The man bringing ancient ruins back to life

Susannah Hickling

As Yves Ubelmann dodges traffic on Paris’s Place de la Concorde it’s clear he’s a man on a mission. He’s heading to the iconic Grand Palais museum complex just off the Champs-Elysées, which is hosting the first exhibition to showcase the work of his company, Iconem, an innovative start-up that uses cutting-edge technology to bring the glory of the ancient world to life

Ubelmann, 37, is an architect who specialises in the world’s ancient monuments, many of which are fast vanishing as a result of armed conflict, urban development and natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes. His work takes him from Pompeii and Rome to Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, from Oman to Haiti and back again to his homeland, France.

“Archaeology has always been a big interest of mine,” he says. “During my architecture studies and after I qualified, I visited many archaeological sites in different countries and I was shocked to see how quickly they were deteriorating.”

Ubelmann uses drones to take thousands of aerial photographs of historic sites under threat. He then applies computer algorithms that can take measurements from those images and transform them into ultra-precise 3D digital models, in a process known as photogrammetry.

These 3D models can then be used to make maps, provide an archive for the archaeologists and historians of the future and—crucially—reveal to the public the architectural wonders of the past.

"The Iconem images take visitors on an immersive voyage into the heart of these inaccessible sites"

His Sites Éternels exhibition in Paris is a striking illustration of his work. The 360-degree floor-to-ceiling projections of reconstructed sites from the Middle East plunge visitors in a startlingly detailed world of temples and mosques, grand arches and Crusader castles.

“The images supplied by Iconem take visitors on an amazing immersive voyage into the heart of these often inaccessible sites,” says Jean-Luc Martinez, director of Paris’s Louvre museum, which collaborated on the exhibition.


Ubelmann is also a businessman

The Sites Éternels exhibition in Paris featured Iconem’s digitised 3D projections of Palmyra before its demolition by ISIS

He employs ten people who turn his images into photorealistic digital models on oversized computer screens in cramped offices in Paris’s traditionally arty Montparnasse area. His family have had links to Montparnasse and to art and architecture for generations. At the end of the 19th century Ubelmann’s great-great-grandfather was a teacher of drawing in the very street where Iconem has its offices, while his grandfather was—like Yves—an architect who worked on the conservation of ancient monuments, including Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy.

“From an early age I was steeped in a cultural bath that opened my eyes to historic monuments and to drawing,” says Ubelmann. “I draw often. I use it to enrich my understanding of architecture. It’s a family tradition!”

As a teenager, he volunteered on archaeological digs and, after qualifying as an architect in 2006, his work took him to Italy, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, studying ancient buildings and their settings. It was in Afghanistan that he was really struck by what was happening to the country’s remarkable heritage. He saw that looting of ancient artefacts, coins, ceramics and sculptures was widespread. Elsewhere in the country, violent floods had carried off a 16th-century monument, while at an important Buddhist site mud walls were crumbling under the desert sun.


Physical reconstruction just wasn’t feasible

Drone technology helped Ubelmann document Mes Aynak, an ancient Afghan site (below) in safety

In many of the countries he visited. “You can’t just block the growth of a town, you can’t provide a military guard for all the sites—armies are often under attack—so looting is inevitable. And the authorities are often impoverished, and trying to deal with conflicts.

“The majority of governments in the countries where we’ve worked want to protect their heritage, but there’s a lack of funds, a lack of organisation.” Ubelmann also discovered that many sites weren’t even classified as historic monuments. Some were completely unknown. “It’s very worrying.”

He started to think about an alternative to rebuilding. “That alternative was to set up agreements to document sites digitally. We might have lost the sites, but we will have preserved their memory. This is very important, because often they are sites that haven’t been studied. What astonished me, and what astonishes me today, is that there is no international programme of documentation.”

Unesco is able to focus only on the small percentage of archaeological remains that are classified as World Heritage Sites. Ubelmann, however, is also passionate about the hundreds of others. “These are the sites we need to protect the most. If we lose them, we lose all evidence of their history, of lives lived.

"There was one problem. Yes Aynak had been an Al-Qaida training camp home to Osama bin Laden. It was still mined"

“I turned the problem over in my head for quite a while,” he continues. “And it was while looking for a means of documenting sites that I found two emerging techniques.”

In the late 2000s drones and photogrammetry were developing in parallel. A camera mounted on a drone could compress two months of laborious surveying using traditional methods into a few hours.

Photogrammetry used software which could produce precise 3D models from as few as two images. Ubelmann believed he could combine these technologies to measure, map and recreate ancient sites with pinpoint accuracy. He could even introduce old photographs to show how they had changed over time.

Mes Aynak, an ancient Afghan site

He teamed up with former helicopter pilot Philippe Barthélémy, who knew how to fly drones, and in 2010 they set off for Afghanistan to test the gadgetry at Mes Aynak, a spectacular 5,000-year-old Buddhist complex. It was packed with treasures, including hundreds of statues of Buddha, but was due to be destroyed so that copper reserves beneath the surface of the site could be exploited.

