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Buddhica Antiqua: Preserving Ancient Buddhist Heritage with the Digitalisation of Gandharan Artefacts Team

The recent discovery of a statue of the Buddha statue in Berenike, southern Egypt—a major seaport during the Roman era—threw the Buddhist and archaeological worlds into an excited fervor. The sculpture’s mixed Indian-Gandharan and Romano-Egyptian provenance was particularly fascinating. Once scholars can accurately pinpoint the origins of this sculpture, carved from Mediterranean marble, a marvelous story will be told about how a wealthy Egyptian or Roman citizen was charmed by an encounter with Bactrian, Persian, or African merchant selling sculptures and charms of a distant faith with a completely unfamiliar worldview and cosmology. They would have wanted their own replica, and perhaps made an order for a sculpture to be imported from somewhere in South Asia to where it was found, in an Isis temple.

This scenario, no matter how likely we think it might be, is just that, a story. We know little about Gandharan objects’ archaeological contexts because there is very little documentation of the artifacts. Many Buddhist sculptures from Gandhara were discovered at the turn of the 20th century by excavators who did not know or respect scientific standards. Their entry into museum collections is often difficult to reconstruct, giving rise to an intractability of archaeological remains that hobbles the progress of Gandhara studies.

The Bochum-based project Digitalisation of Gandharan Artefacts (DiGA) seeks to remedy this issue. It consists of a team of trained specialists who collaborate regularly with the Directorate of Archaeology and Museums, Government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPDOAM) in Pakistan. The team’s objective is to catalogue 1,791 items kept in the Dir Museum in Chakdara and in the Mission House of the Missione Archeologica Italiana in Pakistan (MAIP), in Saidu Sharif. BDG spoke to the team after their recent trip in April to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa about DiGA’s unique mission and landmark accomplishments.

We would like to thank project members Jessie Pons, Frederik Elwert, Calin Suteu, Cristiano Moscatelli, and Serena Autiero for their thoughtful discussion.

BDG: How did DiGA first secure the collaborative relationship with the Pakistani government to strengthen the foundation of Gandharan studies and analyze Gandharan material culture?

Jessie Pons: I think that the foundations of the collaboration were laid in 2016, during the prequel of the DiGA project. It must be said that the Italian Archaeological Mission in Pakistan, which has a long-standing relationship with KPDOAM, was instrumental in establishing the contact between DiGA and Pakistani authorities. At the time, we were developing our digital concept and surveying different Pakistani collections of Gandharan art for documentation. We decided to work on Chakdara, which is manageable in terms of size and unlike many other collections, composed of objects found during scientific excavations. I contacted Dr. Abdul Samad to express our interest in working on the collection in Chakdara and gradually, through a series of email exchanges, we drafted the scheme of our collaboration. This was officialized in a Memorandum of Understanding signed in November 2017.

When the new DiGA project started, we invited Dr. Samad to Bochum for a few days to discuss our common roadmap for the project and possible follow-ups. Since then, both parties have really tried their best to further the advancement and dissemination of knowledge through research and training activities organized jointly.

BDG: You scheduled three photographic campaigns at Saidu Sharif and Chakdara for 2021, 2022, and 2023. What did you hope to accomplish during your trip this year?

Jessie Pons: Contrary to what we expected when we started our project, COVID didn’t affect our schedule. It made the logistics of our trip in 2021 more complicated in that we had to comply with all the hygiene measures. This involved getting our vaccination status up to date, obtaining PCR tests 72h prior to departure, downloading the airline and Pakistani apps and keeping both digital and printed copies of all the relevant documents. That generated a bit of paperwork! During the application phase of the DiGA project, we were required to develop 2 alternative work plans to respond to the pandemic. We had made provisions in case we would not be able to travel.

We had to activate our plan B in 2022, not because of the pandemic, but due to unexpected events. We set up a remote digital campaign in collaboration with our colleagues from KPDOAM. They travelled to the Museum in Chakdara every weekend for several months to resume the digital campaign. We could not be more grateful for the wonderful work they have done.

