Academic journal article Rock Art Research

The Deteriorating Preservation of the Altai Rock Art: Assessing Three-Dimensional Image-Based Modelling in Rock Art Research and Management

Academic journal article Rock Art Research

The Deteriorating Preservation of the Altai Rock Art: Assessing Three-Dimensional Image-Based Modelling in Rock Art Research and Management

Article excerpt

Abstract. The unique rock art of the Russian Altai is increasingly suffering from human and natural processes. Without well-directed action and documentation it will be practically impossible to establish conservation initiatives and, eventually, many of these sites will be lost. This paper presents an overview of the different processes affecting this rock art, based on fifteen years of observations in the region and recent three-dimensional (3D) photorealistic documentation. A cost-effective 3D workflow for rock art recording and research is discussed as a possible way to tackle this worsening situation. The application of 3D documentation in rock art research has seen an explosive growth during recent years, but its use is still maturing and a strategy on how to deal with the models is still lacking.

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1. Introduction

The transitional setting between the major steppe regions of Mongolia and Kazakhstan make the Altai Mountains (southern Siberia) one of the richest and most varied archaeological regions of inner Asia (Fig. 1). Thousands of surface sites and countless petroglyphs on both rocky outcrops and stelae are silent witnesses of the important role this region played since the late Neolithic (3200 BCE). Although there have been some effective surveying projects (e.g. Okladnikov et al. 1979; Kubarev and Jacobson 1996; Jacobson-Tepfer et al. 2010), a large number of rock art sites remained undocumented or were registered inadequately during Soviet times. Moreover, nearly all sites are located in areas with limited protection and are subject to uncontrolled vandalism and environmental processes (Plets et al. 2011a). A limited budget for insitu conservation and restoration means that time is running out for Altai rock art. Every year this situation is worsening and important scientific data are being lost. Therefore it is of the utmost importance that the existing petroglyphs are documented objectively and in great detail for future conservation and research purposes.

Most recordings in the Altai are still obtained using traditional techniques such as wax and latex rubbing, freehand drawing, photography, casting and tracing (e.g. Martinov et al. 2006; Cheremisin 2008; Kubarev 2011). These techniques are in various aspects insufficient to document the endangered rock art in a detailed and non-intrusive way (Simpson et al. 2004; Cassen and Robin 2010: 2-3). Furthermore, many petroglyphs are finely incised figures which are impossible to detect with these techniques. Three-dimensional (3D) techniques based on image modelling (i.e. traditional photogrammetry) (Simpson et al. 2004; Chandler et al. 2005; Alyilamaz et al. 2010) and rangebased methods (i.e. terrestrial laser scanning) (Farjas et al. 2009; Escarcena et al. 2011; Gonzalez-Aguilera et al. 2011) have proven to fill this gap. Besides their high detail, the almost real-life virtual representation of the heritage makes these techniques less abstract than the traditional techniques. Unfortunately, working with these techniques is often not straightforward for the systematic surveying of vast areas. Heavy, purposespecific and expensive equipment is often needed, slowing down the data collection. Furthermore, processing demands a certain technical background, including costly software, making it difficult to implement these approaches in the daily workflow.

However, recent developments in the area of computer vision-based photogrammetry show great potential for fast, flexible and detailed documentation of heritage, without specialised and expensive instruments (Simpson et al. 2004; Sanz et al. 2010; Doneus et al. 2011; Verhoeven 2011; Verhoeven et al. 2012; Plets et al. 2012).

The aim of this paper is to describe the worsening preservation state of the Altai rock art and how the use of a cost-effective 3D methodology can be a first step towards both safeguarding the scientific information and planning future preservation and conservation initiatives. …

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