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What’s the Value of Recreating the Palmyra Arch with Digital Technology?

The reconstructed Arch of Palmyra in Trafalgar Square (photo via @mralexmorrison/Instagram)
The reconstructed Arch of Palmyra in Trafalgar Square (photo via @mralexmorrison/Instagram)

Seven months after ISIS destroyed Palmyra’s 1,800-year-old Arch of Triumph, the structure has risen once more — this time 2,800 miles away from the ancient city, in London’s bustling Trafalgar Square. But rather than stretching nearly 50-feet skywards and hand-carved from limestone, this one stands just 20 feet tall and is made of Egyptian marble, sculpted in 30 days by robotic arms at a workshop in the famous quarries of Carrara, Italy. London, though, its host for only three days, is far from this replica’s final destination: the arch will travel to Dubai then to New York City in September before likely finding a permanent home in Palmyra — not directly on, but near, the site of the original gateway.

The fanfare-filled unveiling by Mayor Boris Johnson, meant to coincide with an occasion called World Heritage Week, arrives less than a month after the Syrian regime reclaimed Palmyra, at a moment when discussions over the city’s reconstruction are plentiful but still fresh and filled with conflict. While Professor Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s Directorate-General of Antiquities & Museums has praised the project has as a model to “restore the site as a message of peace against terrorism,” others question whether people should even rebuild these sites — and if so, whose responsibility is it, and how should they approach it?

A replica of #Syria #Monument #Palmyra #ArchofTriumph recreated in #TrafalgarSquare for 3 day installation. #Peace ❤️

A photo posted by George Lythe (@george_lythe_1) on

This replicated arch, precise to the original from its ornamentation to its weathering, is the result of major collaborations between the UK-based Institute for Digital Archaeology, UNESCO, and Dubai’s Museum of the Future Foundation. It came with a price tag of about $143,000. The 3D structure grew out of the Institute’s Million Image Database, an international effort to document the world’s at-risk sites through pictures captured by volunteers equipped with 3D cameras; from these 360-degree views emerged a virtual computer model, reproduced by the computer-assisted carving bots in Italy. Any photographs, data, and 3D models the Institute has and continues to produce will be released to the public domain under a Creative Commons license.

Chosen for the original structure’s cultural prominence and in close consultation with Abdulkarim, this arch represents the Database’s first monumental 3D reconstruction. Its reveal has been highly anticipated, with international media reporting on it for months and a timer on the Institute’s website counting down to it building suspense. As with many large-scale projects, plans kept changing and speculation was rife: reports stated the Institute would recreate the Temple of Bel’s arch; that the model would be a 1:1 copy. But the finished object deviates from the original in size and material because of time and logistical constraints such as weight restrictions; the 12-ton structure also comprises just the central passageway of the ancient triple arch, making for a much less striking reveal.

The countdown timer on the Institute of Digital Archaeology's website (screenshot via digitalarchaeology.org.uk) (click to enlarge)
The countdown timer on the Institute of Digital Archaeology’s website (screenshot via digitalarchaeology.org.uk) (click to enlarge)

Rather than to replace the old, the Institute intends its project to be an international gesture of solidarity with those in Syria, Iraq, and across the region facing conflict as well as an opportunity to share on a grand scale what the Institute regards as our common cultural heritage.

“The whole purpose of the event is to contextualize issues of shared cultural heritage, of what cultural heritage means to people, and the significance of these objects to people’s every day life,” Alexy Karenowska, the Institute’s Director of Technology told Hyperallergic. “It’s very important to us that the arch is sculpted in a way that these things are very much apparent from the visual appearance at the installation, the way that we describe it, and the experience that people have when they talk to us and take part in the event’s associated education programs.”

The Institute selected those cities for the arch’s still-developing travel itinerary to draw relationships between the West and the Middle East, Karenowska explained. London and New York were “obvious choices,” infused with Neoclassical architecture that echoes the Greco-Roman forms found around Palmyra, which fell under Roman control in the mid-first century AD. They are also cities that have experienced their own scars from war and terrorism and recovered.

“I think that bouncing back in a determined way makes the cities receptive and sensitive to the ideas that are tied up in this specific project,” Karenowska said. “I hope people they can relate to what we’re doing in a very direct way. There’s an opportunity here to show that we have a shared desire for peace and for mutual understanding.”

Dannann….a little bit of #Syria in #trafalgarsquare #Palmyra #arch #london

A photo posted by John Darlington (@johndarlington) on

Standing alone, an arch brought from the desert to city centers will likely serve simply as a selfie magnet to some, making supplementary material discussing the Syrian site’s history and significance imperative to its display. Activities and exhibits, presented in a neighboring marquee, relay the arch’s history, the process of construction, and the broader goals of the Million Image Database. Other programs engage children with the concepts of shared cultural heritage and of place and identity through creative projects. Still, some remain critical of the reconstruction, such as Iranian-born artist Morehshin Allahyari, known for her ongoing series Material Speculation: ISIS, which uses 3D printing as an act of resistance to think critically about and repair lost histories.

“Do you think the larger public is going to stand in front of Palmyra and feel anything amazing? I just doubt it,” Allahyari told Hyperallergic. “As much as people want to talk about how sites in the Middle East are suddenly everyone’s cultural heritage they’re trying to save, it’s such a weird position to think you’re going to put this in the public and educate people about ISIS. It would be more interesting to learn about visual colonialism.

