Saving Heritage

Saving Heritage

Saving Heritage

Modern Marguerite Del Giudice explains a practice using 3-D technology that may save us from inadvertently wrecking the very cultural treasures we most want to see

The thing to understand about archaeology is that it’s a science of destruction. The moment an ancient site is discovered, its physical condition immediately begins to deteriorate.

Every dig removes a layer of the archaeological record that can never be replaced, and once humans are allowed to visit, with their hot breath and sweat and backpacks, walls start crumbling, pigments start flaking, and before you know it, the site has to close down to “rest,” or close for good – a victim of its own celebrity.

Now, a practice is gaining traction that may save us from inadvertently wrecking the very cultural treasures we most want to see: the creation of high-tech copies of ancient archaeological sites.

We’re not talking sized-down Las Vegas knockoffs of the Pyramids but forensically analysed, 3-D copies so minutely detailed that the naked eye can’t distinguish them from the originals.

Recently in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, the most ambitious large-scale creation of this kind was unveiled: an exact replica of the 3,245-year-old tomb of King Tutankhamun, apparently so authentic that one Egyptologist in attendance actually wept when she saw the burial chamber.

“She had a very emotional reaction, even knowing she was in a copy – that was a great moment for me,” said Adam Lowe, the British artist whose Madrid-based company, Factum Arte, made the replica as a philanthropic project; he donated his team’s time and raised money to cover other costs.

 The $6,90,000 project took five years, beginning in 2009, when the team used state-of-the-art laser scanning and digitising equipment to minutely “record” every aspect of the tomb.

So the replica is a replica of the tomb circa 2009. It is not an attempt to present the tomb in its original imagined splendour, or even as it may have looked in 1922, when British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered it while excavating near the tomb of Ramses VI. 

On what Carter had thought would be a final dig, his workmen came upon a step carved into a rock that eventually led him to Tutankhamun; Tut was 19 when he died in 1322 B.C., possibly murdered by enemies or killed in a chariot crash or hippo attack, according to speculations over the years.

Underground in the sand, next to what had been Carter’s house at the entrance to the Valley of the Kings and within a mile of the real tomb, is where they situated the replica.

 It occupies the same size footprint as the original, but the antechamber has been turned into a museum that documents all things Tut – the discovery, the contents, the “mummy’s curse” and more.

Why and how it looks the way it does, the difficulty of preserving it, the remarkable skill of Egyptian craftsmen who made it three and a half thousand years ago. 

How they did it

First of all, the replica isn’t a clone, which technically would be a molecular copy. The team recorded the original site (using high-resolution colour photography and 3-D laser scanning systems that measured up to 100 million points per sq m), then took the hard drives back to their workshops in Madrid and, as Lowe put it, “rematerialised the physical site.”

They started with the walls. To get the surfaces right, they used a routing machine to cut and shape a rigid foam board made of high-density polyurethane. “It looks like a high-speed drill moving left and right, up and down, and in space,” said Lowe. 

A more complex and tedious challenge came next: duplicating the painted wall scenes of the “boy king” Tut’s journey by boat into the afterlife.

 To do it, they had to devise what Lowe described as “fine elastic skins” using an acrylic gesso.

The skins were run off in layers on a specially designed flatbed digital printer, then worked together until the colour, tone, and sheen were an exact match and could be mapped onto the surface by hand. 

The sarcophagus was made essentially the same way as the walls, routed and then cast in resin, with its colour applied by hand.

The last thing was the lid, made from a mixture of gypsum, different pigments and animal glue, which formed a granite-like material that was a close look-alike to the original’s. 

The tomb was assembled in Madrid, then cut into manageable sections before being shipped back home for reassembly.

“Every bit of micro bacteria is in its place, every crack, every flake of paint,” said Lowe. “It’s effectively like a portrait, or a performance, of the tomb from when we recorded it in 2009.” 

Beyond Tut

The backdrop to the arrival of technological marvels like this facsimile is the emergence of a new field, cyber archaeology.

 Cyber archaeology seeks to embrace digital technology while looking for ways it can serve, enhance, and share the “experience” of antiquity. It’s a marriage of state-of-the-art digital tools with computer science, archaeology, engineering and natural sciences.

One approach is to make a physical copy, like Lowe’s; the other is to do scholarly research about a site without actually having to be at the site.

 Archaeologists now have the capability to digitally record an entire excavation and manipulate the data to create a 3-D framework that can then be projected through a slew of adjoined television screens in such a way that you feel as though you’re walking around inside a video.

“Let’s say you wanted to test your ideas about when a site was built, which we did with a contentious site in Jordan related to King Solomon’s mines,” Thomas Levy, a professor of anthropology and archaeology at the University of California, San Diego said.

“With this amazing data I’ve collected, I can then take you into a 3-D visualisation theatre and we can enter the excavation sitting in any part of the world other than the actual site of excavation,” he says.

Most archaeologists seem to be in favour of them, according to Robert Brier, an Egyptologist and senior research fellow at Long Island University.

“Experientially, replicas are fabulous,” he said. The fabricated Tut “is not going to hurt anybody, and it’ll do good for Egypt and save the tomb. It’s a no-brainer.” 

The question, he said, is will tourists pay to visit even fabulous fakes – and how much? As one reader wrote in the comments following an online article: “Can we pay fake money to see them?”