Cultural Heritage Preservation in a Cyber World: The possibilities and pitfalls

Lecture transcript

Dora Constantinidis, 6 June 2013

Adrienne Leith:  Good evening, everybody, and welcome to this evening's lecture, co‑hosted by the University of Melbourne and Museum Victoria as part of the Afghanistan Hidden Treasures of the National Museum of Kabul Exhibition. As you know, it features over 220 precious artifacts of gold and bronze. There are stone sculptures, ivories, painted glassware and other ancient works of art. Before we begin, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we come together this evening, the people of the Kulin Nation, and pay tribute to their elders, past and present. Now, tonight's lecture, Cultural Heritage Preservation in a Cyber World, will be presented by our special guest, Dr. Dora Constantinidis. Dora, whose archaeological research focuses on the Middle East and the Aegean, is an expert in the use of computer technology in gathering and analyzing archaeological data.

Having concluded undergraduate studies at the University of Melbourne and then a PhD from the University of Athens, Dr. Constantinidis returned to Melbourne, where she's now a Fellow in the Center for Classics and Archaeology and a researcher in the Computing and Information Systems Department at the University of Melbourne. She also teaches in the Faculty of Information Technology at Monash University. A very busy woman. Please join me in welcoming Dr. Dora Constantinidis to the stage.

Dr. Dora Constantinidis:  Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you so much for being here tonight. I also wish to pay my respects to the traditional owners of this land. I'm fascinated by proverbs. There's so much you can learn about people by their proverbs. I decided to start my lecture with an Afghan proverb and use that as a story line to show how Afghan cultural heritage can be preserved in a cyber-online world. As you'd expect for such a mountainous country, there's bound to be a proverb about the mountains. Following the lines of this Afghan proverb, "There is a path to even the tallest mountain," we'll consider some pathways that may possibly help us get to the top of a very tall and treacherous mountain, that of protecting and preserving cultural heritage of Afghanistan.

Firstly we'll consider just why cultural heritage is so important to a country. Then I'll go over some of the major threats cultural heritage is facing at the moment, and throughout my lecture I'll be discussing some possible digital pathways and how technology can help protect and preserve cultural heritage for current and future generations.

But first, let's take a brief look at the country of Afghanistan and its people. Overlaying the dramatic landscape of Afghanistan with its majestic mountains and deep valleys, is this rich patchwork quilt of diverse, ethno-linguistic groups of people, each quite distinct, yet all sharing the common thread of the Silk Route heritage that crisscrossed their valleys and mountains for well over 2,000 years.

Most of you here tonight would have already seen some of this remarkable range of Afghan cultural heritage, and what a wonderful privilege we've had for this to be hosted right here at the Melbourne Museum, because I really don't think many of us would've gone to the Kabul Museum at the moment for obvious reasons.

What the exhibition reveals is an intermingling of cultures from many different parts of the world, even as far away as the Mediterranean. All of these cultures have left an indelible impression on not only its people, but the very land itself. Those of you who may have attended the lecture by David Thomas last month would've seen sights, such as Ai Khanum here in the north, clearly visible on Google Earth.

Cultural heritage can help bridge differences amongst diverse groups of people that share in it. Afghan cultural heritage can have a very important role to play in peace building. But you may be wondering just why, and what is it about cultural heritage that makes it so important to a country?

So let's step back for a moment and consider something closer to home. Our homes and the family history attached to them. Family heirlooms, for example, help give us a sense of connection to our past, and they do contribute to shaping and affirming our personal identity.

Please raise your hand if you have a family heirloom on display somewhere in your home. I assumed that'd be the case. Yes, most of us do. Now if we expand that idea of displaying heirlooms to a national level, cultural heritage can be thought of as a collection of family heirlooms.

I like to think of museums and art galleries as collective living rooms that display our national heirlooms. Museums share part of who we are, our cultural heritage, with the rest of the world. This photo of the banner hung outside the Kabul museum is a very emotional reminder of the great impact cultural heritage can have on the identity of its people, all 30 million or so in Afghanistan today.

