Research at the interface between the humanities and computer science.

7 Nov 2022

Professor Nicola Lercari, who has held the Chair of Digital Heritage Studies at LMU since January, is using innovative technologies to make the past visible.

Professor Nicola Lercari

Professor Nicola Lercari employs drones or airborne and terrestrial Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) techniques to 3D map and document renowned World Heritage Sites such as the Neolithic settlement of Çatalhöyük, Turkey, or the ancient Maya city of Palenque, Mexico. At Palenque, Lercari and his team used LiDAR technology mounted on a scientific aircraft to sense the terrain from above – with hundreds of thousands of light pulses per second. Although most pulses come back off the treetops, some zip past the leaves, hit the jungle floor, and travel back to the aircraft at the speed of light. They supply researchers with so-called “point cloud data,” from which three-dimensional maps can be generated on a computer. If you remove the vegetation, you are left with precise 3D measurements and digital images of ruins, monuments, and historical road and irrigation systems on the ground. “Researchers used to trek through the jungle for months to find ruins,” explains Lercari. “Now, we fly an aircraft equipped with LiDAR for a day and find the heritage sites later in the lab – often several of them. Mounting LiDAR on drones opens up even more research opportunities, including the regular monitoring of heritage sites to detect looting or conduct damage assessments. ” Lercari has held LMU’s newly established Chair of Digital Cultural Heritage Studies since January of this year. He defines himself as “a humanist computer scientist.” A native of Italy, he studied communication science at the University of Genoa and film and media production at the University of Bologna. After receiving his doctorate in History and Computing in Bologna with a dissertation on 3D visualization of cultural heritage data, he worked in the United States for almost 13 years. Most of this time was spent at the University of California, Merced, where he was tenured and served as an Associate Professor of Heritage Studies before joining the LMU.

Archeology and computer science

The new academic discipline of Digital Cultural Heritage Studies, to which his institute on Munich’s Akademiestraße is dedicated, carries out research at the interface between cultural heritage, archeology, museum studies, and computer science. “I explore the legacies of the past using digital and geospatial technology to make them available to researchers and the general public.” These legacies include historical buildings, cities, archeological sites, museum collections, and non-material elements of past cultures such as languages and indigenous traditions. His institute, supported by the Bavarian government’s Hightech Agenda program, is currently unique in the European university landscape for its application of innovative technologies. At the institute’s Heritage Interpretation Visualization and Experience (HIVE) laboratory, researchers work on digital heritage and digital archeology with tools such as remote sensing and satellite imaging, unmanned aerial systems, 3D mapping, laser scanning, geodata technology, and virtual and extended reality. Armed with methods such as these, Lercari investigates cultural heritage and archeological sites worldwide.

Einsatz von terrestrischem LiDAR zur Messung des Verfalls von Lehmziegelgebäuden in der Forschungsstätte Çatalhöyük, Türkei, sowie mittels digitaler Photogrammetrie per Drohne erstellte Orthokarte.

Increasing Resilience of Cultural Heritage Sites through LiDAR

LiDAR, with aircraft and drones or else from the ground, is also used to monitor historic building structures. “Once a building is 3D scanned, researchers can scan it again after an earthquake, fire, or natural decay and discover changes in the structure or cracks in the façade.” Between 2015 and 2020, for example, Lercari employed terrestrial LiDAR in response to recent environmental threats from wildfire and earthquakes at Bodie, an iconic Gold Rush-era boom town located on the California and Nevada border.

“Bodie’s wooden buildings and mining remains are increasingly at risk of burning due to the environmental conditions resulting from climate change. In the case of a fast-moving wildfire, having precise 3D data, digital maps, and up-to-date inventories of buildings, ruins, and objects scattered through the landscape can make a difference in how fire crews respond to the imminent threat and save cultural properties.” Lercari’s team provided local archaeologists and site managers with 3D collections of buildings and objects scanned at Bodie using terrestrial and SLAM LiDAR to enhance the monitoring of at-risk California’s cultural heritage and make a call to action to employ remote sensing as a pathway to advanced planning.

Using LiDAR and drone-based photogrammetry, Lercari also documented the Neolithic settlement of Çatalhöyük in Turkey (circa 7100 to 5600 BC), which is a key site for understanding human prehistory and early agricultural societies. “I scanned hundreds of mudbrick houses each summer over six years and then calculated with millimeter-level accuracy the decay of their walls to inform conservation interventions.” Using a Geographic Information System (GIS), Lercari’s team then correlated 3D and environmental data such as temperature and humidity to create environmental risk maps that conservators used to investigate the underlying causes of decay and plan treatments that aim at prolonging the life of the excavated ruins.

3D-Analyse des Tempel der Inschriften in Palenque, Chiapas, Mexiko

Current and Future Work

In July 2022, Lercari started a new project at [DM1] Eloro, a Greek settlement near Syracuse in Sicily dating back to the eighth century BC, in collaboration with the Institute for Digital Exploration (IDEx) of the University of South Florida (Tampa, USA). Eloro was the first sub-colony of Syracuse and had enormous logistical importance in the Greek colonization of Eastern Sicily through its harbor, access to the nearby Tellaro river, and impenetrable fortifications. The project employs LiDAR, Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR), drone-based photogrammetry, and GIS to create new interpretations of Eloro’s urbanism and engage with legacy excavation documentation dating back to the early 1900s to shed new light on the Greek colonization of Sicily.

Other European projects include collaborating with the Bornholm Museum in Denmark to 3D digitize its extensive collection of archaeological and historical artifacts and create a digital curation platform through the Web that will provide access to Borholm’s prehistory and history to scholars and the public. In addition, Lercari has planned digitization projects in Munich – with partners such as the Museum of Casts of Classical Statues and the State Collections of Antiquities. Using 3D visualization and Semantic Web technology, Lercari aims to “solve the challenges of presenting, curating, using and re-using large museum collections online in ways that allow the public or other researchers to interact with the data, that also enable linking the collections to other institutions’ databases to make them interoperable.” These collaborative projects fit with Lercari’s focus on tackling the insidious loss of knowledge on the ancient world due to the lack of publication and preservation of primary archaeological and cultural heritage data such as field drawings, interpretative notes, photographs, illustrations, geospatial information, metadata, which has significantly increased in the Digital Age.

Lercari’s research also includes investigating automated methods to analyze the unprecedented amount of 3D and geospatial data available today to archaeologists and cultural heritage specialists. “The high precision of LiDAR for documenting heritage sites and historic buildings combined with the analytical capabilities of Machine Learning provide scholars with new and intelligent information extraction methods that can reveal knowledge hidden to the naked eye or that would take decades to obtain due to the large scale of the case studies.”

Development of AI-based solutions

Lercari’s team is currently establishing collaborations to develop AI-based automatic classification and semantic segmentation solutions of cultural heritage data recorded by LiDAR to expand the research potential of AI and digital research for cultural heritage applications and their adoption by archaeologists, art historians, and architects.

By conducting this transformative research at LMU, Lercari aims to make Digital Cultural Heritage Studies a leading discipline in Europe for investigating new technologies for exploring, digitizing, analyzing, and protecting the ancient world and understanding their effects on Humanistic research.

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