Sara Gonizzi Barsanti and Lex Slaghuis have focused their Tandem collaboration on the possibilities of open data to share cultural heritage. In this essay, they share lessons learned and outcomes of their own process, where it led them so far and where their project might take them in the future.

Although many cultural institutions are opening up their digital collections, there are also many places in the world where digital copies of our heritage are kept closed or published under restrictions for re-use. However, even in countries such as Italy and Greece that have restrictive laws, there are a variety of strategies to successfully open up culture data.

Our Tandem collaboration led us to consider that archaeological institutions should start to explore the use and dispersion of 3D archaeology in education, for exhibitions and aesthetics. In the long run, archaeology needs a global open digital data infrastructure, for sharing 3D models but also other materials such as archaeological data for professionals. In this essay, we elaborate on why and how our Tandem collaboration is going to proceed in the next couple of years.

Lex and Sara present Open Archaeology Data at the Tandem Europe meeting in Athens, January 2017

Lex and Sara present Open Archaeology Data at the Tandem Europe meeting in Athens, January 2017


There are many possibilities for opening up culture data and more specific archaeological data. Institutions can open up their digital collections of images of archaeological objects and buildings together with its metadata through websites, open data feeds or ‘data donations’ to Wikimedia. People can gather archaeological data themselves and share it on the internet. Collections of images from a variety of photo platforms, such as Flickr, can be used to extract 3D archaeological models from archaeological buildings and objects. But also aerial photos and scans can be used in the same context for extracting models.

During our Tandem project, Open State Foundation and Virtutim were able to construct 3D models of 10 archaeological objects with three archaeological depots in the Netherlands. With the method of photogrammetry, 3D models were acquired and published as open data. We also managed to open up three digital archaeological collections, from two Dutch provinces (North and South-Holland) and the Benaki Museum (Athens, Greece).

A search engine for archaeology from several countries

A search engine for archaeology from several countries


During the process, we faced challenges on several levels. Although the archaeological data and objects we have been working with are not protected by copyright law, countries can still have laws that limit publishing digital content of their cultural heritage.

From a technological point of view, we have seen that some archaeological objects are not suited for acquiring by means of Photogrammetry. Glass or other shiny objects are difficult to turn into 3D models because of the light reflections.

Organisations are not always tallying up to explore the possibilities of 3D models and open data. Sometimes, their responsibility focuses solely on preservation and does not include dissemination or public disclosure. It can also be a lack of strategic priority or a lack of resources allocated to innovation. Culture also plays an interesting role: From the country level, the organisational up to the departmental level, experts claim a culture of sharing that competes with a culture of keeping things closed.

Engraved slate. The picture shows Veronica stopping a cloth with the imprint of the face of Christ.

Engraved slate. The picture shows Veronica stopping a cloth with the imprint of the face of Christ.


We found out that, for archaeology, 3D models are game changers:

3D models and open data have the potential to change the way archaeology is performed throughout surveys, research, reporting and sharing with the public.

3D models and scans can be used to selectively survey a site allowing efficiency improvements.

Opening up archaeological data allows experts to tap into experiences and expertise from colleagues, both local and abroad.

Opening up archaeological data reduces the workload of information request and grows the actual interest in archaeology, and as a result, the number of objects that will be borrowed to cultural institutions will grow.

3D models allow the interested expert to dive into more details but also easy reproduction for exhibitions, sales of ‘archaeological gifts’, and even immersive educational experiences through interactive exhibitions and augmented or virtual reality.

3D models are the richest digital raw content form possible, it is the closest a digital copy can get to the real artefact, and allows the largest variety in re-use possible: from a 3D file you can extract any kind of 2D image.

from the Benaki museum
from the Benaki museum

During our project, we modelled ten different archaeological artefacts in 3D from three depots in the Netherlands. We 3D printed the skull of a Friesian woman with two different materials, chalk and a special type of plastic. This procedure was meant to reconstruct the face of the woman with the help of anthropologists, using the chalk object.

As a second application, we made an Augmented Reality app for smartphones and tablets. Our app meant to handle the 3D skull to see the model directly on the smartphones avoiding the necessity to download the 3D model. The app can be easily used for any kind of 3D model, making it adaptable to any project.


Opening up all this data is not enough. To really grapple its value, we need infrastructure. This allows to search find and access data in an easy manner that also scales. In practice, computer programmes can use (hundreds) thousands of images, models, metadata files in an innovative setting. For our Tandem project, we loaded data from the Northern and Southern Province of Holland and combined it with data from the Benaki Museum into an API (open database) with a basic search engine. With the help of Google Translate, we automated the process of translating the metadata into English, to make this data accessible to a global audience.

Disclaimer: During this conversion, there were some issues with converting dates Before Christ, but there are some ideas to fix this. A simple search interface demonstrates the power of data accessibility.


Open State Foundation and Virtutum are committed to bringing more archaeological and cultural data from different countries to the public and demonstrate the potential of 3D models. We invite cultural institutions, archaeological organisations and others to collaborate on projects towards these goals and to move ahead towards a global infrastructure to serve many.