This year we managed to complete the digitization of the whole collection with 2D photography, and scanned a good number of sculptures for 3D documentation. When we arrived in April, we still had just under 500 objects to digitize. This would not have been possible without the help of our Pakistani colleagues who backed us up with the 2D digitization.

BDG: Can you explain a little more in lay terms the two components of this project: DiGA: Development of a Digital Concept for Gandharan Artefacts and Linked Open Data in Gandharan Buddhist Art and Texts?

Frederik Elwert: There were two predecessor projects to what is now DiGA. First, the German Ministry of Education and Research funded a series of projects to develop concepts for digitizing cultural heritage collections. There are many aspects to consider, from the appropriate digitization techniques to long-term preservation. In this first phase, we made sure that we had a solid plan for the actual project. Second, we wanted to make sure that our project does not live in isolation, but fits into the wider landscape of current initiatives. To this end, we were grateful to receive funding from the Pelagios network to hold a workshop on the use of Linked Open Data (LOD) technologies in Gandharan studies.

LOD, in a nutshell, is a way for projects to share data and build on each other’s work. The collection we are working on is valuable in itself, but what can be learned from it is enhanced when it is linked to other object collections or even textual databases. One of the ways we are pursuing this idea in the current project is through our Digitization of Gandharan Artefacts Thesaurus. Put simply, this thesaurus ensures that we all use the same terms to talk about Buddhist characters, stories and iconography. It is already being used in a number of other projects, which will hopefully support our aim of sharing information across institutional boundaries.

This preparatory work has finally convinced the German Ministry of Education and Research to fund our current project, enabling us to actually carry out the digitization. This is an important and exciting step, and it’s amazing to see everything we imagined come to life. And we are still learning every day. We are really excited to see what kind of future research, but also all kinds of other creative uses, our current work will enable in the future.  We believe that the best way to move forward in this field is to share this kind of data openly, so that different communities can use and benefit from this rich cultural heritage.

BDG: Take us through the process of actually working on a piece of Gandharan art, from the 2D photography to the 3D scanning into the database.

Calin Suteu: If photography is seen as the go-to 2D medium in cultural heritage documentation, 3D scanning brings another dimension to the viewer. Pixels of information gathered with the help of a laser scanner now have all the coordinates (X,Y and Z) needed to represent an object in space, in the form of 3D models. Our work with the DiGA project concerns the record of complex and beautiful art pieces in 3D, to be shared with researchers and the public using easily available internet tools.

Our days documenting the beautiful art collection at Chakdara museum start with setting up a small 3D corner, a table with a spinning support to hold and maneuver the artifacts during scanning, the computer and scanner connected by wire, and the starting of the specialized software.

Figure 1. Image from DiGA

Then each artifact is brought over by museum personnel and laid on the spinning base. The scanning of each of the object’s faces is performed, with extra care being given for the hard-to-reach angles and deep carvings. Depending on the object’s complexity, a scan can take from 5 minutes to over 1 hour, followed by a corresponding post-processing phase, in which we analyze and prepare the data to build an accurate 3D model. The scanning is performed in several stages, covering all the faces of the object, with an amazing collection rate of over 1 million points every second.

Figure 2a. Image from DiGA

The post-processing phase deals with improving the accuracy of the data collected, the deletion of elements that are not needed—like the table and spinning base— the alignment of individual scans and finally the general registration of the model, as a unified collection of 3D points, known as a point cloud.

Figure 2b. Image from DiGA
Figure 2c. Image from DiGA

The next step is the creation of the actual 3D model, a sharp mesh model based on the point cloud data.

Figure 3a. Image from DiGA

This model is then simplified, and a texture (color) is applied. 

Figure 3b. Image from DiGA

The model is then exported in general accessible formats (.OBJ, .STL) and can be uploaded to the internet using the well-known and easily accessible Sketchfab platform.

