Berkeley Plans to Revive Looted Museum on Web

Times Staff Writer

Galvanized by the ransacking of Iraq’s National Museum, computer scientists, archeologists and art historians at UC Berkeley are hatching a plan to help the museum -- and the war-scarred nation -- resurrect at least some of what was lost.

The project, still in the planning stages, would use computers to recreate the museum’s smashed or stolen vases, statues and cuneiform tablets from archived photos and historical records.

The project would include images, for example, of such priceless artifacts as a 5,000-year-old marble head that is believed to be the first sculptured portrait of a living person. The life-size Warka head, a bust of a woman from the Sumerian city of Uruk, remains unaccounted for since the looting, although scholars hope it may be with other treasures in vaults that are still inaccessible. Also included would be a 4,000-year-old lyre decorated with the golden head of a bull that was excavated from the site of the ancient city of Ur. It has been badly damaged.

Scholars at UC Berkeley also hope to record and preserve other elements of Iraq’s cultural heritage, including imperiled archeological sites and historical monuments, by creating a comprehensive “virtual museum” of the nation’s treasures.


“The dream is to create a kind of virtual atlas of these cultural gems, and help keep any more of them from being lost,” said Ruzena Bajcsy, the director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Information Technology Research, which is leading the effort.

The center’s project would expand on other scholarly initiatives worldwide aimed at preserving the images of treasures in the Baghdad museum, home to one of the world’s richest collections of early civilization antiquities.

At least 38 of the national museum’s major treasures are known to be missing, along with thousands of smaller, less valuable pieces. The facility is said to be so badly vandalized that it may take months or even years to figure out just what else was lost.

Academic and cultural institutions -- from the University of Pennsylvania to the British Museum and the United Nations -- are contributing to efforts to build a virtual catalog of the museum’s holdings. The process has been hampered by the lack or loss of records at the site, including even photographs of some artifacts. But the outside researchers hope to solve that problem, at least in part, by delving into their own archives. The University of Chicago, which carried out excavations in Iraq dating to the 1920s and has among the most extensive photographic collections of such items in the world, launched a Web site with a slide show of artifacts soon after the looting, in part to help prevent the sale of stolen items.

Larger Plans

Besides helping to catalog what was lost or looted in Baghdad, UC Berkeley’s center wants to do more. It seeks to build a much larger database, incorporating photos, maps, drawings and text to showcase the full range of Iraq’s treasures.

The team would include everything from three-dimensional images of tiny art objects to others of whole monuments and archeological sites. The database would be interactive and within reach of anyone with a computer.

Bajcsy said a scholar or student, for example, might be able to plug into the database to obtain the inventory of furniture, art and other items known to have been in a specific room of an Iraqi palace at a certain time.

A scholar might also be able to take a virtual tour through time by traveling through history while standing at a single spot in an Iraqi fortress or temple, Bajcsy and her colleagues said. Or the person might choose instead to tour the building as it existed in a particular era.

The database also might boost scholarship by recording where and when a particular object was found and what period it dates to. That would allow a person to search, for example, for similar kinds of vases from the same period found at different sites.

“We want to make this easy to use, not only for teched-up scholars but for students and anyone else,” said Robert Price, UC Berkeley’s associate vice chancellor for research. “The idea here is to put the best information technology at the service of the arts and humanities.”

Bajcsy’s cross-disciplinary center may be uniquely suited to the task. She is a pioneering researcher whose interests stretch from computer science to engineering and neuroscience. Her center is based at Berkeley but also draws on faculty from other University of California campuses.

The center wants to preserve, not just what was lost, but what could be in the future. It might take advantage of technology developed by the Berkeley faculty, including 3-D laser imaging equipment that can scan and record very precise measurements -- down to 2 millimeters -- of archeological ruins and historic monuments, said Alonzo Addison, director of the university’s Center for Design Visualization.

The equipment already has been used to document part of the Colosseum in Rome, and this summer, a Berkeley team will travel to Peru to record millions of measurements of the earthen remains of an Inca palace that is steadily disappearing.

“The conditions are very similar to those in Iraq,” said Addison, who is also scientific advisor to the head of the world heritage center at UNESCO, the U.N.'s cultural arm.

“This particular complex has stood for almost 1,000 years but climate changes, rain and an increase in visitors are taking a toll. Just touching the fragile walls can bring chunks of earth falling off. We want to record it before it’s gone.”

Of course, the task isn’t the same as actual preservation of artifacts. But Addison noted that it often helps. For instance, it is now helping engineers figure out how to save a “leaning minaret” in Afghanistan by recording extraordinarily precise measurements of the building’s shift.

Beyond Iraq, Bajcsy dreams of building many such databases of the world’s cultural heritage, from excavations at the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur to the contents of the Louvre.

“So someone could say, ‘Show me all the cathedrals of the world’ or ‘Show me Delhi in 1920' or ‘Show me all the objects in the Baghdad museum’ and we could make that happen,” she says.

Anti-Theft Device

Still another idea of the center’s scholars is to use a multi-faceted technology already in development at UC Berkeley to help museums and other cultural treasure-houses prevent future thefts.

The sophisticated device, called a “motes” for its small size, combines a sensor, a mini-computer and a transmitter and receiver -- a kind of high-tech LoJack for art. Researchers hope the devices, in development for five years, will ultimately be small enough to be placed imperceptibly on a painting or in a vase.

“Then if anybody tries to steal that vase, the thief will not find it but it will be like a little locator on a dog,” she said.

Bajcsy said she and other UC Berkeley officials are reaching out to archeologists and Middle East experts at other institutions, hoping to collaborate, and at least some are eager to.

“We are very interested in the UC Berkeley idea and they seem to have the technological skills to carry it out,” said Clemens Reichel, an expert on Mesopotamian archeology at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. “They will have our full cooperation.”

But such a project also requires funding. To that end, Bajcsy and her colleagues have contacted political leaders, including California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), to seek their help in tapping the U.S. government, perhaps the multi-million-dollar USAID budget for Iraqi reconstruction.

With an estimated start-up budget for the project of about $1 million, the researchers are also seeking private and corporate contributions, Bajcsy said.

A prototype for the project is online at