How 3-D printers can help undo the destruction wrought by Islamic State

Small 3-D printers, similar to this one, are already being used to recreate historical artifacts for museums and art establishments. The arch project is on a grander scale.

The Islamic State may keep blowing up historical landmarks in the Middle East, but now technology is fighting back. Starting in April, 3-D printed replicas of the 2,000-year-old Arch of Palmyra, which was fortunate to have survived complete obliteration during a rampage by the extremists through Syria last summer, will begin showing up in London and New York.

The Institute for Digital Archaeology, a joint venture between Harvard University, the University of Oxford and the Museum of the Future in Dubai, will print 3-D replicas of the arch during UNESCO's World Heritage Week in April. Current plans call for a replica of the structure to appear in London's Trafalgar Square as well as a location to be named in New York (with the preferred destination being Times Square). Smaller-size replicas may also appear at museums within these cities as well.

The plan to install 3-D printed replicas of the arch in New York and London is all part of a broader initiative by the Institute for Digital Archaeology and UNESCO known as the Million Image Database to preserve and restore some of the world's most important landmarks. When it's complete, the Million Image Database will hold exactly that — 1 million images of important architectural landmarks and structures throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

To make the Million Image Database possible, the Institute for Digital Archaeology, in collaboration with partners such as Oxford, UNESCO and the government of the United Arab Emirates, are handing out 5,000 3-D cameras to volunteers and asking them to take photos of historical landmarks throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The logic is simple: Once you have enough 3-D images of an object, you can create the design files that enable these structures to be printed in 3-D in the future.

In the case of the ancient Arch of Palmyra (which was part of the Temple of Bel), obviously, there wasn't time to assemble a full collection of 3-D photos of the entire arch before the Islamic State struck. Instead, architects and historical preservationists will be working off 2-D images for the sections of the arch that have been destroyed. The researchers will then use a proprietary cement mixture to give the 3-D printed object the approximate composition and density of the original arch. Current plans call for the arches to be 3-D printed in Shanghai, finished in Italy and then assembled in place like a giant LEGO set in both London and New York.

Constructing a full-size replica arch is obviously something that the average 3-D printing enthusiast won't be doing anytime soon. Just think of the size of the 3-D printer that would be required for such a project. However, smaller-scale structures are certainly within the realm of possibility. As Alexy Karenowska, director of technology at the Institute for Digital Archaeology, explained, "Once the open-access database is online, it will indeed be possible for people to print their own 3-D models of a range of structures and artifacts."

The really exciting possibility, then, is that 3-D printing enthusiasts might one day be able to use the Million Image Database to print smaller-scale historical artifacts and structures. As Jonathan Jaglom, CEO at Brooklyn-based 3-D printing company MakerBot, said in an email: "3-D printing is already being used as a tool to recreate historical artifacts for exhibitions in museums and art houses around the world. This not only helps preserve valuable artifacts but also makes them more accessible."

For example, notes Jaglom, the MakerBot Thingiverse already offers a wide range of 3-D printable replicas of historic artifacts, such as the Head of Serapis, that are available as free downloads as a way to extend the lifetime of the world's most famous artifacts.

"Projects like these absolutely showcase the amazing potential and exciting relevance of 3-D printing today," says Vlad Usov, chief executive of Brooklyn-based 3-D printing company Kwambio. "It's critical that varying types of individuals and professionals begin to see that 3-D printers are no longer only for toys or highly specialized industries, but instead are ready for the everyday world, empowering you and me to think big and create bigger." That's a sentiment that's echoed by Colin Raney of Boston-area 3-D printing company Formlabs.

"We are currently in the midst of a moment, where researchers, engineers, designers and artists now have access to powerful, affordable 3-D printers. There have been projects to 3-D print structures, so it's really exciting to think about the technology being used to preserve culture and history."

The fact that a nearly 50-foot-high 3-D printed Arch of Palmyra could appear in New York's Times Square or London's Trafalgar Square amid all the other tourist attractions in these cities speaks to the broader role that 3-D printing could play within the fields of archaeology and historical preservation.

As much as a 3-D printed arch in New York or London is a technological statement of what's possible with 3-D printing and other exponential technologies, it's really a political statement more than anything else.

"The aim of the proposed installations on Trafalgar Square and in New York is to draw international attention to the global crisis surrounding the looting and destruction of cultural heritage objects and architecture and the importance of celebrating the beauty and significance of these objects to the everyday lives of modern people," said Karenowska, of the Institute for Digital Archaeology. "It is also hoped that the installations will be symbols of optimism, of hope, and of solidarity."

In London, in fact, Mayor Boris Johnson has even suggested that the temporary exhibit might become a permanent fixture within the city as a long-standing symbol of defiance against the terrorists.

In short, the terrorists can't win. The architects of the world, armed with only 3-D cameras and 3-D printers, won't let them.

"It is also hoped that the installations will be symbols of optimism, of hope, and of solidarity."

Alexy Karenowska, director of technology at the Institute for Digital Technology

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