Robots Are Carving Replicas of the Parthenon Marbles: Could They Help the Real Ancient Sculptures Return to Greece?

Art forgery is a stur­dy trope of film and fic­tion. We’re all famil­iar with the spec­ta­cle of a rar­i­fied expert exam­in­ing a work, while a wealthy col­lec­tor anx­ious­ly wrings their hands near­by.

As Mag­gie Cao observes in the Guardian:

Forg­eries expose some of the art world’s most psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly com­plex fig­ures: the col­lec­tor and the coun­ter­feit­er. What com­pels the pro­to­typ­i­cal col­lec­tor to accu­mu­late objects of beau­ty is usu­al­ly a pecu­liar devo­tion to the pow­er of sin­gu­lar­i­ty. The col­lec­tor wor­ships art’s pow­er to move us, a pow­er we imag­ine emanates from unique objects. Mean­while, what moti­vates the coun­ter­feit­er is an undue con­fi­dence in the pos­si­bil­i­ties of repli­ca­tion. To deceive a view­er with a copy is to affirm that copy’s inter­change­abil­i­ty with the orig­i­nal.

But what if art forgery can be used for good?

That’s the hope of Roger Michel, founder of the Insti­tute for Dig­i­tal Archae­ol­o­gy, who employs tech­no­log­i­cal advances to pre­serve cul­tur­al­ly sig­nif­i­cant objects and offer acces­si­ble tac­tile expe­ri­ences to those with vision impair­ment.

Short­ly after ISIS destroyed the Mon­u­men­tal Arch of Palymyra, he har­nessed 3D tech­nol­o­gy to recre­ate the 1800-year old land­mark in two-thirds scale Egypt­ian mar­ble.

The pub­lic was able to get up close and per­son­al with the mod­el in var­i­ous loca­tions around the world, includ­ing New York’s City Hall Park, Florence’s Piaz­za del­la Sig­no­ria, and London’s Trafal­gar Square, where Michel enjoyed watch­ing passers­by touch­ing and pho­tograph­ing the repli­ca Arch:

There are guys in Carn­a­by Street suits mixed with young peo­ple in hip-hop clothes and Syr­i­ans in tra­di­tion­al dress. It’s the cross­roads of human­i­ty, and that was what Palym­ra was.

Michel is also striv­ing to con­vince the British Muse­um that all will not be lost, should it choose to repa­tri­ate the 2,500-year-old Parthenon Mar­bles to Greece, much as the Smith­son­ian returned 29 Benin bronzes tak­en dur­ing an 1897 British raid to the Nation­al Com­mis­sion for Muse­ums and Mon­u­ments in Nige­ria.

Michel made his case with a robot­i­cal­ly carved fac­sim­i­le of the head of the Horse of Selene, above, which is all the more remark­able when one learns that he was work­ing from pho­tos tak­en on an iPhone and iPad while vis­it­ing the gallery in which it is dis­played, after the muse­um refused his request for an offi­cial scan.

The item descrip­tion on the museum’s collection’s por­tal notes that the Horse of Selene was pur­chased from Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, who took pos­ses­sion of it while serv­ing as Britain’s ambas­sador to Ottoman Turkey from 1799–1803.

(The descrip­tion neglects to men­tion that rather than allow him to adorn his home with this and oth­er ill-got­ten antiq­ui­ties, a par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tee ordered Lord Elgin to sell his vast col­lec­tion to the British gov­ern­ment for £35,000, which is how they wound up in the muse­um.)

Orig­i­nal­ly a part of the Parthenon’s east ped­i­ment, the Horse of Selene is such a fan favorite that the muse­um shop sells an “exquis­ite” hand-cast resin repli­ca for £1,650, promis­ing that it will make “a show-stop­ping point of focus in any home.”

