The BBC Digitally Preserves and Shares Assyrian Antiquities with Sketchfab’s 3D Viewer API

Explore a 3000-year old palace

Sketchfab 3D viewer helped The BBC:

A stunning find beneath the shrine

A holy shrine destroyed by ISIS

In the northern Iraqi city of Mosul there was a mosque dedicated to the prophet Jonah. When built, the mosque replaced an Assyrian Church believed to be the burial place of the prophet. Jonah or Nabi Yunus is an important prophet to Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike. The Islamic State (IS) condemned the site as un-Islamic. On July 2014, IS destroyed and looted the mosque.

Photograph of the ruins of the mosque of Yunus, following its destruction by ISIS

The last journalists allowed to explore the tunnels

After the liberation of East Mosul in January 2017, people returning to the reclaimed area found a system of tunnels about a kilometer long under the mosque. The entrance to these tunnels has now been closed, but in Spring 2018, BBC Arabic sent a team into the complex of dusty tunnels recently discovered inside the hill. Although all artifacts had been removed, there were still Assyrian reliefs, structures, and carvings along the walls.

The challenge

Share the treasures hidden in the tunnels

  • The BBC wanted to share the treasures that lie beneath the foundations of the mosque in a way that would get a broad audience interested in the subject.
  • The BBC also wanted to preserve, at least digitally, the ancient treasures that survived the IS plunder.


  • The BBC shared a 3D reproduction of the secret tunnels and enabled their audience to explore and study every detail close-up, as if right there.
  • Nobody will be able to damage the images created, and can even be used to recreate the lost antiquities with 3D printing technology.

Development process

The photogrammetry technology

The BBC captured the tunnels using a technique called photogrammetry, a process that calculates an accurate and detailed 3D model from a set of regular digital photographs.

This type of 3D creation is sometimes referred to as ‘reality capture’ or ‘photo scanning’ as it is not based on interpretation by a 3D artist but is an authentic rendition (i.e. scale and colour information) of a real, physical space or artifact.

Transferring the real world to the virtual world

The BBC team brought a lot of equipment with them including a stills camera, a video camera, a 360 camera, and huge number of lights. They took more than 1000 high resolution photographs of their findings. The images were stitched using RealityCapture.

They also took 360 video of the tunnels using a camera that mapped locations, and then worked with a game developer and 3D artist, Filipe Gonçalves, to rebuild the tunnels virtually in 3D/VR using Unreal Engine.

The results

The BBC’s developers and designers worked to create a frame within which the tunnels sit. They made it easy to navigate and accessible for all audiences, including deaf and blind visitors.

It was a big success, with a lot of social media buzz, and was nominated for a Webby Award.