The Arch of History and the Ship of Theseus All last week, New York City's City Hall Park had a 3D printed recreation of a destroyed arch from the city of Palmyra, Syria. This arch, known as the Monumental Arch or the Arch of Triumph, was destroyed last year by ISIS. ISIS is basically if 4chan acquired weapon, destroying things of cultural value to get a rise out of the international community in the hopes of provoking overreaction. They might also have been afraid of the idolatry of the Temple of Baal, even though Baal hasn't had worshipers for millennia and is probably pretty weak, as far as deities go.
So they blew it up, along with a lot of other Palmyrian ruins that didn't even have a hint of idolatry to them. While this is not as actually appalling as the actual people that have been murdered by the 4chan of the Levant (including the head of antiquities in Palmyra, who was murdered and hung on a column of the main square of the site), there is something utterly despicable about causally destroying something that managed to survive nearly 2,000 years--something insulting to future generations that we can never get back or reconstruct.
Except it turns out we can. Not just using 3D printing to recreate, but through actual reconstruction, a process known as "anastylosis."
Anastylosis is complicated process--it consists of picking up the original stones, and putting them back where they belong. Despite what I thought as a kid, dynamite doesn't actually do a good job of destroying things--it just does a pretty good job of spreading those things around in in a chaotic fashion. Archeologists have centuries of experience restoring piles of stone in more or less their original configuration. A number of our most cherished archeological "well preserved" runs are actually reconstructed. I admit there's something a little disappointing about seeing the Library of Celsus and learning that it didn't last all this time without a little help and reconstruction work, but you can nevertheless console yourself with the fact that the Library of Celsus is AWESOME in the original sense of the word. And it was reconstructed after it was destroyed in multiple earthquakes a millennia ago, without any photographs to guide the process.
The ruins of Palmyra, which those ISIS fucks destroyed just so we'd think that they really were a bunch of fucks, can be fixed. They can be restored. The Syrian Army has retaken Palmyra. The Institute of Digital Archaeology, in collaboration with UNESCO, is replying 5,000 3D cameras to partners in the Middle East to create a digital record of historical sites and artifacts threatened by those fucks in ISIS. There is a 3D printed recreation of the Monumental Arch sitting in NYC right now.
One of my favorite thought experiments is the Ship of Theseus. In brief, every single piece of Theseus's ship is replaced over time. Every board, plank, sail, mast, and nail. Not a single piece of the ship remains from the same. Is this ship still the same ship? (A more mordantly funny version can be found in the book and movie "John Dies at the End,).
Palmyra is destroyed by assholes, and rebuilt, using most of the same stone by trained archeologists using computers and digital photos to do so. Is it the same city of Palmyra?
It's enough for me. Or at least enough to emphasize that assholes like ISIS don't win. They cause pain. It's easier to destroy than it is to do anything worthwhile. But they don't win.