Researchers bet on blockchain to help protect cultural artifacts

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A new project has launched which aims to use blockchain technologies and NFTs to help verify the provenance of cultural artifacts.

The project, called Salsal – or AGUR – is the brainchild of Adel Khalifi, professor of computer science at the University of Abu Dhabi, and Mark Altaweel, professor at the UCL institute of archaeology.

Salsal is aimed at cultural heritage collectors, such as museums. They, the ‘collector’, uploads a collection and submits it for verification as the first step. The collection is then evaluated by multiple experts who submit their evaluation to a central verification board. If the latter decides the collection is legitimate, then the collector can turn it into an NFT.

“We store all collection data, expert votes and verification on the blockchain,” a note on the AGUR website reads. “Since the blockchain is immutable, it provides us with a factual history of an object’s owners.” NFTs are also used for ownership transfer, the researchers added, again owing to NFT data being stored on the blockchain providing an immutable, permanent record.

As reported by CNN, the certification process is borrowed from metrics used by the Museums Association, where objects can be rated on a scale from one to five based on the security or validity of a collection.

Altaweel told CNN: “The idea was that this also becomes a way to pressure those collectors – including museums – to really make sure that the items they are displaying to the public are legal.”

Some wrangles over cultural artifacts go back centuries – and are still dividing opinion today. In the UK, the most infamous example is arguably the Elgin Marbles, a collection of sculptures from the Parthenon in Greece. The sculptures have been held by the British Museum since the 19th century despite increasing opprobrium from the Greek government who had previously enlisted UNESCO in the row. A poll earlier this month found that almost two thirds of British citizens polled would conditionally support sending the sculptures back to Greece.

A more recent example – and one which has been resolved – concerns an ancient gold coffin stolen during the Egyptian revolution in 2011 to eventually be displayed at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The coffin has since been returned to Egypt.

The purpose of Salsal, in the words of the AGUR website, is to ‘allow heritage collectors a platform to verify their collection [and] provide an accurate history of an object’s ownership.’

Photo by Jose Antonio Gallego Vázquez

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