The race was on to document it before it disappeared for ever. There was just one big problem: Mes Aynak had once been an Al-Qaida training camp and home to Osama bin Laden. It was still mined. But with Philippe operating the drone and Yves controlling the camera from the ground, they surveyed the entire area in ten days without setting foot inside the complex. They were able to reconstruct it digitally with stunning accuracy.


The success of an expedition

The Temple of Baalshamin

The success of their first expedition caught the attention of other countries trying to solve urgent conservation problems as well as attracting investors. Iconem was launched in 2013 and in 2015 drone manufacturer Parrot invested €1.4m in the business.

Being a private company gives Iconem a flexibility not afforded by other conservationists, who are mostly government employees. When the international community suspended all cooperation with Syria, publicly employed archaeologists were no longer allowed to work there. But the ban didn’t extend to Ubelmann’s company.

As a result, he alone had access to some of Syria’s most important sites, including Palmyra, the once beautiful and wealthy city on the Silk Road that’s been largely destroyed by ISIS (Daesh) in recent years.

Ubelmann had been working in Syria since 2006 and knew the archaeologists, historians and scientists well. When international funding and other conservation support dried up after the civil war began in 2011, he stayed in contact. “They felt abandoned,” he says. “Before the crisis, archaeologists from all over the world would go there. Then, overnight, it changed: not a soul.”

Later ISIS looted and destroyed ancient sites and several experts were murdered, including the scholar who looked after Palmyra’s antiquities, Khaled al-Asaad.

Based on photographs Syrian archaeologists sent them, Ubelmann and his Iconem colleagues worked evenings and weekends making models until Yves was granted a visa in December 2015 to train local Syrian experts in photogrammetry.

An ISIS photo shows the destruction of Palmyra in Syria with the moment it blew up the Temple of Baalshamin

“The archaeologists were very moved that foreigners had come,” he says. “But we didn’t hesitate for a second. It was a human reflex to come to their aid.”

Then, towards the end of March last year, Ubelmann got a phone call tipping him off that Palmyra was about to be liberated from ISIS control. He quickly booked a flight to Syria and was able to see for himself the damage inflicted on treasures such as the famous 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel.

“I never thought I’d see something like that in my lifetime,” he says. “I was devastated.” But after looking more closely, he realised many of the building blocks and decorations were intact. “They could probably be partially reassembled in the future.”

Iconem’s work would be vital to any future restoration. Ubelmann had four days to document the site. Based at Homs, he left at six every morning in a battered minibus with a group of Syrian experts to make the three-hour trip to Palmyra, encountering checkpoints along the desert road.

Landmines remained inside the site, so Ubelmann carried out his survey from the margins. The job was complicated and exhausting—but worth it. “We managed to digitise the entire site. That was a great victory.”

What makes their success all the more significant is that a few months later ISIS returned to reoccupy Palmyra. Fortunately, they were driven out again in March this year. Ubelmann hopes that one day the evidence of destruction he has collected will also be used to bring the perpetrators to justice.


Working in Iraq

In Iraq, too, Iconem’s ability to react quickly paid dividends. It was able to fly a drone 12 miles into territory controlled by ISIS in order to photograph the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud just days after ISIS had demolished the 2,600-year-old Temple of Nabu.

Iconem’s images of Nimrud include a ziggurat, a huge square-based tower built in terraces, which ISIS bulldozed shortly afterwards.

“We have the only 3D image of the Ziggurat in its original geometry,” explains Ubelmann. “If one day the Iraqi government or Unesco or someone else wants to restore it to its original topography, they will be able to do so on the basis of the work we have done.

"I'm working for the future not the past. I'm documenting history that can be used by generations to come"

“Palmyra and Nimrud demonstrate how useful it is to do this work very quickly. In both cases, if we hadn’t done it when we did, it would have been too late.” Iconem isn’t alone in its work at Palmyra. Other projects are aiming to use crowd-sourced photos, open data and computer technology to “rebuild” in cyberspace the so-called Pearl of the Desert. The Louvre’s Jean-Luc Martinez is convinced of the importance of Iconem’s work. “Archaeologists have always documented sites,” he says. “Technologies have multiplied and been used by archaeologists to capture as much data as possible and draw up a comprehensive record. Today, it’s the controlled alliance of two new technologies—the drone and an algorithm which treats the images collected—that allows Iconem to provide images that are precious to documentation.”

One thing is certain: the Syrian Heritage Project will be keeping Iconem busy for a long time to come. Ubelmann now wants to train more local archaeologists to use photogrammetry and help local people understand how precious their heritage is.

“I’m working for the future and not for the past,” he explains. “I’m documenting moments in history that can be used by generations to come.”