Digitizing or digitization is the representation of an object, image, sound, document or signal (usually an analog signal) by generating a series of numbers that describe a discrete set of its points or samples. The result is called 'digital representation' or, more specifically, a digital image, for the object, and digital form, for the signal. Strictly speaking, digitizing means the conversion of analog source material into a numerical format. Can this process save the ancient monuments?

Phys.org has published an interesting article titled 'Cyber-archaeology, big data and the race to save threatened cultural heritage sites'. It opens with a reminder of the grim reality of our time: in January, it was confirmed that St. Elijah's Monastery, the oldest Christian monastery in Iraq, was completely destroyed by IS troops after standing for 1,400 years near the city of Mosul. Destroying the cultural and religious symbols of your enemies is not a new development, but it does bring with it the question of how we can preserve these monuments for the future. Thomas Levy, distinguished professor of anthropology at UC San Diego and director of the Center for Cyber-Archaeology and Sustainability at the Qualcomm Institute thinks the solution might be a digital one. He comments:

"Cyber-archaeology is the marriage of archaeology with engineering, computer and natural sciences. [...] Digital technologies, such as laser scanning and structure-from-motion high-definition photography have the ability to create remarkably accurate 3-D representations of cultural heritage sites. It's the next best thing to the real thing," said Levy. "Google Cardboard and Oculus Rift and other emerging 3-D technologies make it possible to enter and explore ancient monuments as they were the day they were scanned."

Levy is gearing up to tackle the next big hurdle for cyber-archaeology: once you capture digital information, how do you store, share, collaborate on and display the data to researchers and the public? This is no trivial challenge. Today's archaeologists are equipped with a suite of new and rapidly-evolving digital tools. The data files from these tools--including laser scans, high-definition photos and videos, aerial drone footage, and detailed climate measurements--are numerous and large, and, because of this, they're generally hidden from view. It's early days for cyber-archaeology and there is currently no unified way of dealing with metadata.

Levy's current project, a collaboration with researchers at UC Berkeley, UC Merced and UCLA, aims to deal directly with the issue of managing big cultural heritage data. This effort recently got a big boost from a Research Catalyst Award of just over $1 million from UC President Janet Napolitano. As Levi states:

"The award allows us to bring together four major archaeology projects, and will help pave the way for the handling of big cultural data in the 21st century. It will be the signature project for the newly created Center for Cyber-Archaeology and Sustainability over the next two years."

The joint project pulls together complex data from satellite imagery, 3-D data capture, drones and other techniques from locations in Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Israel, Greece and Cyprus covering over 10,000 years of cultural materials, architecture and landscapes.

Because of the vast scope of the data, the researchers will leverage the recently announced Pacific Research Platform (PRP), a high-capacity data 'freeway system' that, when complete, will bring together most of the research universities on the U.S. West Coast and Hawaii, National Laboratories and national supercomputer centers, and a few more distant institutions, including the University of Amsterdam. The PRP project is led by Larry Smarr, director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2), a joint UC San Diego and UC Irvine initiative.

Levy envisions that the new platform will enable studies of the correlation of regional climate and demographic data with cultural and technological change on a scale that hasn't been possible before. The data platform will enable much more detailed studies of how human conflicts, climate change, pollution, natural disasters, and looting affect archaeological sites and help forecast future areas of preservation concern.

For the full article and examples of Levi's work, please go here.