Palmyra’s Arch, Authenticity, and Digital Heritage Engagement


The replica Palmyra Arch is installed in Trafalgar Square on April 19, 2016. Source: BBC News

Among the many archaeological sites affected by on-going violence in Syria, the UNESCO world heritage site of Palmyra has been of particular interest to international media outlets since the site was seized by Islamic State (IS) militants in May of 2015. It became apparent that the cultural heritage at Palmyra was imperiled soon after IS forces consolidated control; the systematic destruction of portions of  sites within the city was monitored by satellite imagery and news broke that longtime Palmyra archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad had been beheaded when he would not divulge the location of hidden antiquities. A culmination of impacts to the cultural resources at the site took place between August and October of 2015 with the explosive destruction of the Temple of Bel, Temple of Baalshamin, and the Triumphal Arch. When the city was retaken by pro-Assad Syrian forces, the photos of destruction were shocking. The Syrian Director-General of Antiquities and Museums, Dr. Maamoun Abdulkarim was quick to announce plans to rebuild the destroyed temples and arch at the site. Out of this decision to recreate parts of Palmyra impacted by looting and destruction came the commissioning of a scaled down replica of the Triumphal Arch to be manufactured from stone based on a 3D model which was generated from pictures of the arch prior to its destruction. The Syrian government contracted with the Institute for Digital Archaeology to produce the replica. On April 19th, 2016 the replica arch was unveiled in Trafalgar Square to a great deal of fanfare. It was a blow against the extremists! It was 3D digital heritage! It was the future of archaeology and cultural resource preservation! I was sure that this was something good and meaningful that could come out of 3D modeling and public engagement. I posted an article about the replica arch to the 3D Public Archaeology Working Group facebook page that I and a few others interested in the topic started assuming the other members would share my enthusiasm. For the most part, they did not. Other members posted articles critical of the reproduction, articles decrying the potential Disneyfication of Palmyra’s history. Some of these members were far more familiar with the geopolitics and issues of cultural resource management in these countries than I ever will be and so I took stock: What exactly was it that I was so excited about? Had I fallen into the trap of thinking this shiny new technology would act as a panacea to a host of problems? Why had I not thought to search out news items that related what the Syrian population thought of the project? Was I being a bad anthropologist?

Yeah, I was. But to be fair, 3D modeling is pretty exciting and does have a great deal of potential to do good for archaeology and heritage management. We can do good, we know, but how do we keep doing good without doing harm? As 3D modeling and printing becomes easier and more commonplace the questions are shifting from if we can do it to should we do it. How should those of us who are pursuing 3D modeling within public archaeology model best behavior? Are we truly engaging the public or are we just showing them interesting pictures?

In casting around for others who had wrangled with these questions before it became clear that the heart of the matter has to do with the authenticity of objects. A great deal goes into the imbuing of authenticity to an artifact or a site, it is the thing that tourists are hoping to engage with when they travel to a place like Palmyra. It is a a complex agreement by groups of humans that a thing is real, more real, than another thing. And that has power. Stuart Jeffrey 2015 uses the term “aura” to describe the relative real-ness of a (here) digital visualization of an artifact or site. The term is hard to put a direct definition to, even by the author, though he sums it up as the feeling, “that when faced with an object rich in history and meaning that [the public] experience[s] something beyond intellectual stimulation… it is about the people who have been close to it in the past and our connection to them” (147). Jeffrey makes an excellent set of points about how to develop the aura and authenticity of digital visualizations. A read-through of his article is suggested, but a quick summation might be that these things we create cannot exist apart from the things they represent. In order to engage the public we need to maintain the connections of our simulacra to the real-world equivalents, that is where we develop engagement.

In light of my recent, though admittedly shallow, foray into readings on this topic my view on the Palmyra Arch has changed considerably in the last few days. On a technical level I am still impressed and curious about what this technology might be applied to. As a public archaeologist, I find it to be an empty gesture. It is not a connected thing. Its authenticity (using the term aura sits wrong with me somehow) is a superficial dressing, and rather than being connected with the many people who visited the Palmyra Arch for millennia, or the people who first modeled it, I imagine many people who visit it today will instead feel little connection to it at all. It is a neat thing to look at, but it does not emanate the weight of history to those who engage with it.Then again, how could it?

How can we best engage the public in the looming onslaught of digital heritage? I look forward to finding out.

Note: I intend to open this blog post to any who would like to comment on the topic and address any issues I have brought up, agree with me, disagree with me, tell me you like my hair, etc. Any posts I receive will be edited into the blog below.

2 thoughts on “Palmyra’s Arch, Authenticity, and Digital Heritage Engagement

  1. Nice job Kevin!

    To me, most of these questions do not feel that new as this is a very similar discussions to debates over the appropriateness of reconstructions and their potential to deceive an audience. “The Reconstructed Past: Reconstructions in the Public Interpretation of Archaeology and History” gives an overview of this issue. I should probably read it again and see how much of it applies to modeling and printing.

    Relevant to your concerns about authenticity, Hughes, Little, and Ballantyne wrote a chapter in “Tourism and Archaeology: Sustainable Meeting Grounds” that discussed studies which have indicated visitors to heritage sites are generally more interested in feeling like they had an authentic experience than they are concerned with the accuracy of that experience. My conclusion was that the message is far more important than the details, so long as we are not changing the details to make our point we are on ethically safe ground.

    For example, if the arch was placed at the site of the original and the interpretation was about the location in relation to other features we are fine. However, if we wanted to talk about a trade network between the area and Egypt using the (presumably) inaccurate Egyptian marble to make the point we are now deceiving our audience.

    I did find the concerns relating to the ethics of inadvertently legitimizing a very nasty regime to be interesting. Also, the idea that printing and modeling could be just an extension of, or variation on, colonialism is something I will have to think about. As I always tell people, new technologies solve some problems and then create new ones. I am looking forward to seeing how this plays out.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I do like your statement on authenticity. I, too, at first thought it was a really interesting development, and certainly it is a technical achievement (but not 3D printing, as some have said). And, if this were couched as a reconstruction of a destroyed monument only without the implications that it is somehow authentic, I would have less of an issue. I certainly think 3D replicas–large or small-are an important tool for public engagement, but here the idea is that this somehow is like the real thing. It reminds me of discussions by the British Museum that they could correct some aspects of their colonial collecting legacy by 3D printing accurate replicas and sending them to the host country, while keeping the original object safe in their museum. I am not the only one to wonder if perhaps they should not return the original and keep their very best accurate copy:

    Liked by 1 person

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