A/D/O by MINI | Digital Archaeology

Journal

Architecture

Digital Archaeology

By resurrecting lost antiquities and architectural monuments, like the Triumphal Arch of Palmyra, the Institute of Digital Archaeology is defying borders between past and present.

An ancient artifact or building is much more than its weight in stone or metal: it’s the physical nexus of the culture than created it and the one interpreting it. These objects sit at the border between past and present, enmeshing multiple narratives and revealing just as much about who we are today as they do about the people who created them.

Nowhere does this ring truer than in relation to the Triumphal Arch of Palmyra in Syria. Having been built in one of the great Silk Road cities of the 3rd century AD, during the reign of emperor Septimius Severus, it stood as a reminder of the remarkable synacranism of the Roman Empire at this time. The endless flow of cultures that passed through Palmyra all found a home in the city, and the arch bore imagery from the furthest reaches of Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. It was a physical reminder that cultural borders can often be points of connection and exchange, rather than barriers.

3D-printed replicas of the Triumphal Arch of Palmyra, Syria, were created from an exact digital render of the monument.

This cultural collage was exactly what made Palmyra a target for ISIS in 2015, when they embarked on a monstrous campaign of iconoclasm across the region. For these religious and cultural fanatics, the complex history rendered in the arch was a threat to the new world order they were seeking to create. Like so many fanatics before them – from the English reformation to the Byzantine purges of the 8th century – material culture bore the brunt of this fervor and the great arch was eventually reduced to rubble.

This is where an unlikely savior enters the story. Before the insurgency of ISIS in Syria, the Institute of Digital Archaeology (IDA) was a reasonably obscure academic endeavor founded in Oxford to help archive Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. “It turns out that creating digital imagery of papyri was the gateway drug to a more omnivorous study of ancient objects and eventually architecture,” explained Roger Michel, founder and executive director of the IDA. “What we managed to do early on was bring a lot of technology that was only used in labs, either because it needed a special environment or specialist knowledge, and we took it into the field.”

A 200-foot replica of the arch, created by The Institute of Digital Archaeology, has toured the world and can be seen here in Geneva.

As the ISIS campaign escalated, there was a rising panic that these monuments and the stories they stood for were about to be lost forever. This is when the team of antiquities at Palmyra and UNESCO sought out the IDA, in the hopes that even if ISIS couldn’t be physically stopped, their assault on world culture could somehow be thwarted. “We suddenly realized that there was this incredibly powerful idea where in the same timeframe that ISIS was destroying these things – a matter of days or weeks – we could be reproducing them,” said Michel.

With funding from Harvard University and the University of Oxford, the IDA worked with the Palmyra team to gather hundreds of images of the arch before ISIS reached it, often at great physical risk to the photographers involved. This allowed them to create an exact digital render of the monument that could then be reproduced at various scales using 3D printing. Perhaps the most powerful of these recreations was a six-meter (20-foot) arch rendered in Egyptian marble that was unveiled with typical bombast by Boris Johnson, then mayor of London, in Trafalgar Square in early 2016 – a matter of months after the original arch had been destroyed.

Since then it’s toured six countries across three continents and been seen by seven million people (as well as countless more through extensive media coverage). The arch has been erected outside the United Nations in New York and it has stood proud in Rome, the modern metropolis that grew from the ancient culture that originally constructed it. The Rome installation was a particularly powerful moment as two sons of Professor Khalil al-Assad, former head of antiquities at Palmyra, were in attendance (al-Assad was murdered by ISIS in 2015 for refusing to reveal the caches of artifacts hidden throughout the city).

The replica arch has traveled to six countries across three continents. It is pictured here in Florence, Italy.

“Every person of Syrian descent in Rome as well as thousands of others must have been there and it was incredibly poignant to see them all slowly filing through the arch,” said Michel. “I often have to explain to people that we’re not reconstructing the original monument. The object that we have created embodies the original, of course, but it also embodies the work of hundreds of photographers, the hundreds of people who have worked on it, everybody who's seen it and walked through it, everyone who has responded to the story online. It's become the symbol of a global community built around this idea of co-operative preservation of a shared past.”

By translating a physical object into a digital version of that object and back into a physical version again, the IDA have blurred borders and enrolled even more stories into the arch. Indeed, there are almost infinite borders at play here: the geopolitical border that was being forcibly contested by ISIS; the border between radically different belief systems; that between past and present; the line between physical and digital; the very barrier between existence and oblivion (and on, and on).

It’s a tragic irony that by destroying the arch, ISIS actually made it one of the most famous cultural artifacts in the world. In its destruction, the Triumphal Arch of Palmyra has achieved its ultimate triumph: an Obi Wan Kenobi-like immortality that ensures the stories it originally represented will live on forever, as they join paths with new stories.

The Institute of Digital Archaeology has used similar technology to recreate an Anglo-Saxon burial ship found at Sutton Hoo, England.

Quite rightly, the Palmyra arch is the IDAs most famous project, but they’re also working on plenty other initiatives, ranging from an IDA online library to a Million Image Database and even a scale reconstruction of the great Anglo-Saxon burial ship at Sutton Hoo. “We’ll be linking this project with a similar one in New Zealand focused on a Maori boat,” explained Michel.

“At first glance, you wouldn’t think about comparing Maori and Anglo-Saxon culture, but when you get down to it, these were two great maritime nations with a proud military history and a focus on seamanship and martial order. There’s an amazing parallel development in material culture, mythology and poetry – it's just another example of something that seems to be a boundary turning out to be a point of overlap. Boundaries are invitations to make connections.”

The underlying theme to the IDAs work is the commonality and interconnectedness of all things. By digitizing our physical culture, they challenge a dualistic understanding of the world – from the digital-physical divide to distinct cultural traditions and even to the line between past, present and future. By crossing borders and challenging categories, the IDAs work highlights a fluid continuum across time, geography and technology.

A global community of creators empowered by MINI to boldly explore the future of design.