In the short film at the start of the exhibition here in Melbourne, you can hear the current director of the Kabul museum quite emphatically stating, “A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive”. But unfortunately, this most valuable and irreplaceable resource is being exploited with quite the opposite effect. At the moment, cultural heritage faces an onslaught of threats worldwide and especially in Afghanistan.

Cultural heritage is basically physical objects that previous generations have created. Archaeologists are often associated with uncovering cultural heritage, that is, if they can get to it on time. Because artifacts are often lost forever because of a number of culprits you're about to see:

Public enemy number one is looting.

It's an age old problem, where antiquities are dug up and sold for sheer profit. Looting is aggravated during times of conflict, with the added burden of destruction, especially of archaeological sites, since they're usually located at militarily strategic positions, as well.

Now, I put construction next, especially of infrastructure, such as roads. This is going to become a real issue in Afghanistan, because the traditional silk route, naturally enough, followed the most convenient path through a landscape that hasn't changed much in over 2,000 years.

In the process of improving the existing road network, any sites that were located on or near the silk route will come under serious threat.

But maybe I should have put mining before construction, because with an estimated 1 trillion dollars’ worth of lithium alone, and billions of dollars’ worth of other precious minerals, such as copper, this threat will significantly increase. Ironically enough, when security can be guaranteed for mining companies to expand more so than what they currently are.

Another threat that is caused by people arises from socio-political outlooks. I need say no more other than refer to the destruction of the statues at Bamiyan. Finally, erosion and natural disasters, such as earthquakes, are always potential threats. But in most cases, we have very little control over these. Putting all these culprits together and we're facing an uphill battle. It's a real rocky path that we need to travel on to get to the top of this very steep mountain, threatening cultural heritage.

How, for instance, can we possibly protect and preserve cultural heritage against looting?

Ai Khanum had been systematically excavated by archaeologists from 1964 to 1978, with artifacts carefully taken to the museum in Kabul for safekeeping and public display. But now, this site is just a wasteland.

I first experienced this moonscape scenery at sites in Northern Syria and I can assure you, up close, it's heart wrenching. I distinctly remember the words that went through my mind 26 years ago when I was first confronted by such a scene. “It's as if I'm on the moon”, and I very well could have been. It was absolutely unbelievable. But just where do all the looted artifacts end up? In marketplaces, wherever looters can get away with it.

When I was working in Syria as an archaeologist, I saw antiquities being sold in the souks of Aleppo and Damascus, and this photo here shows a bazaar in Iraq out in the middle of the desert, trying to keep looters out with this sign. I've heard from archaeologists in Afghanistan that they have even seen antiquities being sold in shops in Kabul.

Antiquities are even sold in the virtual marketplaces of the Internet. I certainly hope there will come a day when all looters are thrown out of every bazaar worldwide. That will take a very targeted campaign, worldwide, to prevent selling and buying of antiquities by everyone involved.

But for now, the race is on between the archaeologists and the looters. If I were a betting person, I'm sad to say, I'd put my money on the looters. They are winning at the moment. But I certainly hope this moment won't last very much longer, because unless archeologists can get to sites before looters do, cultural heritage is displaced, and any chance for better understanding the past is lost forever.

Amidst challenging circumstances, archeology continues in Afghanistan today to rescue artifacts especially from looters. This site is an example of work by Afghan archeologists who rushed to save what they could when they became aware that it was being looted. Added to that is the threat to the site by nearby copper mining.

I've included an excerpt from this online newspaper article, and you can see that because of all these pressing threats, the head of the Afghan Archeological Department, Mohammad Nader Rasouli, has requested help: “We need foreign assistance to preserve these artifacts, and expertise to help us with further excavation.”

Now, the most painstaking task for any archeologist is to carefully record data that are recovered in a format that then can be easily accessed for later analysis. That's where computer technology can come to the rescue, by helping create digital records, making it easier for analysis later on.

