INTERVIEW: The Zamani Project and Dr. Heinz Rüther

The Zamani Project attempts to record the “spatial” domain of African patrimony by recording its physical, architectural, and natural dimensions. The documentation project was initiated to increase international awareness of African heritage and provide material for research while, concurrently, creating a permanent and accurate record of important sites for restoration and conservation purposes. The spatial data acquired by The Zamani Project is made available worldwide and augmented with contextual non-spatial data by ALUKA.

The Zamani Project was an initiative of the Geomatics Division of the University of Cape Town and is currently supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The endeavor, founded as “The African Cultural Heritage Sites and Landscapes Project,” developed out of years of heritage documentation activities by the projects Principal Investigator, Professor Heinz Rüther.

In this exclusive interview, James Blake Wiener of the Ancient History Encyclopedia speaks with Professor Heinz Rüther about the project, ancient Africa, and the need for the conservation of Africa’s patrimony.

JW: Professor Heinz Rüther it is such a pleasure to be speaking to you on behalf of the Ancient History Encyclopedia! We have been very interested in your research for some time and are genuinely excited to be sharing information about The Zamani Project with our users. It is a fantastic resource and vital tool for historical preservationists.

I wanted to begin by asking you if you could perhaps tell us a little bit more about the genesis of The Zamani Project and comment further on its aims?

HR: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about the African Heritage documentation project and allowing me to present our work to your readers! I have been documenting heritage at increasing levels of complexity and technical sophistication, beginning with the old-fashioned theodolite survey of sites, when I was still a Geodesy student with a fascination of the past. Now my work entails a “state-of-the-art documentation” of African and Middle Eastern sites, using laser scanners, advanced photogrammetry, remote sensing and computer vision technologies. We use the acquired data to process and produce Geographic Information Systems, 3D computer models, maps, architectural sections and building plans, in addition to interactive panorama tours of the heritage sites.

Over the past thirty years, I have traveled extensively, visiting Africa’s heritage sites and I was alarmed by the changes these sites experienced. Not only did their ambiance and character change as a result of modern technology and dramatically increased tourism, but the physical conditions of many sites have suffered deterioration through direct human and environmental impact. There are numerous, excellent efforts by local Antiquities Departments and international agencies such as UNESCO, the GCI, and the WMF to protect and preserve these sites, but it would seem that not enough can be done. It is thus difficult for conservation experts to keep up with destruction.

In 1995-1996, I documented the hominid track way, in Laetoli, Tanzania for the Getty Conservation Institute, using a highly precise and, at that stage novel, photogrammetric methods. The Laetoli documentation project required the development of a site GIS and a database. I developed these under the guidance of archaeological and conservation experts from the GCI and out of this came the recognition that such a database should not be produced for just one site in Africa.

I then developed this somewhat overambitious concept of a database for the whole continent with the objective to preserve Africa’s heritage for the future, provide material for education and research, as well as to create precise data for conservation and restoration projects. This came true thanks to two generous grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation of New York, but is now in danger of having to be terminated due to lack of further support. I am passionate about Africa’s heritage and our project! There is so much more to say about my project and still so much more research and conservation to do!

JW: Have Africa’s ancient cultures and civilizations always interested you? If so, why were you attracted to them? How has your understanding of Africa’s distinctive past shaped your project’s structure and aspirations?

HR: I have always had a fascination for ancient cultures and I remember already paging through books at a very early age, making a game out of trying to identify the origin of the photographed art. I later developed a keen interest for man’s early history and that obviously brought me to Africa. I started reading books by and about early explorers of the Nile and Niger, and I began my travels throughout Africa as a young adult.

Over the years I have developed a sincere love for the continent; its people, its art, its heritage, and incredible landscapes. I consider myself privileged being able to work in Africa’s magic places such as the rock churches of Lalibela (Ethiopia), the hominid trackway of Laetoli (Tanzania), the stone circles near lake Turkana (Kenya), the Adobe mosques of West-Africa, and the Swahili towns along the Indian Ocean. Each of these has its own unique atmosphere and charm, and in many cases they still have a deep meaning for those living in the vicinity.

Recent damage to sites in Timbuktu, Bamiyan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Egypt have emphasized the importance of documentation. Although digital documentation cannot replace physical preservation, it can, at least provide a record for future generation and at best, in cases of destruction, form the basis of reconstruction(s). I would not dare to say that I have understood Africa’s past, I just got a glimpse of it, but I have understood the need for scientific, objective, and metrically correct documentation, supported by a database of associated publications and historical records. I believe that a heritage database must be holistic and cannot simply be comprised of 3D models, plans, and elevations of buildings.

JW: As I understand, your project team has completed documentation work on sites in Ghana, Mali, Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and South Africa. What other sites do you hope to visit and investigate in the near future?

HR: During the next few months we will be working as Partners to UNESCO and ISPRA in Jordan, documenting structures in Petra and contributing to a geological study of the Siq, the access route to the site. We also have a confirmed project in Algeria where we will record and survey an abandoned Berber village near Setif. Hopefully, we will also get permission and funding to work in the Roman site of Dejemila in Algeria.

