3D Printing History

Arch of Triumph, Palmyra (Before Destruction). Photo by Alper Çuğun. Retrieved from Flickr Creative Commons.

Last year, on a devastating path of archaeological destruction, terrorists ravaged the ancient site of Palmyra, in modern day Syria. They reduced several structures at the UNESCO World Heritage site to rubble, including the Semitic Temples of Bel and Baalshamin and the famed Arch of Triumph, erected by the Romans around 2,000 years ago. With the site recently reclaimed from the Islamic State, archaeologists are now documenting the destruction and evaluating possibilities for repair. For those ruins too heavily damaged, some archaeologists are proposing to use 3D printers to resurrect these lost monuments.

Palmyra Colonnade (2010). Photo by Dr. Colleen Morgan. Retrieved from Flickr Creative Commons.

Palmyra was once an oasis in the desert – an important caravan stop between the East and the West. Under Roman rule the ancient city came into prominence as a strategic trading post along the Silk Road, and a major economic and cultural center. During the second century, the Roman Empire sponsored much of the construction visible at the site today. The city’s ruins came to represent a unique intersection of cultures, with influences from Greek and Roman architecture and Persian and local traditions.

Now some archaeologists hope to restore the ruins. The Institute for Digital Archaeology, a collaborative effort between Harvard University, Oxford University and the Museum of the Future in Dubai, is leading a 3D project to reconstruct what terrorists destroyed. Last week, the Institute erected a full-scale marble reproduction of the monumental Arch of Palmyra in London’s Trafalgar Square. Over the last several months, 3D printers in Italy methodically carved the replica from Egyptian marble with large robotic arms – using sophisticated technology to replicate what was originally constructed by hand – based on photographs of the original arch. (Watch video of carving process here). The replication is scheduled to tour several cities before heading to Palmyra next year for permanent display.

While the technology is remarkable, these 3D replications cannot accurately reproduce what was lost. History is defined by the cracks and crevices etched into the worn stone over time. Archaeology rediscovers those marks that history left behind. Printed reconstructions could never encompass all the minute detail on the monuments.

Heritage experts are just getting into Palmyra to evaluate the level of destruction. So far, they found the Temples blown to dust, several of the distinctive Tower Tombs flattened, and the Triumphal Arch knocked down. The modern town adjacent to the ancient site is completely devastated and uninhabitable. This destruction is now part of the ruins’ history, and future archaeologists will see the damage wrought by this conflict as defining another point in time for Palmyra.

Some museums already employ 3D technology for conservation and restoration work, previously performed by sculptors. They use the technology to replace missing parts of statues, replicate fragile artifacts for display, and create interactive exhibits for people to touch. With this capability they can duplicate their collections in order to preserve original artifacts in storage, while retaining the ability to draw paying visitors. Now this technology is being employed on a larger scale, as a tool for rebuilding destroyed archaeological sites.

Archaeological reconstruction is not new, but recent conflict adds new intensity to the decision to replicate destroyed artifacts. The Islamic State justifies their vandalism by maintaining that the archaeological ruins do not conform to their strict Sunni interpretation of Islam, which forbids idolatry. They prohibit depictions of the prophet Muhammad and any images and representations that interfere with the worship of God. They also reject pre-Islamic sites, like Palmyra, as not part of their cultural heritage.

Palace of Knossos, Reconstructed North Entrance and Bull Fresco. Photo by Olivier Duquesne. Retrieved from Flickr Creative Commons.

“Cyber” archaeologists promote 3D archaeological reconstructions as a message against terrorism – to repair the destructions of war. But, reconstruction is a controversial practice in archaeology, because introducing new materials changes the ancient object and can alter interpretation of the site’s historical evidence. The most notorious example of this is Knossos, on the Island of Crete. Sir Arthur Evans, a distinguished British archaeologist, began excavating the site in 1900. Rather than leave the ruins in their crumbled state of discovery, Evans wanted to showcase the Palace’s grandeur for visitors, and proceeded to recreate it in his own personal vision – reconstructing selected parts of the architecture from the rubble and repainting frescoes based only on small fragments of color. He valued the site more as a tourist attraction than for the authenticity of its archaeological ruins, and now it’s difficult to distinguish the original history from Evan’s recreation.

Today the standard practice in archaeology involves minimal intervention. UNESCO currently follows the 1964 Venice Charter’s policy for reconstruction, which requires “only the reassembling of existing but dismembered parts,” and does not allow the introduction of new materials on World Heritage sites. But, some reconstruction still occurs. An ongoing and lengthy restoration project to preserve Athens’ Acropolis includes the use of new marble quarried from the original mountain source. The six Caryatid statues that once supported the site’s Erechtheion temple were replaced several decades ago by replications, with the originals removed for preservation. The site’s smaller Temple of Athena Nike was repeatedly rebuilt after new architectural evidence emerged. Archaeologists consider these reconstructions necessary to preserve the integrity of the site for visitors.

Poor and hasty heritage management threatens authenticity. Attempting to rebuild a site quickly could do even more harm in its preservation. Many of the pieces of the Temples and Tower Tombs at Palmyra cannot be salvaged. The profound detail of the inscriptions on the monuments was not completely documented, and the architecture is unique to the site. It’s unlikely that thorough 3D scans of the destroyed monuments took place before the siege. Printed reconstructions can never convey the original intent of the building, and would just end up being caricatures of the monuments.

Certainly it’s cathartic to rebuild, and taking an active approach in confronting destruction can directly challenge terrorist domination. But 3D printed artistic representations of artifacts cannot rewrite history; and in a sense covering up the destruction erases the record of these terrorist acts. The ruins at Palmyra are now a site of murder and mass graves – the Islamic State used the Roman Theater to stage publicized executions. Such heinous acts should not be forgotten. Many monuments are dedicated to highlighting the pains of war, like the Holocaust concentration camps, which stand to remind people of their tragedies. Out of respect for the history of these lost treasures and the people who lost their lives for the sites’ future preservation, we should recognize and remember the destruction. Visible damage to the original ruins of Palmyra, such as the fallen Arch and the bare Temple grounds, will force future visitors to confront and reflect on these grave acts.


The Taller of the Buddhas, Before and After Destruction. Photos by UNESCO/A Lezine (left) and Carl Montgomery (right). Retrieved from Wikimedia Creative Commons.

Interestingly, 3D technology can provide alternative ways to preserve the archaeological record of destroyed ruins without physically rebuilding the objects. In 2001, the Taliban blew up the majestic Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, leaving two large cavities in the cliff face where they once stood. The Buddhas, carved into the cliff during the sixth century, remained a Buddhist symbol in a Muslim dominated country. Fifteen years after their destruction, UNESCO managers, archaeologists, and local authorities continue to debate how best to honor the ancient Buddhas, while preserving their authenticity. One alternative, although temporary, is a 3D image of the Buddhas projected by lasers into each of the empty crevices they once filled. A light show last June resurrected the ghostly forms of the Buddhas from their ashes. Such images cannot replace the ruins, but for a short time they can fill the void left in the cliff face – reminding people of the Buddhas’ cultural significance and emphasizing what terrorism took away.


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