Virtually Immortal

Digital preservationists are on a mission to capture the world’s threatened masterworks in all their 3-D glory.

This story appears in the December 2013 issue of National Geographic magazine.

The first surprises, after the long, dusty drive from Ahmadabad, are the shade trees and the rolling green lawn. Then you notice the monkeys, mynah birds, and parakeets swooping in and out of the trees. After passing through the entrance gate, you follow a long stone pathway until the ground begins to open up before you. There, on the far side of the grass, is a gaping sandstone canyon, sculpted not by wind and rain but by human hands: Rani ki Vav, the Queen’s Step Well.

It is dry most of the year in northwestern India, the rain arriving abruptly during the summer monsoons and seeping down through the sandy soil. Centuries ago people dug to get at the water and then built stone stairways down to the pools. These step wells were simple at first, but some later became monumental works of art.

Rani ki Vav is among the most magnificent. Located near the Saraswati River in Gujarat, it was built late in the 11th century by Queen Udayamati as a memorial to her dead king. It saw little use, and by 1300 seasonal floods had filled it with silt. Not until the 1960s did the Archaeological Survey of India begin scooping it out. Witnesses were stunned by what had lain hidden beneath all that sand.

“We’ve seen photographs, but nothing compares with seeing it firsthand,” says Lyn Wilson, an archaeological scientist from Glasgow, as she gazes at the descending tiers. With the latest in digital scanning technology, she and colleagues from the Centre for Digital Documentation and Visualisation (a partnership between Historic Scotland and the Digital Design Studio at the Glasgow School of Art) and CyArk aim to reduce the chances that Rani ki Vav, or at least the data describing it, will ever be lost again.

Of all the projects they have undertaken—from the standing stones of Orkney to Mount Rushmore—this is among the most difficult.

By 12:30 p.m. the equipment has arrived. As team members open the crates, they are met with their first challenge: two busloads of Rajasthani schoolboys on a class trip. They swarm around Wilson as though she’s a Bollywood star. A uniformed guard in a beret coaxes them back with a long, swinging stick.

For the next two weeks the team will fight the heat—the electronic scanners will have to be protected from the sun with handheld umbrellas—and cope with curious crowds while they bounce laser beams off every surface of the step well, feeling out every contour. Should the monument be lost again, through floods, war, earthquakes, or just the slow grind of time, there will be a precise three-dimensional simulation available on the Internet.

The India expedition is part of a program called the Scottish Ten, which aims to produce virtual reproductions of ten world-class cultural sites. Essential to the effort is CyArk, a nonprofit organization based in Oakland, California, that has been working with various groups to scan scores of sites around the globe, from Deadwood, South Dakota, to Pompeii, Chichén Itzá, and ancient Thebes. Whatever happens to the hard copies, the blow may be softened by the fact that there is a digital backup.

Rosslyn Chapel

A 3-D animation, modeled from laser scans, reconstructs the Scottish site.

When I’d visited Scotland earlier in the year, Douglas Pritchard, then at the Digital Design Studio in Glasgow, gave me a virtual tour of a recent project: Stirling Castle, where Mary Queen of Scots was crowned in 1543. Sitting in the projection room wearing 3-D goggles, we swooped like birds through the dark entranceway and into the light of the courtyard. We soared past the Great Hall as clouds were reflected lifelike in the windows. When we reached the roof, it peeled back (reality is not so cooperative), allowing us to hover in the rafters and gaze down into the vast space where the Scottish Parliament once met and the thrones of the king and queen stood. About all that was missing was the cold, damp gloom that pervaded parts of the castle and the sounds of voices muffled by stone walls. Maybe someday that too will be simulated.

