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23 February 2005

Virtual Reconstruction: Temple Ruins in Cambodia

Computer scientists headed by Prof. Hans Georg Bock of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Scientific Computing of the University of Heidelberg are developing programmes for the virtual reconstruction of ancient temples in Cambodia — Support from the Daimler-Benz Foundation — Wanted: sponsors for Cambodian students

The kingdom of Cambodia. A country that has largely disappeared from the headlines since the Vietnamese ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979. While its powerful neighbour Vietnam can point to constant economic growth averaging out at about 8%, Cambodia is a developing country faced by major economic difficulties. Up to a short time ago, the university institutes of architecture and archaeology in Cambodia did not even have telephones, let alone internet access.

The fact that things have now changed for the better is very much the fruit of an initiative by Professor Hans Georg Bock of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Scientific Computing of the University of Heidelberg. With support from the Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz Foundation he has at least been able to ensure that archaeologists and architects at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Pnom Penh have now been provided with telephones and internet access. This initiative on the part of the mathematician and computer scientist is motivated by his scientific interest in the famous temples of Angkor. What is it about ancient temples that holds out such fascination for a mathematician?

The answer lies in the present state these temples from the 9th to the 13th century are in. They have not only suffered very badly from exposure to the tropical climate. Subsidence is another factor that has led to the dilapidation of a complex made up of over 70 major temples covering an area of 400 square kilometres. In addition, the stones were originally placed one on top of the other without mortar. Today there are even places where trees are growing through the stones. At present teams of archaeologists and restoration experts from ten different nations, including Germany, are working on the temples to ensure that they are preserved and restored.

This is where Professor Bock's work group comes in. One of his doctoral students has developed software with which ruined temples can be reconstructed three-dimensionally on the computer. Obviously this programme is also being used in Angkor. But the virtual reconstruction of the temples is not the only thing this software can be used for. It is also designed to help identify the most seriously endangered parts of the ancient temples, thus indicating where restoration work is most urgently required.

Links with Cambodia are not only restricted to professors and doctoral students. "This month a group of about 15 students from the University of Heidelberg will be establishing contact with students in Cambodia with a view to joining forces with them in the reconstruction of the temples," says Bock. The basis for such cooperation is already in place: internet access makes it relatively unproblematic and affordable. Some students will be going to Cambodia in late March to establish initial personal contact. They will be devising plans with their counterparts in Cambodia to decide which temples are to be attended to first and when work can start.

Funding for the German students is less of a problem than it is for the Cambodians. Accordingly, Professor Bock is looking for a sponsor. "A grant of 20 to 30 euros a month would be a great help for a student in Cambodia," says Bock with reference to the conditions obtaining there.

Hans Georg Bock's ultimate aim is to achieve the virtual reconstruction of the temples in Angkor. To this end, a computer-assisted archive and documentation system has been developed specially for the National Museum in Pnom Penh. "So far all we have to go on is photos," says Professor Bock. In future, new methods will also help to provide three-dimensional representations of statues and museum exhibits. Then the head of a statue in Paris can be joined up on the computer with the rest of the statue in Cambodia.

Ultimately, virtual exhibitions will also be feasible this way. The use of modern computer-assisted methods thus not only cuts down on costs but also opens up entirely new prospects for Cambodian scholars and scientists in their bid to restore and preserve their famous cultural heritage. It is here that Hans Georg Bock's assertion that developing countries stand to gain more than anyone else from scientific computing achieves its fullest significance.
Stefan Zeeh

Please address any inquiries to
Prof. Dr. Hans Georg Bock
Im Neuenheimer Feld 368
D-69120 Heidelberg
phone: 06221/548237, fax: 545444

Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317

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