Digital Archaeology: Blessing or Curse?

March 29, 2016

Palmyra has been saved. Syrian government forces re-took the city from ISIS this week and experts have said that damage was not as extensive as feared: 80% of the city’s monuments and artifacts are intact. Questions are arising concerning what to do about the damaged treasures.

 

The New York Times reported today that one of the city’s triumphal arches, destroyed by the militants, may be rebuilt soon. A digital file compiled from photos of the monument was recently sent to Italy, where a CNC carving robot is cutting new pieces out of Egyptian marble. Yes, the technology is now available to reproduce giant stone buildings using 3-D computer “drawings” created from photos, which are fed into a huge carving machine. Presto: a new Roman masterpiece.

 

Michael Danti, a professor of archaeology at Boston University was cautiously optimistic about the fate of the ancient city, but he said: “debates about authenticity, priorities, and motivation” would likely emerge among his colleagues. The city has been damaged by conflicts many times during its centuries of decline, and what we see today is a collage of efforts by past residents to conserve its best buildings from further decay. They did not have the means to instantly re-create a lost arch or sculpture using digital tools.

 

Indeed, the prospect of re-building artifacts destroyed or damaged by war became a hot topic among conservationists  throughout the globe, as “cultural cleansing” tactics increased in conflicts from the Middle East to Southeast Asia. Today there are conferences dedicated to the “authenticity” debate. What is the value of an ancient triumphal arch or temple if most of its “fabric” is brand new?

 

To a historian or archaeologist the monument accrues value by virtue of its age, rarity, and the information it can provide regarding the actions of its original creators. Once the traces of those actions are gone it becomes a mere specter, losing its “aura” or “authenticity.” However, those who have lived among the ruins, and protected them, have other reasons to value the work, including tourism, cultural identity, and nostalgia. Without a “whole” artifact their allegiance to preservation vanishes.

 

In a world overwhelmed by digital information and simulacra (copies), debates about authenticity are everywhere. Terms such as “new old” are regularly used to describe efforts to reproduce historic buildings in modern settings. Like “digital archaeology” the term is an obvious oxymoron to many historians.

 

To the downtrodden, war-weary residents of Palmyra, any solution that recovers a piece of culture is a balm to suffering and loss. A professor in far-away Boston is privileged and removed from the fray. If digital miracles may bring back a loved one (albeit a statue), so much the better. Let Pygmalion carve away.

 

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