On Palmyra and 3D Modeling Cultural Heritage in the Middle East

On Palmyra and 3D Modeling Cultural Heritage in the Middle East

Over the past few months, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the relationship between academic scholarship and the atrocities of war. In particular the role of digital scholarship: its potential for protesting these atrocities, its potential to ameliorate some of their effects, and its complicity in those atrocities. Global events of this winter and spring have shown the pressing nature of these issues, and in particular the use of photography, 3D imaging, and 3D printing to “preserve” at-risk cultural heritage.

As I begin the Digital Humanities Summer Institute to take a course on physical computing and fabrication (including historical prototyping), I find myself increasingly troubled by the practices and discourse around 3d printing of cultural heritage objects.

3d Modeling and Digital Colonialism

I’ve already written about the so-called Nefertiti Hack, the release of 3d imaging code for the Nefertiti bust and the post-colonial protest and performance art surrounding that release and printing of the bust. I argued that European museums and libraries who possess scans of cultural heritage objects acquired under the conditions of colonialism should release the code under open licenses. Otherwise, they participate in what I call digital colonialism.

3D model of Palmyra arch in Trafalgar Square, London. From an article in the Guardian, December 2015


The efforts to produce virtual and physical 3D replicas of threatened (or lost) antiquities from Palmyra also raise disturbing questions.  The 3D reconstruction of lost heritage is something that I as a scholar of antiquity can’t help but crave.  And it is hard to argue that projects like Lost Palmyra are not contributing to the public good. Doesn’t the virtual preservation of destroyed antiquities contribute to the production of knowledge about the ancient and modern worlds?  And won’t the virtual preservation of destroyed antiquities contribute to the economic and social good of Syrians in the region? After all, a replica of the arch will be placed in Palmyra itself, near the original location.  The tourism surrounding the ruins provided a source of revenue for people living in the nearby modern town and could do so again.

This work, however, can also be appropriated for imperial and colonial ends. Michael Press has written an extremely well-documented piece about the modern West’s problematic and harmful investment in the ruins of the Middle East.

Press writes, “Why do we care so much about these ruins, while paying so little attention to the more recent past or present of Syria? Perhaps because we can assimilate these classical remains to our own past.” Press asks: “[W]hen we proclaim that the legacy of Palmyra is all around us, in the West, in the form of neoclassical architecture, what are we doing but staking a claim to our inheritance? We are the real heirs of Palmyra, not the people who live in the adjacent town still known by that name (which we ignore).”

3500This past spring, when Palmyra was wrested from ISIS control, newspapers trumpeted the “liberation” of Palmyra. What they really meant was the recapturing of the ruins. I cannot count the troops of President Assad (who used chemical weapons on his own people) nor the Russian military support from the autocrat Putin among the ranks of “liberators.”

As Press has noted, this privileging of the safety of the ruins brackets the well-being of the people who live there. The antiquities, which have come to be seen as part of “our” cultural heritage in the West, are dissociated from the Syrian people who live there.

Replica Palmyra Arch at Trafalgar Square (via Michael Press at Hyperallergic and Garry Knight on Flickr)
Replica Palmyra Arch at Trafalgar Square (via Michael Press at Hyperallergic and Garry Knight on Flickr)

I want to talk specifically about the 3d reconstruction of the arch, and how this event exposes some of the disturbing implications of cultural heritage reconstruction. The Palmyra arch was remade at 2/3 scale and raised in London’s Trafalgar Square. Trafalgar Square is a public space dedicated to British military victories during the British Empire’s colonial period. The disembodied arch, placed in the capital of the United Kingdom out of context of its history and the (predominantly Muslim) people who currently live there, positions it as yet another signature artifact of the ancient world collected by the British, alongside the Parthenon marbles (also known as the Elgin marbles) and the Rosetta. Add to this history the direct military interventions by the British in the Middle East from the nineteenth century through the twentieth century’s World Wars through to 21st century wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The image of the Palmyra gate resurrected in London reads as much as a neo-colonial act of collecting by a nation-state that has directly contributed to the instability in the Middle East as an “act of defiance” against ISIS.

Virtual reconstruction of antiquities raises a host of questions that we are only beginning to grapple with. Reconstruction of antiquities in the process of excavating, restoring, and preserving them obviously predates 3d reconstruction. Criticism and controversy of course abound regarding pre-digital reconstructions. Digital reconstruction adds more wrinkles to an already contested landscape.

Decolonizing Ancient Studies

Academic conversations among scholars who work on late antiquity recently have danced around related topics, sometimes engaging directly. At the North American Patristics Society annual meeting, I gave a paper about the necessity of decolonizing our archives as we digitize them. Tom Hunt also delivered a paper about the relationship between French archaeology of late antique north Africa and the Algerian wars. Columba Stewart’s evening plenary lecture described the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library’s efforts to digitize manuscripts pertaining to the Christian communities of the Middle East.

Likewise, questions about historical uncertainty at another recent conference echo in my mind whenever I see an image of a single 3d reconstruction. At the recent University of Iowa symposium on Linking the Big Ancient Mediterranean, we heard a number of papers digital methods for studying antiquity. “How do we visualize uncertainty?” arose again and again as a pressing question over the course of the conference. We discussed it primarily in the context of maps and social network visualizations, seeking methods to problematize the ways these forms of presenting information convey certainty, and fixity. 3D reconstruction came up, albeit less frequently. The primary question went along the lines of: By immersing ourselves in a virtual world reconstructed by scholars, do we experience a sanitized and distorted version of the ancient world? Concerning any form of visualization, participant Michael Satlow asked why the onus for recognizing uncertainty falls on the creators of digital models, when *all* scholarship about the ancient world (digital or traditional) consists of models with varying degrees of uncertainty. Readers (interpreters) of digital visualizations need to bring the same levels of scrutiny (even suspicion) that they bring to any other historical interpretation of the ancient world. Co-organizer Sarah Bond noted that a colleague of hers visualizes uncertainty in 3D models by making her buildings look ugly. This aesthetic jars the viewer and invokes a different kind of interaction than the more “beautiful” 3D models. Participant Elli Mylonas reminded us all of Tufte’s recommendations, that we should provide multiple possible visualizations to capture the uncertainty of any one model. Visualizing uncertainty in 3D models is one area I hope to explore this week. Resisting the temptation to create “the” prototype, the perfect imitation of the artifact.

There is much more to be said, though, especially about the roles of technology and the academy in the public conversation about cultural heritage preservation. I’ll be trying to blog more about how my experiences in physical computing (inside and outside of the DHSI course) inform my views on this.

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