An artist rendering of the Arch of Palmyra in London’s Trafalgar Square. (Courtesy Institute for Digital Archaeology)

ISIS may keep blowing up historical landmarks in the Middle East, but now technology is fighting back. Starting in April, 3D-printed replicas of the 2,000-year-old Arch of Palmyra, which was fortunate to have survived complete obliteration during an ISIS rampage 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 3D-print replicas of the Arch of Palmyra during UNESCO’s World Heritage Week in April. Current plans call for a replica of the arch 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 3D-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 3D 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 3D images of an object, you can create the design files that enable these structures to be 3D-printed in the future.


A 3D-printed replica of the Arch of Palmyra will appear in London’s Trafalgar Square in April. (Courtesy: Institute for Digital Archaeology)

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 3D photos of the entire arch before the ISIS terrorists struck. Instead, architects and historical preservationists will be working off 2D images for the sections of the arch that have been destroyed. The researchers will then use a proprietary cement mixture to give the 3D-printed object the approximate composition and density of the original arch. Current plans call for the arches to be 3D-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 3D-printing enthusiast won’t be doing anytime soon. Just think of the size of the 3D 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, told me, “Once the open-access database is online, it will indeed be possible for people to print their own 3D models of a range of structures and artifacts.”


It’s a technological feat to install a 3D-printed arch in the center of London. It’s also an act of defiance against the terrorists. (Courtesy: Institute for Digital Archaeology)

The really exciting possibility, then, is that 3D-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 3D-printing company MakerBot, told me via email, “3D 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 3D-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 3D printing today,” says Vlad Usov, chief executive of Brooklyn-based 3D printing company Kwambio. “It’s critical that varying types of individuals and professionals begin to see that 3D 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 3D printing company Formlabs.

“We are currently in the midst of a moment, where researchers, engineers, designers and artists now have access to powerful, affordable 3D printers. There have been projects to 3D 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 3D-printed Arch of Palmyra could appear in New York’s Times Square or London’s Trafalgar Square amidst all the other tourist attractions in these cities speaks to the broader role that 3D printing could play within the fields of archaeology and historical preservation.

As much as a 3D-printed arch in New York or London is a technological statement of what’s possible with 3D 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 3D cameras and 3D printers, won’t let them.