Heritage and citizen science projects: three initiatives involving the public in heritage sites

From the Scottish Ring of Brodgar to Palmyra in Syria, the public plays it part

Taking pictures during your trip to Scotland can help protect the Circle of Brodgar. Image: theasis & PhotoMIX Company (Canva)

Opening heritage to the public and making it accessible for all is no easy task. Historic Environment Scotland’s (HES) Monument Monitor project might be a step in the right direction. Visitors of the Ring of Brodgar, an impressive stone circle on the Scottish Orkney islands, can become part of a citizen science project by sharing their pictures.

By looking at the images of the Ring of Brodgar, the HES can see the day-to-day conditions of the site. The photos include signs of erosion, water damage, vandalism, and littering. According to a HES press release, the footage has already helped combat heritage crime and monitor the impacts of climate change on other remote sites.

“Using pictures sent to us by visitors, we’ve been able to model how climate change will affect flooding at Machrie Moor Standing Stone Circle in Arran, as well as measure the impact of increased visitor footfall at Clava Cairns”, explained Adam Frost, a Senior Digital Documentation Officer at HES.

We hope that visitors will be inspired to get involved in the care of this unique monument and send us their snaps!”

Adam Frost, HES

Frost urges visitors to provide him and his colleagues with footage that records how well the stone circle site can drain large amounts of water, as weather conditions will become more extreme in the future. “We hope that visitors to the site over the summer will be inspired to get involved in the care of this unique monument and send us their snaps!”

Too large to cover

Citizen science can be a useful tool to help heritage professionals from all over the world. Take for example the Scars of War project in the Netherlands. Via an online platform of height maps, participants can search for traces of the Second World War near the city of Utrecht, such as bomb craters, trenches, and ammunition depots. Everyone with a tablet, laptop, or computer can join the so-called Zooviverse platform, Erfgoedstem reported.

A heightmap of the area in which researchers and citizens will look for ruins and traces of WWII. Image: Scars of War.

The area of more than 600 km2 near Utrecht was the scene of many military activities during WWII. Although numerous traces are still present in the landscape, they have never been properly mapped, partially because the area is too large to be studied by a small group of archaeologists.

A second reason to call members of the public to aid the research is recognizing a ruin requires specific skills. Some people are better at discovering structural signs of for example a bomb crater, while others have more trouble with this. It is therefore important that different people inspect the height maps. The platform shows participants how they can recognize different types of ruins.

Virtual salvaging

A whole different use of citizen science and heritage is the Arc/k project, founded by American philanthropist Brian Pope. After the destruction of the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria, he set up a crowd-sourcing network that attempted to recreate three structures in the city. Over the years, Arc/k has gathered more than 10,000 images captured by tourists, academics, and surveyors between five and ten years before the destruction.

The footage was used to create a virtual reality of the site. “There is this great moment where the sun is accurately placed for a given day of the year and you can look out under the arch and be blinded by the sun coming across the arch,” Pope told The National.

The temple of Bell is one of the buildings that have been reconstructed through crowd-sourcing images. Image: Ars Electronica (Flickr) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Instead of accessing and cataloging the damage, our main focus is on [virtually] salvaging and perpetuating, via crowdsourced photogrammetry, which allows us to go back into the past and capture the site as it was”, Arc/k director of operations Scott Purdy said. The project has now also set up citizen science projects in Venezuela, the United States, and Iceland.

Three different initiatives, show three different ways of making heritage accessible and interesting to the general public. From crowdsourcing images and creating VR models, to day-to-day site management and covering large research areas. Do you know of an interesting civilian science project that helps to protect, research or engage with cultural heritage? Let us know via [email protected]

Sources: Erfgoedstem (Dutch), HES, The National

X