We applied for separate grants to document the Kashba in Ouarzazate, Morocco, the little known site of Qohaito in Eritrea, Ibo in Mozambique, and Meroë or “Djebel Barkal,” in Sudan. These are just a few of the African sites that need to be documented and at present, it is uncertain if we will be successful with our applications. We also have an ongoing cooperation with Drs. Michael Chazan and Liora Kolska with whom we are working on the Wonderwerk cave site in South Africa, where, as recent research indicates, the earliest secure evidence for burning in an archaeological context was found!

JW: This is all very exciting to hear! There are so many sites worthy of documentation and preservation.

On a slightly different tangent, I was curious to ask you if there was one site in Africa or the Middle East, which challenged The Zamani Project team in particular?If so, which one and what proved to make your work so difficult?

HR: All our work in Africa has its challenges and I cannot identify anyone site as more challenging than others. The problems we encounter are physical access to remote sites, sensitivity of religious sites, finding accommodation and food, access of electricity to charge batteries, the ever-present threat of malaria, climatic conditions with extreme heat and humidity, instrument failure in an environment without technical support, sites which are overgrown with dense vegetation, import and export of sophisticated (and costly) equipment through customs, obtaining research permits, and the need to understand local cultural sensitivities and thus avoid inappropriate behavior. But it’s these challenges, which make the project special!

JW: The Zamani Project raises awareness of African heritage through the presentation of 3D models: laser scans; building plans; panoramas; and photographs. It is quite an ambitious undertaking–the likes of which we have not seen before. What in your opinion makes The Zamani Project unique or even unusual?

HR: It would be somewhat presumptuous to claim that we are unique; truly, there are others in this field who do excellent work on other continents and I want to acknowledge them. But what makes us just “a little bit special” is our attempt to cover an entire continent as opposed to the recording of individual sites, and our holistic approach, combining a wide range of data. And one can perhaps say that we haved managed to do a lot with limited resources!

JW: Are there any special projects or initiatives to be launched in 2012 or 2013 by The Zamani Project?

HR: I would like to extend the project to focus on themes; specifically, the Swahili culture, slaves routes in East and West Africa, trade routes in the Sahel or even the Gold trade in East and Southern Africa. However, these can only be realized with additional grants and those are difficult to attract in the present global economic climate.

We are also looking for a further home for our data. At present, the 2 Terabyte of output data, plus the 5 Terabyte of acquired raw data are kept at the University of Cape Town and JSTOR, but a third host for this–in my opinion, very important African data-set–would be desirable. I remain optimistic regarding the future of African Heritage Database and hope that we can continue our work well into the future.

JW: I thank you so much for your time and your consideration, Heinz! It’s been such a pleasure to speak with you and learn more about your inspiring work. We wish you only the best of luck in all your future endeavors in research and conservation. I will leave you with the last word on how the general public can support and become involved with The Zamani Project.

HR: Thank you James! Here are a some thoughts on how the public can participate and contribute to The Zamani Project:

  • Private donations or ideas of where we could apply for funding (please contact us directly).
  • Providing us with old photographs, digital, or even “digitalized” material related to heritage sites across Africa and the Middle East.
  • Volunteer or intern with us and join our field campaigns in Africa.
  • “Power of word”: please tell your friends, family, universities/colleges, and researchers about us and what we do.
  • Additionally, please take a look at our images, videos, and data on our homepage. Share them with those who might be interested.

Dr. Heinz Rüther was born in Germany and obtained a degree in Geodesy at the University of Bonn and a PhD in photogrammetry at the University of Cape Town. After two years as a research assistant at the Technical University of Munich, he became a member of the PAGEOS satellite program, a forerunner of today’s GPS, and in this capacity he worked at the Northlight Observatory in Tromsø, Norway. His research interests have been linked to the development of  photogrammetry from analog to digital, and satellite remote sensing. Throughout his career he has had a special interest in and love for the African continent and he has worked on spatial and space-related GIS (Geographic Information System) projects throughout sub-Saharan Africa, the Maghreb, and the Middle East. He is currently the Principal Investigator at The Zamani Project.

James Blake Wiener is a Director and the Public Relations Manager of the Ancient History Encyclopedia, providing a continuous listing of must-read articles, exciting museum exhibitions, and interviews with experts in the field. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor of history, James is a freelance writer and who is keenly interested in cross-cultural exchange. Committed to fostering increased awareness of the ancient world, James welcomes you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia and hopes that you find his news pieces and interviews to be “illuminating.”

All photos and videos presented herein are extended as an exclusive courtesy to the Ancient History Encyclopedia and are copyrighted by The Zamani Project.

Filed under: Interviews


James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director at Ancient History Encyclopedia. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor, James is chiefly interested in cross-cultural exchange, world history, and international relations. Aside from his work at AHE, James is an avid Arabist, devotee of romance languages (French, Portuguese, and Spanish), reggaetoñero, and fan of ice hockey.