Twenty or so years ago, help would've come in the shape of a laptop. These newspaper articles are about a Melbourne University salvage operation in northern Syria on the Euphrates River, which was being dammed for a new hydroelectric power station. Our team had to dig at the site of Tel Ahmar as quickly as possible to make a record of any antiquities before the flood waters of the Tishreen dam covered them.

At the 1991 PC Show held right next door here in the Exhibition Building, I asked a number of vendors if the project could borrow a laptop, which was a very expensive piece of equipment back then, especially for archeologists. LapPaq was kind enough to oblige us in return for media coverage, which they got, and they also got their laptop back as well.

However, they did take a big risk, and I had warned them that the laptop might be confiscated by customs at Damascus Airport. But I was very fortunate that year, my luggage wasn't searched. It had been in previous years. So I was able to head up to northern Syria, where the site was located, and record artifacts onto a digital database.

Now, wind the clock forward to 20 years or so, and we move into the mobile era, where archeologists can now turn to mobile phones to gather data in the field far more conveniently than ever before. There are apps or programs that archeologists can adapt and use on their mobile phones.

Because artifacts and ancient structures are found in specific locations at a site, a geographical information system, or GIS, is very efficient to store data and then view them on maps. One of the leading GIS companies has already developed an app that you can download onto your mobile phone and start collecting and recording spatially referenced objects, which for archeologists are the artifacts and buildings found at the site.

If you can see here, they even offer a free trial. It's a 30‑day free trial if any of you are game in trying it. But the only thing is, once the 30 days are up you've got to buy the product.

A recent announcement has been that there's an app which has been specifically designed for archeologists and is free to use once they get it going. This is recently published in Computer World, and as you'll see here in this online newspaper article it discusses the latest app which is open source. That means free programs. Once they acknowledge it's ready to be launched, you can actually download and keep a copy of it as well.

It's currently being tested, but it's set to benefit the way archeologists capture and record data. A quote from the article, "The app allows the recording of text, location, imagery, and audio data on Android devices. The system will also allow data captured by other devices, images from SLR cameras, or drawings done by hand..." I should add there "and scanned," for example, "to be linked to the records".

The faster archeologists can gather data with these tools, the better chance there is of getting to other sites and saving cultural heritage before the looters and other threats that we discussed before can get to it. This is especially pertinent during times of war and conflict, because with conflict comes the added threat of losing cultural heritage to‑‑you wouldn't believe it‑‑accidental digging as well.

Soldiers often unknowingly end up digging artifacts, displacing their context, and all the valuable information that goes with that. Apart from being destroyed by rocket fire, cultural heritage is also threatened by soldiers just setting up camp. Especially in Afghanistan with such a wealth of artifacts found almost everywhere one digs.

But even though conflict poses so many threats to cultural heritage, archeology, naturally enough, is not usually a priority, for obvious reasons, especially during times of war. This was definitely true during the first and second World Wars, when many major archeological excavations were put on hold.

So what can be done to minimize threats to cultural heritage during times of conflict? After the Second World War, initiatives by UNESCO led to establishing the 1954 Hague Convention that aims at protecting cultural heritage during times of conflict.

I'd like to draw your attention to what is stated about cultural heritage by UNESCO. “The cultural heritage reflects the life of the people, its history, and its identity. Its preservation helps to rebuild broken communities, reestablish their identities, and link their past with their present and future.”

The 1954 Hague Convention is modified from time to time to align with current events, as is illustrated by the second protocol that was ratified in 1999. One of the outcomes of this resulted in more cultural heritage training of military personnel to make them more aware and more sensitive to the issues concerning the protection of cultural heritage during war.

If you look here, there is even a solider pocket guide that is made available for troops, and you can have a look at it as well. There are even other online resources, such as this website, where even you can take the test. See here in the corner, test your knowledge, and see how well you understand how to protect cultural heritage in conflict zones. Not that I think any of us in the audience need to. This is another example of how digital technology can also be used to protect cultural heritage by educating military personnel.

Australia Defense also has resources available, but you'll have to wait until next month to hear about that at a public lecture that will be held at Melbourne University, when I'll be presenting on behalf of an archeology colleague who is serving in Afghanistan at this very moment.

