Italy’s unparalleled cultural heritage, with more UNESCO World Heritage sites than any other country, makes the country a vast laboratory where different fields of science and technology can be applied to the study, preservation and cataloguing of historic monuments, archaeological sites, and artistic works.

On 18 November, Nature Italy organised a virtual event to discuss Science and technology for cultural heritage. Four speakers from Italian universities and research institutions presented interdisciplinary case studies that showed how archaeology, materials science, climate science, chemistry, engineering, computer science, and many other disciplines, can help reconstruct the past, monitor the condition of monuments and works of arts, restore and preserve them, and make cultural heritage accessible to the public.

Watch the video of the event here:

Marcella Frangipane, from Accademia dei Lincei and Sapienza Università di Roma, described her decades-long research work at the Arsalantepe archaeological site in Turkey, recently included on the UNESCO Wold Heritage list, largely due to the work of the Sapienza scientific expedition. Frangipane uses the Arsalantepe case study to show how modern archaeology adopts methods from fields as diverse as molecular biology, particle physics and climatology, and can contribute to the study of very contemporary problems such as economic inequality.

Arslantepe (Turkey). The Audience Building in the 4th millennium B.C. palace. Credit: Roberto Ceccacci/Missione Archeologica Italiana nell’Anatolia Orientale (MAIAO), Università Sapienza di Roma.

Costanza Miliani, a chemist, and director of the Institute for Cultural Heritage of the National Research Council, showed examples of her institute’s current projects: the use of non-invasive technologies to read and decipher the ancient papyri found in Herculaneum, chemical analysis that explains how ancient Egyptians created a unique light-emitting blue pigment used in their artworks, and how her team helped with the restoration of Jackson Pollock’s Alchemy, at the Guggenheim Museum in Venice.

Luigi Petti, a professor of engineering at the University of Salerno, focussed on how to study and monitor the structural stability of historic monuments. In Italy, where earthquakes are frequent and climate change is increasing hydrological risk, stability is a priority. Petti showed how dig data and advanced sensors can help, including – in another example of interdisciplinarity – sensors originally developed for gravitational waves detectors.

Fragments of an ancient fresco found in Pompeii, that researchers are trying to restore using robotics and machine learning. Credit: Parco Archeologico di Pompei.

Finally, Arianna Traviglia, who leads the IIT Centre for Cultural Heritage Technology (CCHT) in Venice, explained how artificial intelligence can be applied to cultural heritage. Her team applies machine learning to detect subtle features in satellite images that reveal the presence of buried archaeological sites , and has just launched a project where AI will be used to teach a robot how to reassemble the 15,000 pieces of an ancient fresco in Pompeii.