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Science & Technology

Upon Reclaiming Palmyra, The Controversial Side Of Digital Reconstruction


The ancient city Palmyra, Syria, is now out of the hands of the Islamic State. The city was recaptured by the Syrian government, but it has been ravaged. There is a historical toll, as well as one in human lives. A triumphal stone arch from the second century is among the ancient artifacts that were destroyed by ISIS. And now a robot in Italy is beginning the work of the reconstruction of some of those sites.

Roger Michel heads the Institute for Digital Archaeology. They're behind the efforts to model and maybe eventually rebuild some of those sites. Mr. Michel joins us from Boston. Thanks so much for being with us.

ROGER MICHEL: Hello, Scott. Thanks for having me on the show.

SIMON: Can we understand the scale of destruction in Syria and Iraq and Libya, for that matter, where I know you've been active?

MICHEL: It's possible to calculate in terms of cubic meters of stone. It's not possible, I don't think, to calculate the human toll, both the toll on the people who have lost their lives tragically but also the toll on people whose livelihoods depended on the sites, whose national identity and local identity was attached to those ancient sites. That's the part that's impossible to calculate.

SIMON: Yeah. So what do your digital blueprints do?

MICHEL: We have been collecting, over the last two years, a vast digital archive of both 3-D and 2-D images of sites throughout the Middle East in conflict zones, sites that we have identified as being at risk. This photographic archive provides a resource for scholars, it provides a virtual resource for anyone who wants to visit these sites remotely. But it also provides the opportunity, and one that we're exploiting now, of recreating some of these structures in 3-D form, that is through the use of 3-D printing and carving technology.

SIMON: And what are you doing specifically with this arch?

MICHEL: So the arch was selected by the director general of Antiquities and Museums himself as the first object for recreation. And we are in the process now of recreating it, for all appearances, be identical to the arch in terms of its physical appearance at the time of its destruction.

SIMON: And will it be in the same place or just adjacent to the ruins?

MICHEL: So the plan now is for the arch to be displayed in three cities - in London and in New York and in Dubai. Then we've been invited by Syria to place the arch near the site in Palmyra where the original one stood. Now, needless to say, we'll need to ensure that we have all necessary permissions from our government and from the Syrian government before that happens. But that is the plan at the moment.

SIMON: As I don't have to tell you, Mr. Michel, digital reconstruction is getting so good it's created a controversy. And we've done stories in Bosnia and in Afghanistan where there are people who are concerned that these reconstructions, in their own way, try to expunge history.

MICHEL: The response that I'd make to that is a couple of things. Part of it is a culture clash. In the West, we are very fetishistic about originality. We want to touch the object that the master touched. This goes back to the days of reliquaries when people had bits and pieces of saints that they carried around with them. The old saw in the East, as it's my grandfather's knife, I replace the handle. My father replaced the blade. It's my grandfather's knife.

For people in other parts of the world, the role of objects is not to somehow through the object itself bring you close to history. It is a visual cue that provides memories of history. The history and heritage resides in the mind. And that's what these reconstructions can certainly provide and have provided for hundreds and hundreds of years. Indeed, most of the sites in Sicily today are 19th century reconstructions.

SIMON: I never knew that. I mean, I've been to Syracuse and all over Sicily and I was seeing reconstructions?

MICHEL: Absolutely. If you were in Syracuse, you certainly did. Naxos is a very good original site, but many of the other sites are significantly reconstructed.

SIMON: Roger Michel is founder of the Institute for Digital Archaeology. Thanks so much for being with us.

MICHEL: Thank you so much for having me on the show, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.