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The arch that Isis couldn't destroy
Posted on: Saturday, April 16, 2016 Category: Cultures
The recent liberation of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra from Isis forces has cast in sharp relief a project that has been running in parallel with the military conflict. To follow it we need to raise our gaze from the Middle East and re-focus it on a quarry in northern Tuscany, where a computerised stone-cutter is whining away in the cool mountain air. A cutting-edge piece of kit this machine may be but in the end the principle is as old as the Apuan Alps that surround us. 'It is exactly the same as with Michelangelo. Nothing changes!' says Giacomo Massari. We watch mesmerised as the robotic arm beavers away, the drill bit on the end painstakingly incising the precise lineaments of a 1,800 year old monument that was largely turned to dust last October.

The monument in question is the Triumphal Arch of Palmyra, blown up by Isis forces as they spread across Syria in the summer of 2015. For the past two months, in a mountain workshop right next to where Michelangelo quarried the block of finest quality white marble for his David, a new arch has been rising and next week, in a culminating flight of fancy, it will touch down in Trafalgar Square. Giacomo Massari is the co-owner of the Carrara workshop where it is being manufactured, in seven blocks of Egyptian marble. 'We are very happy to do this and we feel that it will be something that can change the history of what happens,' he tells me.

If his syntax sounds chronologically confused it is no more so than the arch project itself, which takes the memory of a destroyed past and recreates it in physical form in the present, with an eye very much on the future. That this is remotely possible is down to advances in photogrammetry - the ability to produce highly detailed three-dimensional photographs of objects or buildings that can then be re-imagined in flexible on-screen images or, literally, rebuilt using 3D printing techniques or 3D imaging software (as is the case with the arch being built for Trafalgar Square). This is archaeology's new weapon against the black-masked iconoclasts Simon Schama dubbed The Obliterators. And the organisation that has been making the running - and monopolising the publicity - in this respect is not some monolithic international agency with the weight of governments behind it but a nimble outfit called the Institute for Digital Archaeology (IDA).

'A year and half ago when Isis began blowing things up we realised that we were ideally situated to do something about it,' Roger Michel, the IDA's Executive Director, told me when we met recently in central London. 'So we dedicated ourselves to collecting as many images as we could of at-risk objects, at-risk architecture in North Africa and the Middle East.' This is the IDA's flagship project, the Million Image Database, in which 5,000 cameras are being distributed to volunteers in the field - 'university students, people who take an interest in cultural heritage, people associated in a range of ways with the museums and antiquities scene,' according to the IDA's Technical Director, Alexy Karenowska - who will supply in return (either by uploading or sending back USB sticks) 3D images of sites in danger of being destroyed or looted. Michel described the setting up of the Million Image Database as one of those 'non-linear moments in life when you make decisions that have an unexpected and dramatic effect on what happens later.'

For what happened later - in Spring 2015 - was that Isis forces overran the classical city of Palmyra, which was established 2,000 years ago in what is now the centre of Syria on a significant trade route between the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia ('standing at the crossroads of several civilisations,' in the description of Unesco). The wanton destruction of ancient sites by Islamist extremists was not a new thing but the trashing of Palmyra - and the gruesome murder of the octogenarian archaeologist, Khaled al-Asaad, who knew and loved it more than any other - hit a nerve (as it was intended to). No matter that, in the words of Dr Robert Bewley of Oxford University, the Director of the EAMENA (Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East & North Africa) Project, 'The biggest threat to archaeological sites in the Middle East is not Isis, it's ploughing and urban expansion.' The collective sense of outrage in the West - at least among an elite - reached deafening levels. Irina Bokova, the Director-General of Unesco, denounced the destruction as a 'war crime' - which prompted some to wonder whether the West hadn't lost sight of the real tragedy, the destruction of human lives. But the IDA didn't just wring its hands, it came up with a counterblast. 'I don't think, to be honest, that ab initio we anticipated the extent to which 3D reconstruction would become the focus of our work, but obviously in retrospect that's what teed this up,' said Michel.

