For every ancient Greek, Roman, Byzantine or even Phoenician or Babylonian artefact discovered almost intact or broken into big enough pieces that archaeologists and other experts have managed to reassemble them, there are of course thousands more shattered into tiny pieces.
The most beautiful pieces of cultural heritage are also often the most fragile, made from pottery, ceramics and glass. From the ancient Chinese empires to those of South America and Africa, as well as the great civilisations of Europe and the Middle East, most of what has not been crafted from metal has been lost forever.
But the latest technology in the world of AI means that we will now be able to reclaim a lot more of our cultural heritage. An AI algorithm developed by a team of Israeli engineers has been demonstrated to be able to put back together fragments of ancient Byzantine frescoes and statues “perfectly”.
Done manually by hand and trying to match fragments based on colour and their edges is not only a painstakingly intricate and long process, piecing together artefacts often proves an impossible task. But the AI the Israeli team has developed employs much more complex criteria and the approach is proving to be extremely effective in solving these excruciatingly complex and delicate jigsaw puzzles. The task is made even harder by the fact that these pieces have often been broken centuries to millennia ago and edges and colours have been eroded so they no longer perfectly match.
However, the algorithm developed Niv Derech and Ayellet Tal of the Israel Institute of Technology, together with Ilan Shimshoni of the University of Haifa, goes significantly beyond those factors when matching pieces. For example, in the case of a Byzantine frescoe, having learned from a rich database of images of complete examples, the algorithm will match broken pieces based on predictions of how the painted folds on the robes of figures would be expected to continue into the next fragment. It then points the user to the fragment or fragments that fit that prediction.
The researchers received funding from the EU-supported Gravitate project which is tasked with putting together a cutting edge digital technology suite of tools to help archaeologist and curators. There have been other significant technology breakthroughs in the field that are now beginning to uncover secrets previously thought lost to the mists of time. For example, cutting edge scanners have recently been used to read charred scrolls recovered from a villa in Pompeii and previously indecipherable. The greater depth to our historical knowledge and quite possibly completely new revelations that new specialist technology may bring in coming years is an exciting prospect.