The Institute for Digital Archaeology in Banbury shot for The New York Times. Roger Michael and Dr. Alexy Karenowska of IDA have been using 3-D machining and robots to create copies of large historical objects. When I visited Banbury in May 2022, they were finishing off the models of the Parthenon Marbles aka the Elgin marbles , which would then be carved from marble in a workshop in Carrara, Italy.
The marbles have been the centre of a long standing argument about whether or not the British Museum should return them to Greece, from where they were transported in the early 1800s by Thomas Bruce, a Scottish statesman and seventh earl of Elgin. The British Museum have rejected any requests for their return, arguing that they were legitimately acquired. However, Greece at the time was part of the Ottoman Empire and so the permission was granted by the Turks.
Roger Michel’s formal request to scan the pieces were rejected by the museum and so Dr Alexy and Mr Michel went as visitors to the museum and used iPads and iPhones equipped with LiDAR sensors to create the 3D images. Daisy Dunn, a British classicist comments “it’s hard to see how a solution that satisfies both parties will ever be found, the words ‘copy’ and ‘replica’ , still mean second best .” Nonetheless Dr Alexy suggests that people view the reproductions as 3-D photographs: not pretending to be the original but to draw attention to how interesting those originals are.
Once the first stage is completed in Banbury, the 3-D images of the marble horse head were uploaded to a robot in a workshop in Carrara, Italy. The process takes around a week and then the sculpture is hand finished.
Later this month, the robot will carve a second copy of the Parthenon marble; a methope or sculpted panel. These initial copies will be created from local marble, quarried high up in the Apuan Alps near Carrara. The final copies will be carved from marble quarried on Mount Pentelicus , the main source of construction material for the Acropolis in Greece.
The project has received criticism from some archaeologists, who, although they support repatriation, expressed unease about the criticism the institute has received from academics . Mainly concerning its source of funding and lack of public consultation. But, Roger Michel and Dr Alexy Karenowska remain undeterred “it’s all a bit sad hanging on to these last vestiges of colonial grandeur… these battered pieces of whitewashed stone offer little that can educate anyone about the art of Ancient Greece . At the same time they hold the same nostalgic emotional power for Greeks as any beloved but tattered family heirloom that has somehow passed into the hands of strangers.”