A day saving the temples of Nepal with Digital Archaeology



Kathesimbhu Stupa in Kathmandu in 3D

After the 2015 earthquake in Nepal hundreds of Nepalese temples were either destroyed or damaged. These temples ranged from ancient Newari pagoda buildings to Buddhist stupas and Hindu temples. Perhaps more terrifying than the damage the earthquake caused was the news that no one had made accurate documentation on the vast majority of these buildings.

The Digital Archaeology Foundation was set up post-earthquake as the first to digitally render Nepal’s remaining cultural heritage in high resolution 3D. It was and still is a race against time in a country where everything is postponed until tomorrow.

Vatalasa Temple Before

Vatalasa Temple Before

Nepal is a landlocked country that suffers from poverty, vast electricity blackouts, terrible infrastructure and immense corruption. Not the best of situations when it comes to preserving cultural heritage.

Vatalasa Temple after the earthquake in Bhaktapur, Nepal

Vatalasa Temple after the earthquake in Bhaktapur, Nepal

Our team is experienced in dealing with these issues though. Some of these things may seem minor or irrelevant. But they are crippling when it comes to digital preservation. Try uploading a 500mb 3D render of small shrine over a 500kb internet connect which will only be active for 4 hours before a powercut kills it.

The majority of Nepal’s cultural heritage is located in the Kathmandu Valley. This is where the Malla kings had a rivalry to create the most beautiful of buildings to out do each other. There are other buildings located around Nepal which are lesser known. And these equally make our priority list.

Though on a map it may seem a site is only 100km away, but in Nepal this might mean a 12 hour journey. Roads are frequently washed away in landslides, damaged or simply clogged with traffic. One of our successful methods in dealing with far off locations is to incorporate them into David’s Nepal Guidebook research. If David is going to a distant location he’ll double up his workload to both do his own travel guide research and to capture the main temples in a location for the Foundation.

Siddhi Laxmi Temple in Bhaktapur

As part of our daily work we’ve added sub projects like captureing and rendering this temple (Siddhi Laxmi Temple in Bhaktapur) which is due for complete demolition this year due to damage in the 2015 earthquake – by digitally preserving it we will be able to monitor and compare the rebuilt temple to the original which is vital in Nepal due to funding issues, fragmented restoration work and a lack of documentation

Physical field research on a location is vital in Nepal as many buildings are within close proximity of newer buildings. They are also part of a living heritage and are used on a daily basis by local people for prayers, blessings and rituals. Simply showing up is not enough!

Weather too plays a part in the himalayan nation which has five seasons two of which are dominated by tourists coming into the very sites people are both trying to pray in and we are trying to document and preserve. The comes the monsoon season with torrential downpours and a winter season of cold and polluted skies.

We generally spend a day at location depending on the amount of data we need to acquire. In the past year we’ve been working on a Phase process. Phase One is where we try to capture and preserve as many buildings as we can. Hundreds of aftershocks have rattled Nepal over the past year. Collecting as much data as possible became an urgent priority.

Changu Narayan Temple is one of Nepal's most important temples

Changu Narayan Temple is one of Nepal’s most important temples

Phase Two involved secondary more in depth scans which include going under temple arches and inside the shrines. Some have already been complete when the opportunity arose. The rest will be done during our second phase.

Data captures and a journey home means we rarely get to process the imagery on the same day. Depending on work schedules, electricity and internet connectivity it can take up to two weeks to process a three-storey temple in Nepal. This does not include preserving the data. We backup all our data collection remotely on several different servers across the globe. Nepal simply does not have the infrastructure to securely store its own data.

Field visits to ascertain the damage and how to go about digitally preserving a temple

Field visits to ascertain the damage and how to go about digitally preserving a temple

Our own Digital Archive of Nepal is the ultimate goal in displaying our preservation work. In 2016 we feel that the vast majority of our work will need to be done off site and out of country. In the latter part of 2015 we ceased in country process of all but a few temples to accelerate phase one. This was an overwhelming success.

We’ve battled in recruiting volunteers who are willing to do more than just add “digital archaeologist” to their resumes, use a 3D camera, or learn what software to use and the techniques involved. Today we’ve streamlined our team of volunteers to those that can dedicate themselves to actually accomplishing a specific task.

We don't just focus on Kathmandu based temples we've covered the length and breath of Nepal to capture as many as we can

We don’t just focus on Kathmandu based temples we’ve covered the length and breath of Nepal to capture as many as we can

Perhaps our most successful accomplishment is not what we preserve but in being the first to do it. Since we began our work it’s open up the minds of others in similar fields who disregarded digital archaeology. Moreover it’s highlighted the problems of archaeology in Nepal which remains incredibly closed off and hierarchical.

Our daily work in Nepal means relatively unknown and undocumented temple like this Balkumari temple are digitally preserved forever

Our daily work in Nepal means relatively unknown and undocumented temple like this Balkumari temple are digitally preserved forever

Our day to day work is both the accomplishment of not only digitally preserving a monument or artifact but also opening Nepal’s doors and minds within to the importance of cultural preservation and archaeology but also digital preservation.

In limbo: site slippage and juggling jobs

I was meant to be working on site today; at less than an hour’s drive up the road it would have made a pleasant change from working several hours’ drive away, but the site start date has slipped. It’s a fairly common occurrence and can happen for any number of reasons, sometimes down to delays in planning permission or due to other construction work, the client’s cash flow, or sometimes just the weather. Sometimes sites go into apparent hibernation and only resurface months or even years down the line, when suddenly you get a call or an email saying that ‘the footings are being pulled next week, where are you’!

On this occasion it is due to planning control and not yet having the Written Scheme of Investigation signed off –this is the document that says what we will do on site (and afterwards), and how we will dig and record it, and it has to be approved by the local Planning Archaeologist within the relevant local authority. Ours is still in limbo, so the site can’t start.

Managing the flow of work is never easy, and is part of the reason why site staff contracts are often short, and not extended until the last minute –no-one knows if the work will be there on Monday. When you are a sole trader it gets harder –you either need to be able to clone yourself to deal with a glut of work, or find something to fill the hours when a job slides. It is almost always outside your control, and sometimes there seems to be little that can be done to mitigate the problem.

My freelance work is luckily not restricted to site work –I’m also an illustrator, create training materials, do grant-funded research and I carry out post-excavation and publication work on various archaeological projects. All this work often has slightly less demanding deadlines than the fieldwork -it has to be done, but the deadline is usually ‘tomorrow’, rather than ‘yesterday’. So having a mix of different types of projects gives me the flexibility to be able to deal with last minute delays to sites. Picking up and putting down projects every few days isn’t the most efficient way of working, but  sometimes you have to do it: its a juggling act.

Day to day the juggling of current jobs is usually ok, and you do get the occasional day off to counterbalance the runs of 18 hour days required to meet deadlines. The bigger impact of slippage is in tendering for future work as it may take a month or longer for sites or PX programmes to go live, and all the time all your jobs are slipping, being brought forward, and morphing from one day watching briefs into three week excavations. The Year Planner starts to look like 4-D Tetris, and its often only at the last moment that it all comes together.

So today, instead of digging a late prehistoric/Roman and medieval site next to a pub in the Cotswolds, I am finalising the report on a project I did in Nepal earlier in the year…