ON THE ISLAND of Rapa Nui—more commonly known as Easter Island—the monolithic statues known as moai rest on the slopes of a collapsed volcano called Rano Raraku. Native inhabitants carved these figures between the 13th and 16th centuries, archaeologists believe, as sacred embodiments of departed ancestors. Nearly nine hundred moai exist on the island, and many were moved long distances from the Rano Raraku quarry site, positioned as if to protect the land.
Today, you can still go visit the Easter Island statues, reveling in the effort it must have taken to construct and move them to their current positions. Other ruins, though, you may never have the chance to see with your own eyes. In recent months, ISIS has essentially bulldozed the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, destroying artifacts that date back to the 13th century BC. And they’re currently knocking on the door of the 2,000-year-old Syrian city of Palmyra.
In a world that consistently threatens humans’ valuable archaeological heritage, new digital preservation technologies can offer a small (very, very small) comfort. CyArk, a nonprofit organization in California, has digitally captured many sites and objects, including those ancient maoi on Rapa Nui, through LiDAR (light detection and ranging) data. The three-dimensional scanned images are helping the island’s modern inhabitants record their cultural history for posterity—and aiding researchers in their study of the past.
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