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UCSD Library uses technology to digitally reconstruct destroyed Syrian temple

UCSD Library's Digital Media Lab created a 3-D digital reconstruction of Syria's Temple of Bel, which was destroyed in 2015.
The UC San Diego Library’s Digital Media Lab created a 3-D digital reconstruction of Syria’s Temple of Bel, which was destroyed in 2015.
(UCSD Library Digital Media Lab)

Five years after it was destroyed in the Syrian civil war, the ancient Temple of Bel in Palmyra, Syria, has been digitally reconstructed by the UC San Diego Library’s Digital Media Lab using 3-D methods and artificial intelligence applications, the university said.

Inspired by a past collaboration between the library and UCSD’s Levantine Archaeology Laboratory, the project resulted in the digital preservation of more than a dozen lost reliefs, sculptures, frescos and paintings, all made publicly available on the library’s digital collections website.

The Temple of Bel, which stood for 2,000 years, has been called one of the most important temples in the Middle East and was one of the best-preserved examples of ancient art and architecture, according to a statement from the library. Through the use of a large collection of publicly available digital photographs taken over the course of a decade, the library re-created the structure using Pointcloud, an online viewing platform.

“This project underscores the library’s commitment to engaging in collaborative efforts to better understand how the university can support emerging teaching and research formats,” said Roger Smith, interim associate university librarian for scholarly tools and methods at the UCSD Library. “It also allows the library to better plan for our role in acquiring, preserving and sharing scholarship while incorporating new media and data formats.”

The digital photos used to create the virtual rendering of the temple were sourced from open-access repositories such as the New Palmyra project, the Roman Society, Oxford University and individual tourists, then put into Pointcloud, which enables users to interactively explore the once-massive temple compound.

Additionally, artificial intelligence applications were used to isolate the temple’s important features from other elements that may have appeared in the images, such as tourists, weather conditions and foliage.

“This new technology has allowed the library to combine image data from many different sources,” said Scott McAvoy, manager of the library’s Digital Media Lab. “For example, a photo from a Polish tourist visiting in 2010 can be combined with a photo from a Japanese tourist visiting five years later to extract 3-D features.”

To view the library’s digital re-creation of the Temple of Bel, visit lib.ucsd.edu/templeofbel. ◆