Preserving Volterra: How drones and lasers are documenting 3,000 years of Italian history

Preserving Volterra: How drones, lasers and 3D scanners are saving 3,000 years of Italian historyIBTimes UK

An hour car journey from the Italian city of Florence, through the green and luxuriant Tuscan landscape is all it takes for visitors to reach the thick stone walls of Volterra. The town has been on top of the hills for the past 3,000 years and abounds with archaeological treasures.

Inhabited since the Iron Age, Volterra's early history is tied to Etruscan and Roman settlements. Many of the structures built at the time remain in place today – including parts of the city walls that have Etruscan origins. The rich medieval history of Volterra is also impossible to ignore when you stroll along its streets. The old stone buildings and the precious artefacts from very distinct eras are the pride of its inhabitants.

"What makes Volterra particularly interesting is not only its 3,000 years of history, but also that there are actually historical monuments from each of these phases, and this is extremely rare. The Etruscan gate, for example, is only one of two in Italy intact, as it was originally built, so we are talking of very important monuments", Guilia Munday, historian and programme director at the Volterra International Residential College, told IBTimes UK.

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Volterra is a city with a rich cultural heritage, built on a high hill topAutodesk, Inc and the Volterra-Detroit Foundation

Major landmarks include the Etruscan arch at one of the city's gates, as well the earliest city hall built in Tuscany. For an anecdote, Volterra recently came into prominence in the 'New Moon' book of the Twilight series as the home city of the Volturi, the ancient clan ruling the rest of the vampire population.

Now however, the rich city's heritage is threatened by the passing of time and the risk of natural disasters and human deterioration, like so many other significant archaeological sites around the world. It is now a priority to come up with innovative ways to preserve Volterra.

Taking on this challenge, a workshop was organised by tech companies Autodesk and Case Technologies, with the Volterra Detroit foundation – a public non-profit foundation created by the School of Architecture University of Detroit Mercy. It brought together experts from the world of archaeology, engineering and architecture to document the beauty of Volterra with range of technologies that are currently used elsewhere in archaeological projects around the world.

New technologies in Volterra

In recent years, technologies such as laser scanning, drones and photogrammetry have become crucial tools used to preserve ancient buildings, plan renovation works, and raise awareness of the complex history of ancient cities like Volterra.

"A lot of the buildings and the artefacts here are ancient, dating back thousands of years, but this rich tradition obviously can't be with us forever. There is a potential for landslide, the city in fact lost parts of its wall in 2014. The documentation of these structures is not great so, if there is a chance to reconstruct these structures, the technologies give us the chance to have a virtual replica of what they look like today so they can be reconstructed more faithfully," explained Mark Dietrick, director of services with Case Technologies, Inc.

In Volterra, four areas have been identified as of most importance to the inhabitants and one is the Piazza dei PrioriAutodesk, Inc and the Volterra-Detroit Foundation

Laser scanning is a process that involves recording 3D data of a real world structures – the devices scan their surfaces and visual properties rapidly, creating point clouds that can then be processed to create accurate 3D models of the structures. Photogrammetry on the other hand involves obtaining precise 3D measurements from two or more photographs taken with drones or hand-held devices – even a smartphone can do the job.

These techniques each have their strengths and weaknesses, but they both allow experts to capture the city's landmarks in outstanding details. The resulting 3D models constitute valuable documentation of the city as it stands today, making it possible to track changes that may happen in the future.

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"For a feature like the Etruscan arch, laser scanning is most accurate. It gives us very accurate measurements that we can use to very accurately recreate it digitally – it gives us millions and millions of measurements along the surface of the irregular stones. We have been using photogrammetry to create photo-realistic textured surface-models of objects down to very small archaeological artefacts," details Tristan Randall, strategic project executive with Autodesk Inc.

Documenting Volterra and experiencing it

In Volterra, four areas have been identified as of particular importance to the inhabitants – the Etruscan arch, the Roman theatre, the city hall and Piazza dei Priori and the ancient San Felice spring. All these landmarks are a testimony of the city's uniqueness. They were thus the first areas to be modeled with these technologies.

A drone captures the Etruscan gateAutodesk, Inc and the Volterra-Detroit Foundation

The Roman theatre, in particular, is source of concern and will benefit most from this archaeological documentation. "It would be wonderful to monitor these historical monuments, especially the Roman theatre, because it is deteriorating since it was excavated in 1951. In the last ten years, because of the exposure and its location deteriorating quickly because it is deteriorating quickly as it is exposed to the elements," Munday says.

However, the potential of these technologies goes beyond cultural and historical preservation. Indeed, it opens up the possibility to create more interactive experiences for people. In the future, the idea is that everyone will be able to admire the Roman theatre and the rest of the city without having to physically visit Volterra.

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"I think it is really exciting to see how technologies for experiencing these 3D models have advanced significantly in the past few years. This really opens up new ways for people to experience virtually all of these amazing historical features, and I think that's really going to create a lot of interest in what we're doing here, and really expand what we're doing for people that can't necessarily be here in person," Randall confirms.

The Roman Theatre is particularly vulnerable to deteriorationAutodesk, Inc and the Volterra-Detroit Foundation

For Volterra's mayor, Marco Buselli, these technologies also have the potential to serve a more 'political' agenda. Indeed, the city would like to make an application to be included on UNESCO's world heritage list. The virtual models could support Volterra in this endeavour, by showing the world in an easy and interactive way how important its historical buildings are.

"I think that this type of image reproduction of the city of Volterra is unique and innovative and that it could serve to preserve it and become part of the UNESCO world heritage list. We wish to obtain this and 3D images are something that will help us in achieving this," the mayor says.

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