Figure 4. Image from DiGA

The possible uses for such 3D documentation of Gandharan cultural heritage are many, from assessing damage in conservation and restoration to obtaining a complete visual record for research and, most of all, world-wide dissemination over the internet, easily reaching the specialists and the general public via common medias such as mobile phones, tablets, and VR glasses.

Cristiano Moscatelli: The workflow is pretty straightforward. It begins with the cleaning and measuring of the object, and we take note of potential distinctive elements—such as Karoshthi marks—and pieces that belong together.

The next step is the photographic documentation. We use a Lightbox—also known as a white/photographic box or light tent—which is a good compromise regarding portability and light control. The object is photographed following a fixed order. The first photo must show the front side with the inventory number on a label. This photo is not to be published, but we need it just as a reference. Then we shoot all the sides: front—without label—proper left and right view, back, top and bottom. Once the photographic documentation is done, we ensure all sides have been taken and are readable.

Then post-production editing is the way to go. We keep different copies of the RAW files while we edit another one in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. We adjust the white balance and colors and remove all the unnecessary tools visible in the photo, such as supports and props. We unified the color of the background and centre the object in the frame. Each edited file is saved in uncompressed TIFF and JPG format to ensure quality.

The final step is the description and digital publication of the piece. The description is based on our Thesaurus, which draws upon the Repertory of Terms for Cataloguing Gandharan Sculptures (2007) by Domenico Faccenna and Anna Filigenzi. Once the description is done, the piece and its related metadata—dimensions, condition, source of provenance, bibliographic reference, etc.—are uploaded on heidICON, the image and multimedia database of the Heidelberg University Library, Germany, one of our partners. The piece is finally published and made available on open access.

BDG: You recently lent your name to a heritage photography workshop in collaboration with KPDOAM’s Digital Heritage Centre. What activities and initiatives do you engage in with students and specialists in Pakistan so they can be both beneficiaries as well as partners in your work?

Serena Autiero: This Heritage Photography workshop is only the latest example of the training activities connected to the DiGA Project.

During the first fieldwork in 2021, every Thursday, 17 participants selected among the KPDOAM staff and faculty from local universities joined the team in Chakdara to attend the training program we organized in coordination with Dr. Abdul Samad. The program focused on digital tools for the management, conservation, cataloguing, and preservation of museum collections. The structure was based on a “learning-by-doing” approach, aimed at developing key basic competences for planning and implementing a digital database of archaeological materials. The participants were introduced to the use of standardized vocabularies for the descriptions of items, to a methodical workflow for photographic documentation and finally to the creation of a digital repository. The final project was a digital exhibition titled “KP Diffused Museum: A Digital Exhibition of Networked Collections.”

The first training program was fruitful but also challenging, since it ran in parallel with the digitization campaign. Therefore, for the 2022 fieldwork we planned an intensive training program that would have been more efficient, so that the knowledge and know-how we are privileged to have could be transmitted to the participants. Unfortunately, the 2022 fieldwork, and consequently the training, were cancelled for unexpected reasons.

We are therefore very happy for the success obtained by the Heritage Photography Workshop, and we are looking forward to further strengthening this joint venture with the KPDOAM and the Digital Heritage Center with one last program before the natural end of the DiGA Project. Indeed, during next winter we hope to be able to host in Bochum twelve participants—selected among the KPDOAM staff and the University of Peshawar faculty—for an intensive Winter School on digital documentation and heritage preservation. This Winter School was planned for last March, but has been postponed for visa related issues. We are confident that these issues will be soon solved, while still keeping our fingers crossed! It would be a great pleasure for us to host our partners in Bochum and attempt to reciprocate the wonderful hospitality we received in Pakistan.

See more

Digitization of Gandharan Artefacts: A Project for the Preservation and the Study of the Buddhist Art of Pakistan
Thesaurus (DiGA)

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