Tapping and protecting cultural heritage   Date:2019-03-15

The Silk Road refers to an extensive network of trade routes linking Asia, Europe and Africa. On these routes, silk was the prominent but not the only product traded; porcelain, glass, metal, jewels and cattle were also transported back and forth, hence the other names such as jewel road, fur road, tea road and porcelain road. The term “Silk Road”, originally coined by Ferdinand von Richthofen, has became the most recognized.

The geographic scope of the routes is unparalleled: many ecological zones and economic corridors fall within its ambit. For hundreds of years, the Silk Road has been an artery of coexistence, communication and melting of multiple cultures, where agrarian, nomadic, oceanic and continental civilizations interacted with each other. It brought peace and prosperity to people of several continents, a good example for us to resolve international trade disputes.

Along with commercial goods the merchants traded, elements of civilization such as languages, arts, religions, science and technology were exchanged along the routes, leaving a treasure trove of cultural heritage.

Cultural heritage, testimony to ancient history, tells the world how our ancestors lived and worked; and it is a key for us to understand our past and present.

However, protecting those cultural sites faces daunting challenges. Exposed to air and humidity, they are easily slaked and corrupted, and further damaged as the natural environment continues to deteriorate. In recent years, they have fallen prey to tomb-raiders and looters. The plight of endangered relics is exacerbated due to excessive tourism and sprawling economic projects.

Meanwhile, it is also extremely difficult to coordinate efforts to protect a large number of sites scattered over an extensive region over which the trade routes stretched, because nations of varied development levels find it difficult to agree on the gravity and measures of heritage protection.

I have five suggestions for the protection of cultural heritage sites.

First, we should step up international cooperation on protection and heritage disease. The heritage sites of overland and maritime routes should be viewed as a network by all the partner nations. For individual sites of different countries, “the integrity of the Silk Road network” should be not be just an argument in their submission to the UNESCO World Heritage Center; it should be a consensus backed by solid actions and common yet differentiated protection solutions, especially by joint research on heritage disease.

Second, we should maximize the use of spatial information technology (SIT) in heritage monitoring and conservation. SIT has been proved to be able to efficiently identify, locate and analyze targets, especially in a hostile environment.

Third, we should reinforce research on utilizing cultural heritage. Balancing research and tourism development is an effective way to protect the valuable cultural legacy of the Silk Road.

Fourth, we should build an information-sharing platform of Belt and Road Initiative(BRI) cultural heritage. Databanks on the sites should be built and shared by all for win-win and joint-development purposes, another step to strengthen people-to-people bonds and build a community of common destiny.

Last, we should raise protection awareness of the general public. Digitalization can be a powerful means to tap the potential and increase the presence of the sites in cultural exchanges, trade and tourism. It can increase the awareness of people and help with social, economic, cultural and eco-development.

Protecting the cultural heritage of the Silk Road has received a lot of attention from the international community. International research on the origin, expansion and evolution of the routes has been extensive ever since Ferdinand von Richthofen named the road in 1877. As early as the 1920s, Chinese historians and archeologists joined the ranks of road researchers. In 1988, the UNESCO launched the “Integral Study of the Silk Roads, Roads of Dialogue” project. In 2014, “Silk Roads: the Routes Network of Chang’an Tian-shan Corridor”, an application jointly filed by China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, made the UNESCO World Heritage List, a milestone in cross-border protection of Silk Road heritage.

The protection of cultural heritage comprises three aspects: institutional protection (including, laws and regulations, policies and measures); physical protection of tangible objects and the environment (for example, restoration and fortification); digital protection (such as, digital rendering, precise measuring and monitoring, permanent digital storage and virtual 3D reconstruction).

China excels in all the three aspects, making headway in both protection standards and relics restoration. It also displays great vision in the emerging digital science for heritage protection for the country welcomes international partners with open arms.

In March 2017, the Digital Belt and Road Natural and Cultural Heritage Working Group (DBAR-HERITAGE), a task force initiated and led by Chinese scientists, was inaugurated in Beijing. The DBAR-HERITAGE conference was co-chaired by scientists from China, Italy, Pakistan and Tunisia, and attended by more than representatives from countries and international organizations including the US, France, Australia, India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Uzbekistan, Congo (DRC) and UNESCO. The participants held broad and animated discussions on the features, technologies and methods of spatial archaeology, collaborative research on world heritage conservation and tourism development.

In 2018, the Chinese Academy of Sciences launched the “natural and cultural heritage protection and development” project, a sub-project under DABR which was an A-level Strategic Priority Research Program. My team chose to conduct a field study in Tunisia because the Tunisian environment resembles that of Northwest China, where previously we had done a lot of archaeological research. And this comparative study on Tunisian and Northwest China also got Tunisian, Italian and Pakistani scientists on board. Together we found some archaeological remains of the military defense on the southern border of the old Roman Empire. It was the first time that Chinese scientists used remote sensing technology to discover an archaeological site in a foreign country. The DBAR-HERITAGE scientists have been, or are, working together on digital protection practices and theories of cultural heritage in BRI participating countries such as Cambodia, Myanmar, Pakistan and Italy.

In the second phase (2019-2022), the DBAR–HERITAGE program, based on the results of its first phase (2016-2018) research, will focus on Southeast Asia, Southeast China, Central Asia, Northwest China, and the Mediterranean countries to build the frame of BRI Info-Sharing Platform of Natural and Cultural Heritage Protection and Utilization. By 2026, the project will complete the SIT monitoring, evaluation and protection for all BRI natural and cultural heritage sites, to encourage inclusive, intelligent and cloud-based heritage protection and management.

Protection and utilization of heritage sites is crucial for cultural exchanges of the BRI. International researchers including Chinese scientists are committed to using digital tools to expand and accelerate cultural heritage protection. We believe in-depth research on the history, science, culture, education and religion of BRI cultural heritage will find more common ground for BRI partners, cement people-to-people bonds and boost sustainable development.

Wang Xinyuan is Deputy Director of International Center on Space Technologies for Natural and Cultural Heritage Under the Auspices of UNESCO.The related paper was also published on the Bulletin of Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The author contributed this article to China Watch exclusively. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of China Watch.

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