Africa in vivid 3D

2012-11-24 19:21

Academics from UCT map the continent’s architectural heritage in minute detail.

For a team of academics from the University of Cape Town (UCT), every day is like a scene from the Indiana Jones franchise.

It’s not hidden treasure they’re searching for when they visit ancient African heritage sites; it’s the breathtaking buildings themselves, in plain view throughout the continent, that they consider the jewels.

Their Zamani Project is mapping Africa’s past architectural heritage in state-of-the-art 3D, panorama and detailed maps, preserving the sites for future generations long after the real things may have been destroyed.

The Zamani research group travels to the outskirts of countries such as Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, Ghana and Cameroon to examine every nook and cranny of Africa’s most prominent heritage sites and landscapes.

They lug around their hi-tech gear, filled with laser scanners, advanced photogrammetry equipment, panoramic cameras, computer-vision technologies and just plain conventional surveying tools for weeks on end at each site.

When the work’s done, what they deliver are jaw-dropping images of sites such as Lalibela, the Great Mosque in Djenne, Timbuktu, Sudan’s Musawwarat es Sufra, and the palace and mosque in Gede, Kenya.

UCT’s Professor Emeritus Heinz Rüther says: “All these sites are known. But to examine in detail a site such as Ethiopia’s Lalibela, famous for its monolithic rock-cut churches with its rich history, is definitely special.”

But why is it so important to document these heritage sites?

Rüther says recent damage to sites in Timbuktu, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Egypt has emphasised just how important Zamani’s work is.

“Documentation creates a record for future generations, and assists with restoration and conservation. Though digital documentation cannot replace physical preservation, it can, at least, provide a record for future generations and, at best, in cases of destruction, form the basis of reconstruction.

“Sites will deteriorate or could be destroyed altogether due to the environment, global warming, war, civil unrest or vandalism.”

There have been some harrowing moments. Though most locals welcome them with open arms, there have also been problems.

“Locals sometimes are suspicious, especially in the case of religious monuments,” Rüther says.

“In West Africa we were nearly stoned once as the local population was not informed that we had permission to map the site.”

The researchers also have to watch their footing because some of the ruins are quite fragile and the photographer has to climb to exposed areas on sites to get the right shot.

They’re not the only group in the world doing this work, but Rüther says Zamani’s holistic approach is quite unique.

“I believe a heritage database must be holistic and cannot simply be comprised of 3D models, plans and elevations of buildings. Yes, the laser scans are pretty ‘Gee whiz!’, but the panoramic photography is just as amazing.”

In South Africa the team has mapped Mapungubwe, the Union Buildings in Pretoria, the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town, rock art sites in the Cederberg and Drakensberg, the West Coast Fossil Park and Stone Age sites in Saldanha.

Now the team has partnered with the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, and teams from Italy and Jordan, on a $1?million (R8.9?million) contract to digitally survey and map the famous city of Petra in Jordan.

Rüther says UCT is very supportive, and provides Zamani with office space and administrative support even though he is officially retired from the university.

Not including scientists’ salaries, it costs between R50?000 and R250?000 to travel to different sites.

“Work is expensive and so is processing,” says Rüther.

“Processing takes a lot of time. One week in the field and about seven weeks of data processing. We are totally not-for-profit and do all our work at cost. In spite of this, it’s expensive.”

There’s still plenty of work to do. Rüther says there are more than 100 sites in Africa that need to be documented.

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