com­pany gives Iconem a flex­i­bil­ity not af­forded to ar­chae­ol­o­gists and oth­ers in­volved in con­ser­va­tion, who are mostly govern­ment em­ploy­ees. When the in­ter­nathe

There was one prob­lem. Mes Ay­nak had been an Al-Qaida train­ing camp— home to Osama bin Laden. It was still mined.

tional com­mu­nity sus­pended all co­op­er­a­tion with Syria, pub­licly em­ployed ar­chae­ol­o­gists were no longer al­lowed to work there. But the ban didn’t ex­tend to Ubel­mann’s com­pany.

As a re­sult, he alone had ac­cess to some of Syria’s most im­por­tant sites, in­clud­ing Palmyra, the once beau­ti­ful and wealthy city on the Silk Road that has been largely de­stroyed by ISIS (Daesh) in re­cent years.

UBEL­MANN HAD BEEN WORK­ING in Syria since 2006 and knew the ar­chae­ol­o­gists, his­to­ri­ans and sci­en­tists well. When in­ter­na­tional fund­ing and other con­ser­va­tion sup­port dried up af­ter the civil war be­gan in 2011, he stayed in con­tact. “They felt aban­doned,” he says. “Be­fore the cri­sis, ar­chae­ol­o­gists from all over the world would go there. Then overnight it changed: not a soul.”

Later ISIS looted and de­stroyed an­cient sites and sev­eral ex­perts were mur­dered, in­clud­ing the scholar who looked af­ter Palmyra’s an­tiq­ui­ties, Khaled al-Asaad.

Based on pho­to­graphs Syr­ian ar­chae­ol­o­gists sent them, Ubel­mann and his Iconem col­leagues worked evenings and week­ends mak­ing mod­els un­til Yves was even­tu­ally granted a visa to go to Syria in De­cem­ber 2015 to train lo­cal ex­perts in pho­togram­me­try.

“The ar­chae­ol­o­gists were very moved that for­eign­ers had come,” he says. “But we didn’t hes­i­tate for a sec­ond. It was a hu­man re­flex to come to their aid.”

Then to­wards the end of March last year Ubel­mann got a phone call tip­ping him off that Palmyra was about to be lib­er­ated from ISIS con­trol. He quickly booked a flight to Syria and was able to see for him­self the dam­age

in­flicted on trea­sures such as the fa­mous 2,000-year-old Tem­ple of Bel.

“I never thought I would see some­thing like that in my life­time,” he says. “I was dev­as­tated.” But af­ter look­ing more closely, he re­al­ized many of the build­ing blocks and dec­o­ra­tions were in­tact. “Prob­a­bly they could be par­tially re­assem­bled in the fu­ture.”

Iconem’s work would be vi­tal to any fu­ture restora­tion. Ubel­mann had four days to doc­u­ment the site. Based at Homs, he left at six ev­ery morn­ing in a bat­tered minibus with a group of Syr­ian ex­perts to make the three-hour trip to Palmyra, en­coun­ter­ing check­points along the desert road.

Land­mines re­mained inside the site, so Ubel­mann car­ried out his sur­vey from the mar­gins. The job was com­pli­cated and ex­haust­ing—but worth it. “We man­aged to dig­i­tize the en­tire site. That was a great vic­tory.”

What makes their suc­cess all the more sig­nif­i­cant is that a few months later ISIS re­turned to re­oc­cupy Palmyra. For­tu­nately, they were driven out again in March this year. Ubel­mann hopes that one day the ev­i­dence of de­struc­tion he has col­lected will also be used to bring the per­pe­tra­tors to jus­tice.

IN IRAQ, TOO, ICONEM’S ABIL­ITY to re­act quickly paid div­i­dends. They were able to fly a drone 20 kilo­me­ters into ter­ri­tory con­trolled by ISIS in order to pho­to­graph the an­cient

Assyr­ian city of Nim­rud just days af­ter ISIS had de­mol­ished the 2,600-yearold Tem­ple of Nabu.

Iconem’s images of Nim­rud in­clude a zig­gu­rat, a huge square-based tower built in ter­races, which ISIS bull­dozed shortly af­ter­wards.

“We have the only 3D im­age of the Zig­gu­rat in its orig­i­nal ge­om­e­try,” ex­plains Ubel­mann. “If one day the Iraqi govern­ment or UNESCO or some­one else wants to re­store it to its orig­i­nal to­pog­ra­phy, they will be able to do so on the ba­sis of the work we have done.

“Palmyra and Nim­rud demon­strate how use­ful it is to do this work very quickly. In both cases, if we hadn’t done it when we did, it would have been too late.” Iconem isn’t alone in its work at Palmyra. Other projects are aim­ing to use crowd-sourced pho­tos, open data and com­puter tech­nol­ogy to “re­build” in cy­berspace the so-called Pearl of the Desert.

The Lou­vre’s Jean-Luc Martinez is con­vinced of the im­por­tance of Iconem’s work. “Ar­chae­ol­o­gists have al­ways doc­u­mented sites,” he says. “Tech­nolo­gies have mul­ti­plied and been used by ar­chae­ol­o­gists to cap­ture as much data as pos­si­ble and draw up a com­pre­hen­sive record. To­day, it’s the con­trolled al­liance of two new tech­nolo­gies, the drone and an al­go­rithm which treats the images col­lected, that al­lows Iconem to pro­vide images that are pre­cious to doc­u­men­ta­tion.”

One thing is cer­tain: the Syr­ian Her­itage Project will be keep­ing Iconem busy for a long time to come. Ubel­mann now wants to train more lo­cal ar­chae­ol­o­gists to use pho­togram­me­try and help lo­cal peo­ple un­der­stand how pre­cious their her­itage is.

“I’m work­ing for the fu­ture and not for the past,” he says. “I’m doc­u­ment­ing mo­ments in his­tory that can be used by gen­er­a­tions to come.”

“I’m work­ing for the fu­ture, not the past. I’m doc­u­ment­ing his­tory that can be used by gen­er­a­tions to come.”


The Sites Eter­nels ex­hi­bi­tion in Paris fea­tured Iconem’s digi­tised 3D pro­jec­tions of Palmyra be­fore its de­mo­li­tion by ISIS.

Drone tech­nol­ogy helped Ubel­mann doc­u­ment Mes Ay­nak, an an­cient Afghan site (right) in safety.

An ISIS photo shows off its de­struc­tion of Palmyra in Syria with the mo­ment it blew up the Tem­ple of Baal­shamin (above).

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