Society

Revisiting Pompeii With Drones, Algorithms And Super Processors

What did Pompeii look like before Mount Vesuvius erupted? And what was on the famous Herculaneum scrolls? Modern technology can provide answers.

3D digital view of Pompeii
3D digital view of Pompeii
Yann Verdo

PARIS â€" "A cloud of unusual size and appearance," Pliny the Younger said of the smoke he saw rising above Mount Vesuvius on Aug. 24, in the year 79. "I can best describe its shape by likening it to a pine tree. It rose into the sky on a very long trunk from which spread some branches," he wrote in a letter to Tacitus.

From his vantage point in the town of Miseno, some 20 kilometers away, Pliny had an unobstructed view of the unfolding disaster, which buried the towns of Herculaneum, Oplontis and Stabiae â€" stuck as they were between the volcano and the bay of Naples â€" under several meters of pumic stone and ash. Pompeii suffered the same tragic fate.

Herculaneum and especially Pompeii, a small thriving town at the time of the eruption, would become famous centuries later because of how they were inadvertently preserved by the disaster. Since their discovery in the 18th century, the ruined towns have been an ongoing subject of fascination, as much so for today's scientists as it was for their predecessors.

In the 19th century, excavation supervisor Giuseppe Fiorelli developed a casting method (liquid plaster poured into the empty spaces left by the bodies stuck in the layers of volcanic scoria and little by little reduced to dust) that provided tangible images of the residents of Pompeii exactly as they were when death came upon them. Those casts â€" of people running out of a home, protecting a child in one's arms, sheltering one's fortune â€" are as striking now as they were when Fiorelli made them.

Researchers today have come up with an entirely new way of reconstituting the nearly 1,000-year-old disaster. The approach, which uses bytes rather than plaster, and processing power instead of physical excavation, was developed by French researchers and engineers from Microsoft Research and the French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation (INRIA), along with help of the startups Iconem and Cintoo 3D.

Down to the last centimeter

Participants in the "Digital Pompeii" project, which was presented earlier this year at Microsoft's Build conference in San Francisco, used digital animation to provide a virtual and interactive journey in, or rather above, Pompeii's ruins, which they digitally recreated centimeter by centimeter.

The adventure began two years ago with the development â€" in a computer lab shared by France's École Normale Supérieure (ENS), INRIA, and National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) â€" of a new method allowing the automatic construction of a 3D model from aerial pictures taken by a drone. This process was first tested on one of Pompeii's most famous monuments, the Villa of Diomedes, a masterpiece of Pompeii's architecture. The experiment was so successful that architect Yves Ubelmann, founder of Iconem, was convinced that the entire site could be mapped in this way.

The 3D model they eventually produced required some 30,000 images taken by a balloon-assisted drone that was equipped with sensors and a robotic arm and spent some 50 hours flying over the site.

The INRIA developed the algorithms needed to match the images and recalculate the perspective. Microsoft, via the Microsoft Azure cloud, provided the processing power required to make the algorithms work. Overall, the operation required 1,200 hours of calculations. And the startup Cintoo 3D provided technology allowing anyone with a simple Internet browser to travel as they please in the virtual town.

Beyond this general use application, the Digital Pompeii project is also very appealing to researchers, be they archeologists, technique historians or Ancient Rome specialists.

The secret texts of Herculanum

People with an interest in Pompeii are likely to be interested as well in an ongoing project concerning Herculanum. In an article in the scientific journal Nature Communications, a CNRS explained how a new, ultra-sophisticated imaging technique â€" called X-ray phase contrast tomography â€" could soon fulfill the dream of successive generations of philologists: cracking the secret of the Villa of the Papyri.

Located in Herculanum, the villa is believed to have been built for Piso, Julius Caesar’s father-in-law and a great scholar of his time. It had a library â€" rediscovered 260 years ago â€" containing hundreds of papyri, some of which were probably only copies.

Buried with the eruption, some of these sealed scrolls became fossilized in the layers of volcanic matter. But until now, they resisted every attempt made to probe them with X-rays. With this new process, these obstinately silent treasures may finally reveal themselves.

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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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