3D Printing Syria’s Cultural Heritage

In the past centuries, several cultural assets have been destroyed due to iconoclasm. A graphic example is the Arch of Palmyra in Syria. Originally, it has been the entryway to the Temple of Baal and should demonstrate the extreme prosperity of the city. In 1980, the UNSECO added the historical building to its list of world heritages. But in October 2015 it finally was destroyed. Therefore the Institute of Digital Archaeology developed a technology, which is able to 3D print replicas of endangered monuments based on specifically edited images.

cultural heritage

In the past centuries, several cultural assets have been destroyed due to iconoclasm. A graphic example is the Arch of Palmyra in Syria. Originally, it has been the entryway to the Temple of Baal and should demonstrate the extreme prosperity of the city. In 1980, the UNESCO added the historical building to its list of world heritages. But in October 2015 it finally was destroyed. Therefore the Institute of Digital Archaeology (IDA) developed a technology, which is able to 3D print replicas of endangered monuments based on specifically edited images.

Crowdsourcing the Preservation of Cultural Heritage

In 2012, the IDA was founded by Harvard University, the University of Oxford and Dubai’s Museum of the Future with the aim of combining new digital imaging technologies with traditional architectural techniques to preserve ancient monuments. Their first step was the launch of the Million Image Database that documents at-risk sites throughout the Middle East and North Africa (for now).

The Institute’s director, Roger Michel, says that their long-term goal is “to rebuild the landscape of the Middle East and the great symbols of our shared cultural heritage that have been destroyed.” In order to do that, the IDA equipped 5.000 volunteers with 3D cameras to capture images of threatened objects across the world.

In the case of the Arch of Palmyra this was not possible because it already has been destroyed completely. That is why they had to rely on 3D renderings of scanned photos of it. Using a cement-based 3D printing technique, the IDA was able to rebuild the arch carving its structures in Egyptian marble. Shortly after its unveiling in London, the full-scale copy of the Arch of Palmyra, rising to 20 feet and weighing in at 12 tons, was installed in New York’s City Hall Park.

How Does 3D Printing Affect the Perception of Cultural Heritage

But this was not the first time historians and archaeologists made use of 3D technology to reproduce historical artifacts: Smithsonian Institute’s Freer and Sackler Galleries already displayed a 3D model of limestone funerary bust made for an ancient Palmyrene woman. After all, this approach offers many benefits – not only when it comes to the preservation of cultural goods. Museums, for instance, could feature 3D printed replicas of ancient objects in tactile exhibitions.

Although 3D printing has great potential to contribute to our knowledge about the ancient world, some people argue that 3D replicas of historical objects cannot capture the authenticity of the ancient structures.

What do you think: Is 3D printing the solution for a whole new experience of history and to preserve threatened monuments? Or does it rather decontextualize them and risks denying major chapters of its history, as it might be the case with the Arch of Palmyra?