The potential of 3D printing to replicate sites generated worldwide headlines in April, when a two-thirds scale model of Palmyra’s Arch of Triumph was erected in London’s Trafalgar Square; the Arch may travel to New York in the Fall. The model was, again, recreated from pre-war photos and was programmed to drive a massive stonecutting machine at a quarry at Carrara in northern Italy, next door to where Michelangelo obtained marble for his statue of David.

ICONEM used pre-war photographs to build a 3D model of the Temple of Bel.

The aim of the project was to erect a symbol of cultural resistance in the face of ISIS and to raise public awareness of the heritage threat and was partly the work of an innovative Oxford-based venture known as the Institute for Digital Archaeology. In collaboration with UNESCO and leading universities and foundations, the institute’s major goal is to compile a comprehensive library of 3D imagery of threatened sites across the Middle East that they’re calling the Million Image Database. To create the image bank, the plan is to distribute 5,000 pocket 3D cameras to volunteers and heritage workers across the region. The Institute’s director, Roger Michel, says their ambitious mission is “to rebuild the landscape of the Middle East and the great symbols of our shared cultural heritage that have been destroyed.”

Can Replicas Replace What’s Lost?

But when peace finally comes, will the new replication techniques match the quality of what’s been lost? And how will local communities respond to the results? “That’s part of a wider debate about the changing meaning of these places,” says Allison Cuneo, a member of the ASOR team. “Palmyra is no longer simply a tourist site. ISIS child soldiers carried out executions in the amphitheater and left behind a mass grave of civilians. How can clean-up and restoration efforts pay homage to that fact?”

A satellite image of Palmyra's amphitheater.

Meanwhile, ISIS and other extremist groups still pose a dire threat to the Middle East’s ancient cultural treasures. Among the most serious current threats outside Syria, Libya poses the gravest concern. As a shaky coalition government is still taking shape, ISIS forces are converging on coastal Greco-Roman cities such as Cyrene and Leptis Magna that are scarcely less imposing or extensive than Palmyra itself. Meanwhile, in Egypt, security at ancient sites is unraveling. Space archaeologist Sarah Parcak, who used satellite imagery to detect a possible new Norse site in Newfoundland in NOVA’s recent show “ Vikings Unearthed ," recently applied the same techniques to study the looting of ancient Egyptian sites. She has documented a 50% jump in looting at four major sites since the 2011 revolution.

With all the human suffering of the Syrian war and the refugee crisis, why should we care about endangered heritage? Michael Danti stresses that the issue goes far beyond the concerns of archaeologists. “ISIS is practicing cultural terrorism,” he says, “as they target and eliminate the identity of entire sections of society in a way that’s directly comparable with Nazi atrocities.” By supporting the efforts of local heritage workers to protect and reclaim sites, scientists can help embattled communities hang on to hope and a sense of community in a time of terror.

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Image credits: Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums of Syria/Michael Danti, ICONEM

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