How Robots Could Help Restore Fragmented Frescoes in Pompeii

Fresco
A robot powered by artificial intelligence will attempt to restore fragmented frescoes at the Roman city of Pompeii, destroyed by Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E. Pompeii Archaeological Site

For the longest time, archaeologists in Pompeii were stumped over what to do with storage rooms filled with the fragments of frescoes fractured by Mount Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 C.E., an event that destroyed much of the city near what is now Naples.

Their solution: Let a robot do it.

Scientists at the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) are creating an automated machine reconstruct these damaged murals, reports Jen Pinkowski of Scientific American.

Dubbed RePAIR (Reconstructing the Past: Artificial Intelligence and Robotics meet Cultural Heritage), the robot will examine the fresco remnants and attempt to reassemble them. The new project could save countless hours in the reconstruction process.

“The idea is to work towards automating as much as possible this quite time-consuming and also boring activity of digitizing cultural heritage,” Arianna Traviglia, director of IIT’s Center for Cultural Heritage and Technology and a project investigator, tells Scientific American.

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Broken fragments from two historical sites in the city are currently being stored in a nearby warehouse, waiting for reassembly, says Jen Copestake of BBC News,

“I think here we [have] 10,000 pieces of fragments,” Elena Gravina, conservator at the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, tells BBC News . “This is only a little part. In other storerooms, we have more and more in boxes.”

Marcello Pelillo, a computer scientist and A.I. expert at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, leads the development of the robot’s A.I. program. He says his team is faced with an enormously difficult task.

“When there are hundreds of pieces, these frescoes can be put back together manually, but Pompeii has a collection of thousands and that needs technology,” he says, per The Times.

Researchers are still determining the robot’s final design, but have considered implementing the use of soft humanoid arms and hands so that it can hold and scan fragile pieces without damaging them during reassembly, reports Scientific American. The unit would then be mounted onto a sliding mechanism to move between work stations.

As reported in The Times, when the robot scans a piece it, it searches a database for a match, then sends the data back to the hands to reassemble corresponding pieces.

“If this works, I think it will have a huge potential in future projects, both in Pompeii and elsewhere, for not only wall paintings and pottery fragments, which is the majority of finds during most excavations,” says Gabriel Zuchtriegel, director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, in the BBC video.

How Robots Could Help Restore Fragmented Frescoes in Pompeii
Destroyed by Mount Vesuvius nearly 2,000 years ago, Pompeii continues to be a source of archaeological discoveries. Scientists now hope to restore damaged frescoes using a robot.  By Heinz-Josef Lücking, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, i. via Wikimedia Commons

The robot’s first task will be to reconstruct part of the Schola Armaturarum, the headquarters of a military-style group located on Via dell’Abbondanza, Pompeii’s main street, where its members organized gladiator battles.

If all goes well, the unit will then reconstruct the frescoes in two adjoining structures: Casa dei Pittori al Lavoro (“House of the Painters at Work) and Insula dei Casti Amanti (“Insula of the Chaste Lovers”), where artisans were still in the process of painting when Vesuvius erupted, reports Scientific American.

The team has high expectations for the RePAIR robot. If successful, it could represent a major breakthrough in archaeological research.

 “We hope that if we succeed with this project, we will be able to offer a technology which will allow many museums around the world to reconstruct large-scale broken frescoes or similar artifacts,” Pelillo says. “…If we succeed, we think we can export this technology to other artifacts or even, for example, to papyri.”

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