thinking about archaeology

London’s new marble arch

arch column.jpgYesterday was a thinking, walking day in London, pleasantly warm and sunny by the end, that began in the British Museum and ended in Spitalfields via Palmyra and Trafalgar Square. As usual, unless otherwise stated, all photos are mine.

Hartwig FischerThe new exhibition at the BM, “Sicily: culture and conquest” (from Thursday till August 14) set the tone, portraying the island as a sort of floating cultural hub, facing east, west and south – notably under Norman kings in the 12th century. It’s the first show to open under the directorship of Hartwig Fischer, who greeted us in the gallery (above). There are some lovely sculptures and ceramics; it’s not difficult to see why some of this stuff excites collectors, even to illicit dealings. These two pictures are from the BM:

Terracotta altar with three women

Terracotta altar with three women and a panther mauling a bull, Gela, 500BC, Museo Archeologico Regionale di Gela © Regione Siciliana

12th century mosaic

Byzantine-style mosaic showing the Virgin as advocate for the human race, Palermo Cathedral, AD1130–80, Museo Diocesano

I also liked this older carving, from the museum in Syracuse, a carved door from a rock-cut bronze age tomb at Castelluccio (said to date from around 2000BC). The caption comes straight from old archaeology. “The designs on this tomb may depict the sexual act… The spirals may symbolise eyes, breasts or ovaries.” Or perhaps not. It reminded me (in parallel guessing mode) of Easter Island statues: open eyes at top, closed at bottom – closing, or perhaps opening, during the passage from life to death.

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So on to Trafalgar Square, to see the Institute for Digital Archaeology (IDA) unveil a replica antique arch – the RomanTriumphal Arch from Palmyra, blown up by IS last October. The IDA and its arch have both created quite an interest in the archaeological community, not least because we are regularly being asked by journalists what we think about them.

I’m still not clear exactly what either are for (IDA and the arch), but there’s no denying the arch is fun, and a stunning illustration of digital technologies. It’s made, I think, by creating a 3D image of the arch from 2D photos, and using this to drive a stone drill – the replica is Egyptian marble. It drew quite a crowd, and there was much talk about loss of world heritage, conservation, meanings and rights. Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s director of antiquities, credited the arch with raising world awareness about these things.

In any event, international solidarity has to be good. It was also good to see the mayor of London (as he does) talk up ancient civilisations and multiculturalism. “Monuments,” said Boris Johnson, “as embodiments of history, religion, art and science, are significant and complex repositories of cultural narratives” (take that Justin Trudeau and your quantum computing!). People in Trafalgar Square cheered when he raised “two digits” to IS (or Daesh as he calls it). Perhaps IS also cheered in their own way; they like publicity. Roger Michel, IDA’s founder and executive director, seemed to have enough confidence and charisma to match Johnson’s, and came across as enthusiastic and sincere. Good luck to them. Heritage needs champions.

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Peter, blowing a shofar: he worries the arch will bring down the wrath of Jesus

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Beri and Oliver, hoping the arch will further world peace

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Boris Johnson (left) arrives at the official tent to greet Maamoun Abdulkarim (right), with Jonathan Tubb, keeper at the British Museum’s Department of the Middle East

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Johnson and Roger Michel, with Alexy Karenowska behind Michel’s right

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In a video Alexy Karenowska (director of technology at the IDA, and a magnetician at Oxford University’s Department of Physics) gives an eloquent presentation of how this technology can help to restore Palmyra and other ancient sites. The new technologies make it easy, if not cheap. Here is where many archaeologists have doubts.  Karenowska seems to envisage replacing lost and damaged architecture with replica models. She recognises the need to “respect authenticity”, and not to confuse copies with antiquity – it’s important, she says, that visitors know which bits are real and which bits are new. But how much do we restore, and what do we leave alone? There are no simple answers.

In the same video Brendan Cormier from the V&A talks about the tradition of making casts of ancient art, which I think is a different thing. As we see spectacularly in the V&A’s recently restored cast court, in earlier centuries plaster casts allowed people to see antiquities and buildings up close that they would otherwise not be able to see at all (as they do for us now). Not only could they not visit remote sites, reproduction technologies were primitive in modern terms, and there were no comparable alternatives.

Old casts often preserve details now lost, and we’d expect digital copies now to do the same in future. But you don’t need to print them to examine them: online digital models can be studied in closer detail, and reach even more people than a printed replica. There’s something about making a physical model of the Palmyra arch that is reminiscent of the early days of the web, when we printed out web pages as seen on our screens. We don’t need to do that.

Here is what some archaeologist have said.

John Curtis, former BM curator, agrees to restoration “after overnight destruction… so far and no further… Many of these ruins had been restored over the years… Provided we know exactly what we are doing, I would certainly favour restoring them to what they were a year ago.”