Now, with all these initiatives, they're all well and good. But unfortunately, despite all the policies in the world, there are still forces at work that undermine them, literally in some cases. Fortunately, many times it seems that the symbolic blue symbol, the blue shield, is just that. Just another symbol. But with all that power, and despite the good intentions in the world. The Buddhist statues were still blown up, and looters continue to loot.

There is growing recognition that power to overturn all this distraction can be sourced from change, a change in people's attitudes towards cultural heritage through education. If people's attitudes do change, then there's hope. Technology, like never before, can be a very influential driver for change. Education can come in many formats, and Internet websites can provide a powerful catalyst for this.

The Association for the Protection of Afghan Archaeology, which was established by the former Director of Afghan Archaeology, Dr. Tarzi, has a website. This website provides a very rich resource of information freely available on the Internet. The association publicly acknowledges the need for change and is even petitioning for it online. As you can see here, the online petitioning website, that's included with a link. If you want to, you can go and petition your vote there as well.

But we really need key people to instigate change. For example: The current Director of the Kabul Museum, Omara Khan Massoudi, who, despite great threats to his personal safety, managed to coordinate the hiding of the treasures which are currently on display in our museum. Thanks to him, these treasures were not lost forever and, because of him, other cultural heritage may also be rescued from destruction. He definitely set an inspiration that other people can aspire to.

I really do believe the children are our future. Teach them well, and then change for the better has an excellent chance of succeeding. We all know from personal experience that what we learn as children, we never forget, and it lives with us for all our days. The hope for any change will ultimately be by educating children in Afghanistan. With only an estimated 10 percent of people having access to the Internet, for now the most effective educational campaigns will be by radio.

Given that mobile phone usage is rapidly increasing in Afghanistan, educational campaigns on protecting cultural heritage should also be delivered by mobile phones. I'm proposing that mobile phones can help protect and preserve cultural heritage. Firstly by educating people on the importance of protecting it and then in turn, having people go out and photograph cultural heritage with their mobile phones, hence preserving it, albeit in a digital format.

Technology and devices on their own are of no use if people don't see the point of it. People do need to be inspired. This quote, from one of my favorite books, the Book of Proverbs, clearly states that "Where there is no vision, the people perish." What if people in Afghanistan sent photos of their cultural heritage online to a dedicated website for all the world to see?

Crowdsourcing, as the name suggests, relies on people power. It's within the hands of the people to make a difference and, in this case, to cultural heritage. Victor Sarianidi, who had excavated the Tillya Tepe treasures, believing that they had been lost forever, said in great despair, "Now all that we have left are photos."

That was true, for just over 20 years. What remained of the treasures were only their images, reflected by the eyes of the photographer, and it was fortunate that Sarianidi had taken many photos. In this case, it was even more fortunate that the physical manifestation of the treasures had been spared, thanks to the efforts of the museum staff at Kabul Museum.

Photos, of course, can never replace cultural heritage, but, considering all the threats it faces, it's better to have photos than have nothing at all. I'm glad to see Melbourne Museum asking us to share our impressions of The Melbourne Story exhibition by allowing us to upload photos that we take of it to their website. Has anyone here posted a photo to the museum's photo album?

This is just one example of crowdsourcing. People love to take photos. Now with digital cameras and mobile phones, it makes it so much easier. The face of photography is changed forever. Photos are no longer trapped in treasured family photo albums. Photos are free. They can now be shared literally all around the world.

Apart from dedicated websites, such as this one by the museum, there are many other online avenues to share your photos. Apart from Facebook that is, one site is Flickr, where you can also create special interest groups, such as this one that the museum has created and is using to power this public photo album.

Another place where you can share your photos is on Google Maps. Google Maps allows you to post photos on any point on their maps. Fortunately, photos sent to them are vetted to make sure that they're not going to repel people. Sometimes, for some photos, the vetting process does take about a month before they're released online. Good to know.

