The oldest sins in the newest ways


The new Institute of Digital Archaeology erection

It seems appropriate I should title this with a Shakespeare misquote as it’s the 400th anniversary of his death on Saturday and everyone is doing it. What I’m actually alluding to is the ‘digitally produced’ copy of the Palmyra arch which was erected in Trafalgar Square yesterday by the Institute of Digital Archaeology (involuntary snigger). They’ve made an exact scaled-down replica of an arch destroyed by Daesh, using a digital 3D model created from photos. How new! how sophisticated, how 21st century! cooed the papers. But of course it isn’t a new concept at all, in fact it’s very old school, only the tools have changed (now they work at the Institute of Digital Archaeology, nghh).

They loved their perfect architectural replicas back in the mid-19th century and there was a huge industry turning them out for museums. Moulds were made from the originals and used to produce as many plaster casts as necessary, brilliant. The only downside being that eventually everyone came to the conclusion that casts of ancient monuments were a bit pointless and unsatisfying. They lacked authenticity and, rather critically, age. To everyone’s surprise it turned out that old things were interesting and valued because they were old. New facsimiles just didn’t really interest people no matter how close to the original they were. The cast craze died away by the early 20th century and museums had their cast collections destroyed, sold off or put into permanent storage. One of the few museums to retain some of their casts on display is the Victoria and Albert in London, which I suspect found it hard to back down after they’d invested in a Cast Court specially built to house a life-size cast of the façade of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.


Michaelangelo’s original David which attracts 1.3 million visitors per year, and the V&A’s Victorian cast which mysteriously doesn’t

It’s fascinating to learn from the IDA that reproductions are back on the cutting edge of cultural heritage, so long as they’re produced from a digital model and carved by robots at £100,000 a pop rather than boring old Victorian casts (and I’m so glad we’re spending the money on something that really helps to protect and conserve endangered archaeology in the Middle East and not on some token publicity stunt). Alas, like most digital archaeology, it’s an old and pointless concept in a new and shiny package.


Bunking off Quiddich at Alnwick Castle

In personal news, I survived my 8 hour wait in Istanbul airport by paying to spend it in a lounge with an infinite supply of beer. I also survived a brief National-Trust-athon in Northumberland with my sister, during which we managed to take in four castles, three churches, one priory, Hadrian’s wall, the Lindisfarne mead shop and an unrecorded number of pubs. My sister talked incessantly about her wedding but amply compensated by sending me a whole Spanish ham in the post. Twins are great, they’re the only people really get gifts right.


One week in, the gift of ham just keeps on giving


4 thoughts on “The oldest sins in the newest ways

    1. surfacefind Post author

      I know, all it’s really doing is giving people the impression that ancient Palmyra was smaller than they thought. Interestingly, the Victorian cast makers could also produce scaled-down replicas using something called a ‘reducing machine’. There’s nothing new under the sun

      1. Jon Pattengill

        I agree warmly that authenticity has nothing like the interest and support that it should. If I make the effort to find a virtue in the Trafalgar (dwarf) arch, it would be that the great exposure of its general form, color and textures will entrap the attention of otherwise unwary passersby into wanting to know more, possibly to lead to other even more interesting things, perhaps even some that have not been blown up and can be appreciated in situ, wherever that might be.
        Other than that, I would say that you are participating in a golden but finite window of opportunity during which the cities and other remains in Mesopotamia can be investigated. That window opened when the diggers of the West realized that all that interesting stuff and information lay buried there, and it will close when King Neptune invades and conquers it. It is likely he will hold sway for many thousands of years, and will issue no digging permits. In the meantime, may your trowel be guided by the Fates to the best and most revealing finds.

  1. Jon Pattengill

    The month of May hath come and gone, without a post. Do let your readers know you have arrived in one piece. You looked a merry sight so well-fitted out as a Morris dancer. I think you should put together an expat troupe next time in Iraq and introduce the locals to it. According to the history of Morris Dancing (Moorish Dancing) it would then have come full circle, and you would have pulled off “The Pizza Effect” as it is called. Best of luck with the British Museum.


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