‘If They Knock It Down, We Will Rebuild It’
New technology has made it possible to reconstruct lost antiquities, whether in three dimensions or in virtual reality. But technology alone cannot be a solution to the problem of forgetting.
By Jacob Mikanowski — Published on Pacific Standard
On April 19th, a stone archway was unveiled in front of the National Gallery in London’s Trafalgar Square. It is a scale replica of an archway from Palmyra, an ancient city built around an oasis in the Syrian Desert that was captured by ISIS forces in May of 2015. In the ensuing months, militants affiliated with the Islamic State destroyed many of the city’s most notable surviving monuments, including the Temple of Bel, the Temple of Baalshamin, and the Monumental Arch, a gateway connecting the southern and central parts of the city, built around the year 200 C.E.
The London archway is a reconstruction of the central portion of this gate. It was carved in an Italian quarry out of Egyptian marble, using robots equipped with precise 3-D computer models prepared by the Institute for Digital Archaeology, an Oxford, England-based organization dedicated to using digital means to document and preserve the memory of imperiled heritage sites, especially in the Middle East. Although the work that went into building the model was meticulous — capturing tiny details, including ornament and weathering — it differs in a few regards from the original. It is 20 feet high, where the original measured closer to 50 feet, and the IDA’s model is only the central portion of the gate: a single archway where the original had three.
With the mayor of London presiding, a great deal of fanfare surrounded the unveiling of the Arch, which gained further notoriety as it traveled to New York and Dubai in subsequent months. Yet the Arch is just one of many efforts made in recent years to harness digital technology as a means of safeguarding the past. A number of these projects center on assembling images of imperiled sites. The Million Image Database, also led by the IDA, is distributing thousands of cheap 3-D cameras across the Middle East to create a database of endangered monuments.