What I'm so excited about is to see people posting photos relating to Afghanistan onto Google Maps. This collective, worldwide photo album is being created as we speak with an assortment of photos. One example is here. Even photos of camels out in the Afghan desert, just north of Kabul. Even more exciting are photos of cultural heritage.

It's great to see people already posting photos of this onto Google Maps, such as this photo of a niche cut out into the rocky cliff that had housed a significant Buddhist statue at Bamiyan. Even more fortunate, people had taken photos of the statues before they were blown up. Someone by the name of Elios Amati posted one of these photos onto Google Maps. Hopefully, more people will follow suit and post older photos of heritage, especially heritage that's being lost.

Taking a closer look at this photo, you can see here, where it says "Misplaced? Suggest a new location." It's actually asking people to correct the location, if they know it, on the map, where the photo was attached, if needed. When photos are posted to Google Maps, people don't always click on the right location. They can make a mistake.

Now with mobile phones that have global positioning systems, or GPS, built into them, any photos you take with a mobile phone, for example, will automatically have GPS coordinates attached to them. Such photos are said to be geotagged, that is they have the Earth's coordinates and even altitude embedded into them.

With these coordinates, geotagged photos can be located somewhat more accurately on Google Maps. Their location is still not quite exact, especially if a photo was photographed from a large distance. GPS, for the moment, does not take into consideration the distance from where you take the photo. It just records the point where you take the photo. If the photo is 10 kilometres away, you can't measure that, but let's see what technology can do to improve that.

What is wonderful is to see many cultural heritage photos making an appearance. Here's another example of one from Kabul. It's very promising to see people's interest in this, especially for Afghanistan. As more photos are posted, eventually, even a timeline of cultural heritage can be created. For example, the Darul Aman Palace, which is translated as "abode of peace," when it's finally restored to its former glory, then this photo can be a stark reminder of a time when it wasn't a time of peace.

With all these photos and Google Maps, hopefully, we can get to see changes in cultural heritage over time as well. Google Maps is linked to Google Earth, so any photos you see in Google Maps are there as well. The difference is with Google Earth, you actually have to download the program onto your computers, whereas Google Maps is just a link on the website. If you're keen and you do download Google Earth, you can even see the same photos on Google Earth as well.

Another feature photos can sometimes have is text, and Wikipedia can even be attached to photos. People can also add their own text as well. Looking at this sidebar here in Google Earth, you can probably tell that it's a step up from Google Maps. It provides you with extra layers of geographical information about the surrounding environment that you can use with your photos, if you want to, to get a better understanding of the location.

People in Afghanistan can be encouraged to post cultural heritage photos to Google Maps, but, as mentioned before, with only about 10 percent of the population having access to a PC and the Internet, it makes more sense to develop an app for mobile phones and ask people to use that. In Afghanistan, people using mobile phones could take and then send in photos of cultural heritage to a specially created website.

I do hope the major phone providers in Afghanistan, all four of them and their logos are up on the screen, will actually provide incentives for people to do so, whether it's giving them a few extra minutes of talk for every photo they send or whatever. That would be a great encouragement. A dedicated website showcasing local people's photos could provide a strong impetus to change attitudes towards cultural heritage for the better.

Mobile phones and crowdsourcing go hand‑in‑hand. The power of crowdsourcing is only as strong as the motivations and drive people have for collaborating, people drawing together to make a difference. I really don't think this will be an issue in Afghanistan. Despite all the challenges that Afghan people are currently facing, there is great potential for collaboration because Afghan people already recognize the power of crowdsourcing.

It's reflected in one of their famous proverbs. "Many drops make a river." I do believe there's real hope to protect and preserve cultural heritage in Afghanistan, not only in the cyber world, but in the real world as well. When the top of that mountain, preserving cultural heritage, is reached, all of humanity will be able to appreciate the wonderful view below. Thank you for your attention.

Adrienne:  Thank you very much, everybody, for coming along and particularly also to Dr. Dora Constantinidis for presenting tonight. Please give her a last round of applause.

Transcription by CastingWords

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