When the IDA revealed last December that it was intending to use its data and expertise to build not one but two replica Palmyra arches - to be unveiled simultaneously in Trafalgar Square in London and Times Square in New York - it generated headlines across the world. Since then there has been some backtracking on the original idea. There will be no simultaneous unveiling in New York - they may transport the London arch there later, or build another one - and the Palmyra arch that is being re-constructed is no longer the entrance to the Temple of Bel (which survived an attempt to blow it up in August 2015) but the Triumphal Arch (partially destroyed in October) formerly located at one end of the Great Colonnade. The decision to build it in Egyptian marble - which they claim will be close to the original in appearance - was also a late one. But an arch here or there is barely the half of it. Michel says he is 'in discussions right now with folks in Aleppo about reconstructing the minaret of the mosque there', he hopes to get into Palmyra - now that Isis has been driven out by Russian-backed Syrian government forces - to begin reconstruction work 'whenever the place is secured' and, more grandiosely, has already had talks with regional governments about developing a 'post-conflict plan for the Middle East'. Trafalgar Square, then, becomes merely a shop window and the arch within it 'Proof of our competency to do these things.'

Meanwhile the archaeology establishment has been watching all this and not knowing whether to applaud or shake their heads. 'What I approve of is collecting a record of and documenting vast numbers of sites,' said Tim Schadla-Hall, Reader in Public Archaeology at University College, London, referring to the IDA's Million Image Database project. The replica arch is less to his liking or comprehension: 'It seems to me it's a bizarre expenditure of money, possibly with worthy but misinformed aims, to promote something which isn't a real past, in an entirely reproduced form. I don't get it, I find it very very odd. I've got better uses for the money.' As for the IDA itself, 'I really hope they succeed,' said Daniel Pett,who runs digital public archaeology projects at the British Museum, 'but at the moment people are slightly sceptical, just because they don't know enough.'

On its website the Institute for Digital Archaeology describes itself as a private, not-for-profit organisation and a 'joint venture between Harvard University, the University of Oxford and the government of the United Arab Emirates'. It has an impressive Advisory Board, chaired by Mary Beard. The Oxford/Harvard claim is based largely on the involvement of individuals - its Technical Director, and Michel's number two, for example, is Alexy Karenowska, a physicist and Fellow of Magdalen, and much of the technical staff are from Oxford - while the UAE provides funding only 'on a project specific basis'. Most of the IDA's money comes from private sources within the US - Karenowska confirmed an annual operating budget (including, this year, the manufacture of the arch) of about 2.5 million, which is enough to make archaeologists on your average gig fall off their ergonomic chairs. Roger Michel himself is a swashbuckling, loquacious character - our meeting involved lunch in Claridges followed by a visit to a Mayfair antiquities gallery where he was 'pondering an object for acquisition'. In the 50 yards in between he peeled off a 20 note to give to a homeless person (whose expression is best described as gobsmacked).

He has an academic background in philology (the study of the written sources of language, eg papyri) and practises in the US as a prosecution lawyer specialising in murder cases and appellate work but when we met he was keen to emphasise his archaeology credentials despite his lack of formal qualifications: 'In the past four or five years you'd be hard pressed to find anybody who has been at more field locations, pulled more things out of the ground, or spent more time capturing images of the objects,' he told me. Michel founded the IDA in 2012 when he was working closely with the Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents (CSAD) in Oxford, using lab-based technology to create high-quality scans of archaeological objects. But even then - and Michel does seem to have a genius for publicity - he wanted to create 'a niche for ourselves'.

