Cultural Heritage Spotlight: Using the newest imaging technology to preserve the world’s oldest art with The Ancient Art Archive

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Our Cultural institutions Page highlights our ongoing support of museums and cultural institutions with free accounts and access to tools. In Cultural Heritage Spotlight, we’ll explore museums and cultural institutions who are using 3D technology to bring new life to their collections. Today’s blog post features the Ancient Art Archive, a nonprofit organization which goal is to preserve and share the oldest art on Earth.

Art defines our species. The creation of art over 130,000 years ago was humanity’s first true innovation. Arguably art is the key to our species success. To date there has been no unified effort to record and preserve the fragile legacy of our common, prehistoric artworks.

Butler Wash Panel on the San Juan River, Utah. This panel is composed of Basket Maker images dating from aprox 1500 bc to 500 ad.

Butler Wash Panel on the San Juan River, Utah. This panel is composed of Basket Maker images dating from aprox 1500 bc to 500 ad.

The Ancient Art Archive is a non profit organization that explores all six continents where prehistoric paintings and engravings exist in the field. With the help of leading archeologists and art historians, the Archive identifies the most artistically, historically and culturally significant works. Using photography, 3D modeling, and virtual reality technology, we record each piece in a way that captures its power and beauty. The Archive allows users – who may never be able to visit these far flung places –  to experience that work as if they were standing in front of it. The Archive allows the deep past to move and inspire us across time and beyond language.

The Ancient Art Archive grows out of work that started on one of my National Geographic Magazine stories on why we became artists. In that story I was exposed to some of the oldest and most important art on the world. That art is our shared human heritage and it is terribly at risk. You only need to look at todays headlines. The art is at risk from a warming climate, from sea level rise, from religious intolerance, from theft and outright vandalism. The Archive is a global initiative to preserve our shared cultural by digitally recording and protecting the oldest art on the planet.

The Great Gallery of Horseshoe Canyon, Utah is arguably the most spectacular rock art site in North America.

Now I am a photographer and there is nothing I love more than a well-crafted photograph. But the archive is about preservation so 3D just makes sense. The 3D models that photogrammetry produces are so accurate that they are prefect preservation tools. In side by side tests the image based photogrammetry models prove to be just as accurate as models produced by top end LIDAR scanners. In theory once the Archive visits a site we can make a full sized 3D print of it if we have to.

Through Sketchfab those models can reach a whole new audience and give people an experience of the art that they could never have firsthand.

When I posted the Chauvet model I got a message from a friend who said: “Thank you for making a dream of mine come true”. The writer had always wanted to see the 36,000 year old paintings in Chauvet but for preservation’s sake the cave is closed to all but a handful of researchers. The experience of the 3d model on sketfab is as close as most people will ever come to being there. Indeed it is more interactive than actually seeing the real thing.

To build the 3D models we use Agisoft Photoscan. We shoot 60-300 Canon DSLR images aiming for 70% or greater overlap. The number depends on the size of the art and the detail we think we should reproduce. It is better to overshoot and then discard images you don’t need later rather than not have what you need. The Agisoft forums are very helpful in refining technique. The models take a lot of computing power to assemble. We have a very fast Mediaworkstations machine custom made to run Photoscan effectively. As guest researchers at the University of Tennessee we can also use their computing power. But even so there is almost always running a backlog of models to build.

Photoscan produces extremely detailed models and those I archive in the office. Dense clouds can have 300,000,000 or more points when rendered at highest quality.

For presentation on Sketchfab, we decimate the mesh to under 800,000 faces and export textures at the maximum Sketchfab can deliver (8192px). Tweaking the post processing image controls within Sketchfab makes the model look like the art looks in the field.

Thanks again for sharing, Stephen!

The Archive is run by photographer Stephen Alvarew
@alvarezphoto on Sketchfab
@alvarezphoto on twitter

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About the author

Raphaël Marchou

Cultural Heritage Enthusiast !

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