In a thoughtful piece in The Conversation, Emma Cunliffe, who works for Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East & North Africa (EAMENA), University of Oxford, writes:

“…many argue that 3D printing fails to capture the authenticity of the original structures, amounting to little more than the Disneyfication of heritage. They also point out that the fighting is still ongoing… stabilisation alone should be the priority for now.

“Rebuilding also fails to redress the loss caused by the extensive looting of [Palmyra], focusing only on the dramatically destroyed monuments. Perhaps most importantly, it’s worth asking whether returning Palmyra exactly to its pre-conflict state denies a major chapter of its history? … As has happened after previous conflicts, there may need to be a memorial as a testimony to those beheaded in the arena, or tied to columns that were detonated, or to the [executed] former site director… These stories, and many more, are a part of Palmyra’s, and Syria’s, history.

“One thing is clear: while Palmyra may hold great significance to the world, the final decision should belong to those who have lived alongside it, cared for it, managed it, fought for it, and protected it for generations: the Syrian people.”

It’s important that reconstruction does not diminish the significance of the original monument, says Bob Bewley, project director at EAMENA – and there are always “questions of value for money”. “But if wealthy philanthropists wish to create these symbols of the cultural heritage, to raise awareness of the destruction of identity and cultural heritage, then that is their right.” “The biggest threat to archaeological sites in the Middle East is not Isil,” he adds in the Telegraph, “it’s ploughing and urban expansion.”

Abdulkarim also favours sensitive restoration, using digital imagery, Jonathan Tubb told me, to help rebuild recently damaged parts of Palmyra with original fragments – not to create replicas to erect on site. “We can never have the same image as before Isis,” he told the BBC. “We are trying to be realistic.”

“What I approve of is collecting a record of and documenting vast numbers of sites,” says Tim Schadla-Hall, reader in public archaeology at UCL. He’s less enamoured of the arch, however, which he finds “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… [What’s needed is] 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.”

“The publicity and so on is great,” says Bill Finlayson of the Council for British Research in the Levant.“I have no problem with [IDA’s marble arch]. I think there is a bit more of a problem with the issue of reconstruction on the site itself. The dangerous precedent suggests that if you destroy something, you can rebuild it and it has the same authenticity as the original.”

A Times leader warns that “Archaeological sites ought not to be seen as Disneylands of ruins… The question of exactly what is to be rebuilt and what effect that rebuilding would have on the rest of the site – discovered and undiscovered – should be a matter for archaeologists and historians to think about and then to act on.”

Roger Michel responded to the leader by writing to the Times Letters page, agreeing “wholeheartedly that any plan for the reconstruction of Palmyra must be thoughtfully conceived and carefully executed”, but expressing concern about delaying action, noting the drawn-out arguments over the destroyed Bamiyan statues.

Jesse Norman, chairman of the culture, media & sport select committee, wrote of the problems in pulling off IDA’s project “under ideal conditions, let alone in an active war zone”. He thinks “this is a moment when the British government and leading governments around the world should vigorously support Unesco in taking a lead… Palmyra is already a Unesco world heritage site. It is time for Unesco to demonstrate its leadership once again in this area, with our and other nations’ support.”

Like the Times, Boris Johnson puts archaeologists at the forefront. “We have some of the greatest archaeological experts in the world,” he says in a Telegraph column. “I hope that the Government will fund them to go to Syria and help the work of restoration. It is far cheaper than bombing…”

Ross Burns, adjunct professor in ancient history at Macquarie University, Sydney and author of Monuments of Syria (2009), has perhaps been the most outspokenly critical of printed digital replicas. “It is sad”, he writes in Apollo, “the extent to which… those who have access to copious funding want to prioritise the ‘re-creation’ of Palmyra using ingenious technology well away from Syria. Those efforts are misguided. The regeneration of Palmyra must serve (a) the regeneration of Tadmor and (b) restore Palmyra’s real lesson for humanity: that cities can survive for millennia only by building on the memories of their past.”

In the Guardian, Jonathan Jones sides with the majority archaeological view.

“It is always more moving to see the real stuff of the past, however damaged, than to see a faked-up approximation. The temptation to ‘fix’ Palmyra and make it look like it did at the start of 2015 is understandable. This fascinating place has been subjected to a barbaric onslaught, the thinking goes. Surely it should be as if Isis never did their worst.

“History is not like that. The Isis attack on Palmyra was not a counterfactual fantasy. It really occurred. This 21st-century tragedy is part of Palmyra’s history now. This too, for the sake of truth and as a warning to the future, must be preserved.”

The same paper quoted me in similar vein last year:

“Isis will one day be history. Palmyra will be its permanent lesson, about the darkness into which oppression, ignorance and corruption can sink. To over-restore the ruins would be to create a fiction, denying the tragedy and devaluing what had genuinely survived.”