“The gesture is so simplistic,” she continued. “This is about histories, about institutional relationships. We have to talk about power structures — how it’s different when westerners or tech companies save cultural things compared to someone else who actually comes from the culture — and how they influence the conversation.

“How is this adding anything to the conversation?”

Triumphal Arch of Palmyra Under Construction from Erin Simmons on Vimeo.

The Institute stresses that though the project’s has origins in the West, it is working hand-in-hand with the international community and prompting a global dialogue to create a sense of camaraderie over reconstruction efforts — in a way, Karenowska said, restoring the community functionality of the original arch. Abdulkarim, too, has mentioned that restoring the spirit of Palmyra needs to be an international mission.

“Of course it would be very wrong for us in the West to try to enforce our will in this situation,” Karenowska said. “It is not for any single organization to make a decision and play a major role in reconstruction but make an offer and try to participate. I would argue that we have an obligation, a responsibility to do that because as citizens of the international community we have to recognize there is a need here, and we are in a position to contribute. We have an interesting technology, and we are prepared to go great lengths to help and to apply it to the particular problem.

“A Western organization is not being imperialist by simply offering help” she added. “No one would criticize a Western humanitarian organization, I don’t think, trying to help in a difficult situation. I recognize there is a need for caution, that it is important the situation is handled in a sensitive way and that people’s egos do not infect the outcome.

“Western intervention can be a very good thing if it comes in concert with close consultation with everybody involved, and it does not become a Western effort but very much a joint effort. I hope people will get a lot of pride around what we created and that it will draw attention to the cause for the people of the region.”

Other critics simply condemn the use of technologies the Institute employs: the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones penned a widely circulated piece arguing that Palmyra’s scars are essential to understanding its history and evolution, that it “must not be turned into fake replica of its former glory”:

What is never legitimate is to rebuild ancient monuments using modern materials to replace lost parts — to essentially refabricate them — even though today’s technology makes that seem practical. I don’t see how anyone at this moment can vow to fully restore Palmyra unless they plan to ride roughshod over archaeological reality.

Although the Institute has no intention to place the arch in its original site, its researchers are well aware of the potential of using its technologies for future onsite reconstructions. As Karenowska said, scientists may use 3D printing to produce rough blocks of stone while 3D machining technology — which yielded the small-scale replicated arch — would suit recreations that require more precise surface detail. She believes views like Jones’ stem from a Western perspective that romanticizes ruins and fetishizes original structures.

“Of course there is some value in originality, but it’s a very Western thing that an object has to be completely original in order to be of any value,” Karenowska said. “I do not feel that this is a reason why we should hold back from the process of actually restoring these sites, because the majority of what we’re restoring is non-physical. It’s the intangible elements of the cultural heritage that these sites represent and that are their real value.”

No one would consider leaving the scars of World War II or of 9/11 on the landscapes of London or New York City, she added.

Small arch, big gesture as this model of Palmyra’s destroyed Arch of Triumph goes on display in Trafalgar Square

A photo posted by Time Out Art (@timeoutart) on

But as reconstruction technologies continue to advance, organizations such as the Institute for Digital Archaeology must at least consider how tech-based solutions will respect the narratives and histories tied to original architecture. Allahyari, often contacted by those she refers to as “white tech bros” interested in collaboration, is especially wary of the trendiness of simply reproducing ancient sites with impressive scanners and 3D printers.

It’s certainly true that many projects responding to cultural blows beyond the borders of their source countries have emerged in recent years, with focuses on war-torn sections of Syria and Iraq. Last year, archaeology students Matthew Vincent and Chance Coughenour launched Project Mosul, a website that uses crowdsourced images and photogrammetry to digitally recreate destroyed and looted artifacts and landmarks. In March, a French 3D digitization agency launched Syrian Heritage, a project aiming to build the world’s largest 3D database of Syrian archaeological sites. The community-building effort New Palmyra focuses on new creation, described to Hyperallergic by its founder Barry Threw as “a speculative reconstruction project rebuilding a virtual Palmyra in digital space … We go beyond just preserving the past to start actively building a future.”

These efforts by no means arise to introduce absolute replacements to lost objects, and behind them lies good intention. But as more projects of a similar nature inevitably appear, it may become increasingly easy to get lost in them or get caught up in the flashiness of immersive, virtual reality; the hi-resolution details of interactive 3D objects revolving on 2D screens; or the notion of robots carving in Michelangelo’s favorite quarries. For these reasons, Allahyari cites projects such as “The Other Nefertiti” and Ryan Woodring’s Decimate Mesh series that focus on more complex layers of historical reconstruction as the most insightful and meaningful to her as they move beyond a superficial architectural approach to critically, conceptually, and poetically explore the greater systems involved.

“We just get caught up in this loop about ISIS being horrifying and about saving these things, but we forget to talk about the whole history of destruction — such as the US military’s destruction of sites in Iraq and Syria,” Allahyari told Hyperallergic. “We cannot talk about ISIS without talking about the relationships within a cycle of capitalism and imperialism and war.

“If they put the arch in New York and talk about these things, that would be amazing, but the public also needs to think about these relationships. But I doubt they’re going to do that.”

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