Nimrud Rising: An Immersive Virtual Reality Recreation of a Lost Site

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By: Peter Herdrich

In March, 2015, reports from the Iraqi Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities confirmed that agents of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had attacked the ancient Assyrian capital city of Nimrud in northeastern Iraq, just eighteen miles southeast of Mosul. Then, on April 12, 2015, the terrorists of ISIS released a video documenting the willful demolition of the Northwest Palace, the home of King Ashurnasirpal II and an excavation site since Sir Austen Henry Layard’s expedition of the 1840s. After 2,800 years of history, the terrorists had wiped the most famous and culturally significant building at Nimrud from the face of the earth.

To offset these losses, Donald H. Sanders of Learning Sites, Inc. and Peter Herdrich of the Cultural Capital Group have created Nimrud Rising. Offering an alternative to the dynamiting of the Northwest Palace, we are using innovative digital technology solutions to create an immersive virtual reality recreation of Nimrud. Our goal is to provide a digital replica of the palace of Ashurnasirpal II and the surrounding citadel area where anyone can visit the site, learn about that ancient culture, and understand how the palace was lost and why.


Exterior, Northwest Palace, from Nimrud Rising. All images courtesy of Peter Herdich.

Exterior, Northwest Palace, from Nimrud Rising. All images courtesy of Peter Herdich.

Dr. Donald H. Sanders (center) with viewer wearing VR headset

Dr. Donald H. Sanders (center) with viewer wearing VR headset


Donning a virtual reality (VR) headset will transport the participant to northern Iraq in a realistic, fully immersive, 360-degree environment. The virtual world allows the visitor to walk through the citadel of Nimrud and see its architecture and its art, resurrecting and reinstating the palaces of the great kings Shalmaneser III, Ashurnasirpal II, and Tiglath-pileser III, with their magnificent sculptures and elaborate wall carvings.

“We want to engage audiences in an immersive and interactive near first-person experience of the palace, to excite them about learning about the past,” Dr. Sanders, the project’s Scientific Director explains. “And by creating a prototype educational module that links historical places, peoples, and events to those of today, we hope to rebuff cultural terrorists who think that erasing physical evidence can erase knowledge of the past.”

Taking advantage of Learning Sites’ extensive experience programming virtual worlds, Nimrud Rising builds off of LSI’s existing 3D computer model of the Northwest Palace and its surrounding context. Using supplemental video, sound, and graphics that create learning modules embedded in the VR experience, Nimrud Rising will become the most comprehensive, detailed, and accurate model of the citadel and allow virtual visitors to explore its buildings, plazas, courtyards, and gateways as if having a personalized virtual guidebook at their fingertips. With immersive virtual reality, viewers will see, hear, and sense the environment, travelling across the site and into key buildings while stopping to explore and learn. This digital environment becomes a replacement for the destroyed site and a virtual prism to understand the current situation in the Middle East.

Interior, Northwest Palace, from Nimrud Rising

Interior, Northwest Palace, from Nimrud Rising

The story of Nimrud Rising begins in 1996. That’s when Dr. Sanders began working with the late Assyriologist Samuel M. Paley and his architect Alison B. Snyder and members of the 1970s Polish-Nimrud excavation team. Dr. Sanders and his company, Learning Sites, Inc. are recognized as world leaders in reliable archaeological visualizations for interactive education and research. In 2015 he won the Tartessos Prize for his contributions to virtual archaeology. “I did my first animation of Nimrud in 1997, for France 2 TV. And over the years I’ve worked with many colleagues on visualizations of the site for, among others, the Williams College Museum of Art, National Geographic, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” That work has allowed Dr. Sanders to focus on the hallmark of all his visualizations, the accurate depiction of sites, buildings, and objects. “Learning Sites used excavation notebooks back to the 1850s to insure that what we are showing is accurate. We insist that the reliefs be in the right order, the colors on the walls be accurate, even that the light generated by our oil lamps be in the correct spectrum. That’s critically important for historical understanding and context.”

Peter Herdrich, far left, Donald H. Sanders, far right with viewers

Peter Herdrich, far left, Donald H. Sanders, far right with viewers

The computer-generated 3-D model of Nimrud is used to generate the 360 degree immersive environment. As Nimrud Rising’s Executive Producer and as a former broadcast television producer, I believe that this new technology presents multiple potential benefits for cultural heritage preservation and protection. These include a new and engaging way to tell the story of the site’s history, the ability to be transported to a far away place that’s too dangerous to visit, and opportunity to bring the story of Nimrud up to date, including consideration of the tragic events that caused its destruction.

The Missing: Rebuilding the Past at John Jay College Gallery of Art

The Missing: Rebuilding the Past at John Jay College Gallery of Art

On January 22, 2016 at John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Anya and Andrew Shiva Gallery of Art in New York, the Nimrud Rising team demonstrated the beta version of the project as part of a symposium associated with the art exhibit, The Missing: Rebuilding the Past. Professor Erin Thompson of John Jay organized and curated The Missing, a groundbreaking exhibit and the first to showcase the efforts of artists and scholars to resist ISIS and other forms of destruction of the past. “The purpose of the exhibit is to showcase artists’ and scholars’ creative responses to the destruction of art, to prove that we are not helpless in the fight against ISIS,” says Professor Thompson. “The artists and scholars in the exhibit show that we do have hope and power in this fight.”

Professor Erin Thompson, John Jay College of Criminal Justice

Professor Erin Thompson, John Jay College of Criminal Justice

Some fifty scholars, students, and media and communications experts donned VR headsets to investigate the world of Nimrud. Professor Thompson describes the immersive VR experience. “Visiting a site shows you how all its elements fit together. You can stand in the throne room of a palace and imagine what the king would have seen from his throne. Nimrud Rising puts you so much closer to seeing what an Assyrian king or queen would have seen than visiting the site itself, because it rebuilds the walls and reunites scattered decorative elements. Now you just need to imagine the smell – and that’s probably for the best!”

Nimrud Rising is not intended as a substitute for the actual site. But it does offer an experience that is immersive, that instructs about the past and the present, that is interactive, and that can even inspire. Dr. Thompson: “Nimrud Rising is not only a comprehensive record of a now-destroyed site, but also an important model for future archeological VR projects, because it is both extremely accurate and also engaging. It has the power both to advance scholarship and to attract new audiences to the wonder of Ancient Near Eastern art.”

Peter Herdrich is Executive Producer of Nimrud Rising. For more information about Nimrud Rising and immersive virtual reality, please contact nimrudrisingvr@gmail.com.

 

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