His answer was to adapt the equipment used in the laboratory for use in the field 'because that hadn't been done'. In fact the IDA's approach is not unique - there are several organisations that are keeping a close eye on threatened sites and combining technology and crowdsourcing to document them, in the Middle East and elsewhere - but nobody does it bolder. The IDA's Million Image Database project even made the cover of Newsweek (the Europe edition) last November under the headline 'The new monuments men - beating back Isis's war on culture with technology', while the arch itself is the subject of a forthcoming BBC TV documentary. The subject of endangered archaeology had suddenly become agonisingly postmodern - the exploitation of cutting-edge technology by Isis to produce highly professional destruction videos being matched by developments in photogrammetry and 3D printing to literally reverse the process.

There was also something romantic and defiant about the idea of a citizen army of volunteer photographers, ghosting through vulnerable colonnades to immortalise their memories. Some archaeologists with experience and contacts in the Middle East are worried that these volunteers may be putting themselves in danger - especially as a number of individuals in the Middle East with archaeology connections are already known to have been killed or have disappeared. Alexy Karenowska, who designed the cameras (the prototype she showed me had the dimensions of a fat smartphone), described 'quite a big distribution network' across the Middle East and downplayed the dangers to individuals. 'I think it's important not to get the risks out of proportion,' she said. 'On the one hand they exist in an inherently risky set of circumstances - it's not everyday life as we would see it - but we make it very clear that they are not to take on significant additional risks for the sake of taking photographs.' There's also a six-month embargo on the publication of images to safeguard the identity of the people who took them, which doesn't explain why the Million Image Database has not yet gone live (this will happen in late April, assures Karenowska). For on his own admission the initiative Roger Michel described as the 'alpha and omega of what we were going to be doing' has been sidetracked by the replica arch, and the view he can see through it of a landscape peppered with many more.

Tim Schadla-Hall of UCL, who 'specialises in the study of how the archaeological discipline interacts with the public', is unconvinced by the IDA's totemic approach to monuments. 'I don't think individual sites are important ,' he said. 'It's getting people to change their attitudes to what's important about the past, and the way you do that, if you're talking about the preservation of monuments, is you make them worthwhile to the people who live there. It's the economic benefit they get.' Michel is keen to emphasise that he is merely responding to what 'local stakeholders' are asking for 'because we don't want to fall prey - consciously or unconsciously - to pushing our own preferences on to the project.' Any reconstruction they do undertake will use local labour, he says, and provide direct economic benefit. He also talks of being on post-conflict standby to rebuild government buildings and schools.

The key to this - the vision of what's possible - is the Trafalgar Square arch. As you read this stonemasons in Giacomo Massari's Carrara workshop will be finessing the machine-tooled blocks of marble, adding the patina of ages by hand in a few hours. The seven blocks, plus plinth, will then be loaded onto a truck for the overland journey to London, where Massari will supervise its installation between the fountains, on an axis between the National Gallery and Nelson's Column. The blocks will be assembled using steel pins and the completed arch will remain in place for just two days, basking in the limelight and - achieving what exactly? 'The reason we're doing this on Trafalgar Square is that when you set the arch against the neo-classical columns of the National Gallery and Nelson's Column, there's a reason why they all look the same: our past is their past,' said Roger Michel. Highlighting this shared sense of history 'can only be a good thing at a time when Isis is trying to say, no, we have nothing to do with the West and you've got no business being here in the East.' The idea also is to bring in school groups to use the arch as a focus for debates around 'community wellbeing', the 'built environment' and 'authenticity'.

Some archaeologists remain unconvinced, believing the money could be far better spent. But the clamour of argument will always be a sweeter sound than the swish of the wrecking ball and if the IDA achieves only one thing with its replica arch it will be this: to have turned the wasteland of rubble left by Isis into a field where people are sowing ideas. Foremost among them is belief in the continuity and interconnectedness of human achievement - even, or especially, in a geopolitical black hole where humanity seems intent on tearing itself apart. As Giacomo Massari said, while watching the Triumphal Arch of Palmyra being slowly reborn in the mountains of Tuscany, 'It will be a big sign from our world. Yes, there will always be people who destroy. But there will also always be people who create and rebuild.'

Published in the Telegraph Magazine on April 9, 2016

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