Perhaps…though we’re will­ing to bet it can’t match the verisimil­i­tude of the tiny chips and chis­el marks painstak­ing­ly cap­tured by the robot carv­er, which took about about 8 days to cre­ate a rough mod­el once it received the scans, fol­lowed by some 3 weeks of refin­ing. The robot got an assist at the very end from human arti­sans, whose hand­i­work Michel calls “the cru­cial 3 to 5 per­cent.”

Gia­co­mo Mas­sari, founder of Robot­or, who part­nered with Michel on this recre­ation, vaunts the pre­ci­sion tech­nol­o­gy makes pos­si­ble:

You can rec­og­nize every scratch. You can see the flaws of the stone and you can see the chal­lenges our col­leagues from 2,000 years ago were fac­ing. It’s like going back in time — you can feel the strug­gles of the artist.

The muse­um brass appears unmoved by the prospect of swap­ping repli­cas, no mat­ter how excel­lent, for the frieze pan­els, sculp­tures, archi­tec­tur­al frag­ments and oth­er trea­sures of antiq­ui­ty Elgin shipped home from the Acrop­o­lis in the ear­ly 1800s, though the New York Times report­ed last week that secret talks with Greece’s prime min­is­ter may indi­cate the two par­ties are edg­ing clos­er to res­o­lu­tion.

This col­lec­tion has been a cul­tur­al hot pota­to since Lord Byron, tour­ing the Parthenon short­ly after Elgin made off with so many its trea­sures, denounced his avarice in a poem titled The Curse of Min­er­va:

Lo! here, despite of war and wast­ing fire,

I saw suc­ces­sive Tyran­nies expire;

‘Scaped from the rav­age of the Turk and Goth,

Thy coun­try sends a spoil­er worse than both.

Sur­vey this vacant, vio­lat­ed fane;

Recount the relics torn that yet remain:

‘These’ Cecrops placed, ‘this’ Per­i­cles adorned,

‘That’ Adri­an reared when droop­ing Sci­ence mourned.

What more I owe let Grat­i­tude attest—

Know, Alar­ic and Elgin did the rest.

That all may learn from whence the plun­der­er came,

The insult­ed wall sus­tains his hat­ed name:

For Elgin’s fame thus grate­ful Pal­las pleads,

Below, his name—above, behold his deeds!

The New York Times quot­ed a mid­dle-aged Lon­don bus dri­ver who voiced the opin­ion, as did the vast major­i­ty of respon­dents to a British sur­vey, that the Parthenon sculp­tures should be returned to their land of ori­gin, remark­ing, “It’s like the Crown Jew­els. If some­one took those, you’d want them back, wouldn’t you?”

His argu­ment is a hard one to refute in an age when the inno­v­a­tive tech­ni­cal solu­tions pro­mot­ed by Michel and the Insti­tute for Dig­i­tal Archae­ol­o­gy cre­ate oppor­tu­ni­ties that Lord Elgin and muse­um vis­i­tors of yore could nev­er have envi­sioned.

The pub­lic invi­ta­tion to the Novem­ber 2022 unveil­ing of the Selene Horse repli­ca stat­ed that “Britain’s stew­ard­ship of the Elgin mar­bles embod­ies a psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly com­plex sto­ry of obses­sion, pos­ses­sion, and assim­i­la­tion — so far with­out res­o­lu­tion”, ask­ing:

Might per­fect copies, ren­dered in sacred Pen­tel­ic mar­ble, sug­gest a pos­si­ble path for­ward?

Read­ers, what say you?

Relat­ed Con­tent

John Oliver’s Show on World-Class Art Muse­ums & Their Loot­ed Art: Watch It Free Online

Take a Vir­tu­al Real­i­ty Tour of the World’s Stolen Art

The British Muse­um Is Now Open To Every­one: Take a Vir­tu­al Tour and See 4,737 Arti­facts, Includ­ing the Roset­ta Stone

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Oxi says:

    Why are you call­ing The Parthenon sculp­tures by the thief’s name? Let all of the orig­i­nal arte­facts return to their places of ori­gin and oth­ers either bor­row them to exhib­it or use these fake copies.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.