Rome Wasn't Built in a Day (Because They Didn't Have 3D Printers)

An original, you see, is never an original, once it goes through time.
— Adam Lowe, Founder, Factum Arte (Zalewski 2017)

What role does advancing digital technology have in the protection, conservation, and rehabilitation of tangible cultural heritage? This is a question that we, as arts and cultural managers, ask ourselves with increasing frequency. Digital technologies can provide unique solutions to the degradation of natural disasters and tourism, and the destruction caused by modern warfare. But they also bring up difficult and often divisive ethical questions about what it means to edit history. Cultural managers are faced with a challenge: how do they engage with the tools available today? Is it possible, that through moderation and integrity, digital reproduction could serve not as a replacement or rebuilding of cultural heritage, but rather as a supplement to the degrading and destroyed sites around the world?  

On the one hand, digital tools are just that: tools. Microphones and film were used to innovate live performance, but did not eradicate the opera or the theater. They were used by a variety of artists to define new mediums. For example, photogrammetry, lasers, and 3D-printing are the tools permeating the cultural heritage sector today. Like innovations in other fields, it seems impossible to draw a unilateral distinction of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ without considering the circumstance and practice of the beholder. The tool itself is neutral.

On the other hand, many say the use of digital technology is a dishonorable effort to rewrite history. The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones wrote:

"Palmyra was in ruins before Isis occupied it and it is still in ruins today. That is the nature of ancient cities. Mycenae, Machu Picchu, the Roman Forum – none are complete, none pristine. Their atmosphere and poetry lie in their scarring by time, nature and history ... What is never legitimate is to rebuild ancient monuments using modern materials to replace lost parts – to essentially refabricate them – even though today’s technology makes that seem practical."

Knight, Gary. Replica Palmyra Arch. Photograph.  Flickr . April 19, 2016. Accessed September 22, 2017.

Knight, Gary. Replica Palmyra Arch. Photograph. Flickr. April 19, 2016. Accessed September 22, 2017.

A differing view poses the question reverberating throughout the arts and cultural sector: who has the right to tell whose story? Is it ethical to impose outside technological solutions to sites and cultures that are not one’s own?

Alexy Karenowska, Director of Technology at the Institute of Digital Architecture takes a very different stance regarding Palmyra than Jonathan Jones: “Western intervention”, she says, “can be a very good thing if it comes in concert with close consultation with everybody involved, and it does not become a Western effort but very much a joint effort.” (Voon 2016).

The cultural sector is currently assessing the ways technology might mitigate these concerns. To demonstrate these technologies in practice, two projects are offered for consideration. First is the 2016 unveiling of a 3D-printed replica of Palmyra’s Arch of Triumph in London’s Trafalgar Square executed by the Institute of Digital Architecture (IDA). Second is Factum Arte’s facsimile of King Tutankhamun's burial chamber in the Valley of the Kings, Egypt. IDA initiated the Million Images Database, an open-source database of 2D and 3D images of heritage material. Factum Arte developed a lightweight 3D scanner, called the Lucida scanner, which operates without 3D data-processing software. These two projects use technology to accomplish very different goals, demonstrating a range of what is possible when using technology to reconstruct cultural heritage.

The following tables shows how mission, project scope, partnerships, and affiliates can can inform the process of digital reconstruction.

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Armstrong, Katie. Burial Chamber of King Tutankhamun. Photograph.  3D Printing Industry . June 10, 2016. Accessed September 28, 2017.

Armstrong, Katie. Burial Chamber of King Tutankhamun. Photograph. 3D Printing Industry. June 10, 2016. Accessed September 28, 2017.

Arts and cultural managers have to understand the potential benefits and hazards of these tools in the context of a greater mission: to educate the public and conserve our world’s culture. At the end of the day, arts and cultural managers are not wielding these tools. They are, however, presenting the results of these projects for public consumption and greater good. It is, in part, the responsibility of cultural leaders to assess the ethical virtues and vices of digital technology as a means of contributing toward the mission of their respective organizations and the larger mission of preserving our world’s heritage for generations to come.


Works Cited

Cunliffe, Emma. "Should we 3D print a new Palmyra?" The Conversation. Last modified March 31, 2016.   Accessed September 16, 2017.

Del Giudice, Marguerite. "Tut's Tomb: A Replica Fit for a King." National Geographic. Last modified May 20, 2014. Accessed September 22, 2017.

"Facsimile of the Tomb of Tutankhamun." Factum Arte. Accessed September 22, 2017.

Hadingham, Evan. "The Technology That Will Resurrect ISIS-Destroyed Antiquities." Public Broadcasting Station. Last modified June 9, 2016. Accessed September 16, 2017.

Jones, Jonathan. "Palmyra must not be fixed. History would never forgive us." The Guardian. Last modified April 11, 2016. Accessed September 22, 2017.

Lowe, Adam. "The authorized facsimile of the Burial Chamber of Tutankhamun." Factum Arte. Last modified 2012. Accessed September 22, 2017.

Strong, Felicity. "Imitation game: how copies can solve our cultural heritage crises." The Conversation. Last modified November 4, 2016. Accessed September 16, 2017.

"Triumphal Arch." The Institute for Digital Archeology. Accessed September 22, 2017.

Voon, Claire. "What’s the Value of Recreating the Palmyra Arch with Digital Technology?Hyperallergic. Last modified April 19, 2016. Accessed September 22, 2017.

Zalewski, David. "The Factory of Fakes." The New Yorker. Last modified November 28, 2016. Accessed September 22, 2017.