It’s an important debate, and one that IDA and its marble arch in Trafalgar Square can be proud to have stimulated. Meanwhile there are many other projects using digital imagery, like EAMENA, to record ancient remains and landscapes. In the long term, surely the most exciting ones are those that involve or originate from citizens of the countries whose heritage is being traduced. Such schemes include:

  • the New Palmyra Project, “using digital tools to preserve the heritage sites being actively deleted by ISIS… hosting live workshops and building a network of artists, technologists, archaeologists, architects, and others to research, construct models, and create artistic works”
  • the Palmyra 3D Model, “using people’s unaltered digital holiday photos from Palmyra, before its deliberate destruction by extremists. Using these I am building a 3D model of the ruins to share with the world on open access” (he’s currently seeking funds through crowdfunding to buy a bigger computer)
  • Project Mosul, which “strives to preserve the memory of lost cultural heritage through the means of digital restoration”
  • Project Anqa, a joint CyArk/ICOMOS “emergency recording and archiving” scheme.

The British Museum’s Emergency Heritage Management programme deserves an honourable mention here. With significant funding from the Department of Culture, Media & Sport and led by Jonathan Tubb, this will bring 24 Iraqi scholars to the UK for intensive archaeological and conservation training, to be followed by further training in Iraq; the first group is due to start soon. “The effect of this rolling programme”, says the BM, “will be to create a large and well-trained team of professionals that can cope with the full range of archaeological heritage needs. A team which will be ready when it once again becomes possible to access [sites such as Nineveh, Nimrud and Hatra]. The scheme cannot stop further acts of cultural destruction but it can equip colleagues with the skills required to conserve and restore where possible and is an attempt to enable colleagues to preserve sites and objects of global significance.”

_MP25289.jpgAnd so to Spitalfields. There’s another debate running here about heritage conservation and change. Of course the situation is far removed from the world of the Middle East: but some of the issues are similar, and views are strongly held – not least by Boris Johnson.

There’s a patch of land up for development that has so far escaped the City’s relentless renewal and growth. In February a distinguished list of names wrote to the Times asking for “the communities and local government secretary, to call in – and hold a planning inquiry into – the planning applications threatening Norton Folgate in Spitalfields. This historic conservation area on the fringes of the City is imperilled by plans by British Land to demolish a swathe of buildings for a banal office-led scheme. The plans were rejected by the local council but this decision has been shamefully overruled by the mayor of London, one of a string of permissions he has handed to developers against the will of local people.”

After hearing the mayor of London speak so winningly in support of world heritage, I thought I’d have a look at this imperilled “historic conservation area on the fringes of the City”. British Land’s original scheme was revised and re-presented to Tower Hamlets council in 2015, and in this form gained Historic England’s support. “In our view,” it writes, “the scheme will bring back into use historic buildings that have lain empty and decaying for decades and make a positive contribution to the area… There are no listed buildings, only the cobbles on Blossom Street are listed and they will be kept… It is our view that change is necessary to bring these long-derelict buildings back into use. The diversity of new uses proposed has the potential to revive the area and reflect its residential and industrial past.”

The air photo below, from an exhibition by British Land in 2014, shows the area affected:

Blossom-Street-Board.jpgAs British Land sees it, what the Spitalfields Trust (the most vocal objector) describes as “glass and steel offices”, “corporate plazas” and “big corporate occupiers”, are proposals for “space for small businesses, contextual architecture, intimate courtyards, independent operators and the carefully considered restoration and retention of historic streets and buildings”.“British Land”, says the Save Norton Folgate Facebook page,“want to obliterate Norton Folgate under a hideous corporate plaza and we want to stop them.”

There are other objectors – among them Tower Hamlets council (over-ruled by the mayor acting as the local planning authority), who rejected the scheme “by reason of its bulk, scale and height [which] would fail to either preserve or enhance the character and appearance of the Elder Street Conservation Area”. Save Britain’s Heritage thinks the proposal “would devastate Spitalfields which is itself an urban success story”. The Huguenot Society objects “on the grounds that the site is one of the few remaining places where Huguenot ancestry and culture is preserved”. The Georgian Group says “the scheme does not respect the scale or materials of the conservation area and fails to demonstrate appropriate enhancement”. The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings wants “a full review… in order to deliver a fully heritage-led scheme that protects the special character of the Norton Folgate area”.

There are supporters too, including (with qualifications) the Spitalfields Society, the Ministry of Start-ups (affordable start-ups workspace) which is “acutely aware of the lack of business space in the area which leads to rising rent levels”, and the Metropolitan Police, who welcome the extra footfall.

In February campaigners were granted a judicial review hearing to contest the mayor’s calling in of the council’s decision on the site. Their argument is that Johnson’s office could not have read all the required documents in the time in which it took to respond to the application – apparently the 13th it has called in, over-riding council objections in the other 12 – and as a result “erred in law” by failing to take into account a number of relevant matters. It will be the first challenge to the mayor of its kind, to be held in the High Court before May 5. The debate will be interesting.

First, affected buildings:

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_MP25300.jpgAnd buildings immediately adjacent but otherwise unaffected (please correct me if I’ve got anything wrong):

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