But there is more to these efforts than producing hyperrealistic simulations. Rosslyn Chapel, south of Edinburgh, has faced centuries of threats. “Oliver Cromwell’s troops used the chapel as a stable in 1650,” Pritchard said. Around the turn of the 20th century suffragettes tried to blow it up. With its intricate carvings—the novelist Dan Brown called it “symbology heaven” in The Da Vinci Code—the chapel has long attracted conspiracy theorists, who insist on linking it to the Freemasons, the Knights Templar, and the secret bloodline of Christ. Several years ago a man with a pickax made a bumbling attempt to break open a pillar he believed held the Holy Grail. Now that the stones have been scanned, damage could be faithfully repaired. Failing that, the old church could be conjured up in cyberspace.

The next morning at the step well the first full day of work begins. As the morning sun intensifies, I descend deep into the well, overwhelmed by the complexity the team must record. On a lower level seven incarnations of the four-armed god Vishnu adorn the walls. Kalki, the warrior king, sits tall on a horse, one hoof about to crush an enemy’s skull. Then there’s Varaha—Vishnu with a boar’s head—and a tiny goddess perched on his shoulder lovingly rubbing his snout.

“It reminds me of the wonderful Hollywood movie King Kong,” says K. C. Nauriyal, India’s superintending archaeologist for this region, as he shows off his favorite sculptures. Interspersed among the gods, erotic serpent maidens called nagakanyastand naked with snakes slithering around their limbs. Subtler are the nature nymphs, or apsaras, putting on lipstick or an earring, gazing at a mirror, or drying their hair.

“The spice of life,” Nauriyal calls them. In front of us an apsara playfully strikes a monkey as it pulls down her garment. Another apsara tugs the beard of a beggar mounting her leg like a dog. One blow with a hammer by a prudish vandal and the beauty would be destroyed.

As we near the well’s bottom, we pass through a colonnaded chamber and emerge in front of a towering vista of more vulnerable carvings. High on the left is the Hindu trinity: Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu. Between two of the gods, an apsara is disrobing and preparing to flick a scorpion from her thigh.

A final flight descends to the lowest of the pavilions and a dark passage that leads into the well shaft. Standing on a ledge, I look down at the bottom, which is barely damp, with a bathtub ring of algae clinging to the rock. Then I look higher: tier upon tier of stonework rising nearly a hundred feet skyward to a distant circle of light. On three lower levels, which would often have been underwater, Vishnu lies sleeping on the back of the serpent Shesha. On the next tier, just above the waterline, he’s sitting straight up.

“Rani ki Vav is highlighting the sanctity of water,” Nauriyal tells me. “There was a belief that if there are Lord Vishnus in this form, that water will never dry up here.” But it did. Agricultural development and, perhaps, a warmer climate sucked down the water table. You would have to dig deeper now. Inevitably the carvings too may disappear, surviving perhaps only in some future computer as sculptures of pure information.

Later in the week I watch Justin Barton of CyArk as he sits in a makeshift tent at the edge of the step well and assembles the first pieces. Weirdly colored columns and lintels appear on the screen. The colors—greenish in the brightest areas, grading to oranges and yellows—indicate reflectivity, or how readily the laser comes bouncing back. Barton grabs the image with the cursor and swings it around like a Lego block, fitting it into a model. He’s also looking for “shadows”—places the scanner beam missed—and “ghosting.” An apparition standing on the steps turns out to be me. With a few clicks of the mouse, I’m expunged from the scan.

Back in Glasgow the simulation will be completed, ultimately joining more than a hundred others already in CyArk’s digital repository. But that’s barely the beginning. “So much heritage is being lost on a daily basis,” Barton says, “through war and human aggression, environmental changes, and the wear and tear of time.”

The Scottish Ten recently finished work at the Eastern Qing Tombs, an elaborate royal necropolis in China. During the next five years CyArk and its partners aim to scan 500 cultural heritage sites. But the projects need not be grandiose: Historic missions and other buildings along the El Camino Real in California are on the growing list of treasures to digitally preserve.

“Every day something gets a little older,” Barton observes. “This is really an endless task.”