Standard procedure in the preparation of any architectural conservation project would normally include a thorough documentation of the existing conditions of the structures or artifacts in their ‘in situ’ condition – as they were found on the day when the project commences. This would be expected to consist of measured drawings and full photographic surveys, undertaken by a professional archaeologist. All heritage bodies appreciate repair and upgrade works are essential to ensure continued survival, and these are usually permissible on the condition that the survey work is thorough and correct, and that the records are donated to the growing archive of information on the UK’s listed buildings. 

I recently read an excellent article on Bldg-Blog about an archaeology project being undertaken by The Factum Foundation that is utilising state of the art laser mapping technology coupled with the latest advances in 3D surface printing to create an exact 1:1 replica of the interiors of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in Luxor, Egypt; matching the exact colour, texture and relief of the surfaces, including all cracks, chips, mottles and fades. This project is exceptional firstly because of the jaw-dropping technologies being wielded by the archaeology team in the name of preservation, and secondly because of the questions it raises about authenticity in contemporary conservation practice, and the way we present historic artifacts in our culture. 

King Tut Tomb Scanning 01

I am really interested in the debates around issues of authenticity; how does the availability of infinite reproductions affect the significance of the original? Does the original become even more significant as the undisputed genus of the multiple progeny, or much less significant as it becomes lost in a sea of clones? Perhaps there is an ethical implication of presenting replicas that are  visually identical to the real thing? Is it only acceptable as an academic exercise, and only when the process of production is truthfully communicated? Maybe the technology is permissible to create small areas of repair to piece in around accidental damage? If this is the case, how much fake in-fill is too much? 

These are the questions that these robots and replicas stimulate, and the answers are not black and white.

King Tut Tomb Scanning 02

A major problem being faced by heritage sites around the world today is the extent of access offered to its visitors. The highest profile historic environments receive millions of tourists a year, and the sheer volume of traffic (as well as the management infrastructure that is required to control it) is slowly eroding the fabric, and damaging the character, of the sites that the visitors have travelled to experience. The Catch 22 is obvious as the streams of tourists are the only means of economically sustaining the relic’s survival. Although a worldwide problem, this is particularly prevalent in Egypt’s Giza Necropolis and Valley of the Kings. 

King Tutankhamun’s tomb is far too fragile to be fully accessible to the public, so perhaps it is acceptable to create a replica for public consumption, given that the original will remain firmly off limits for the foreseeable future. In this instance the replica becomes a ‘sacrificial’ version, constructed solely to allow the public to romp through until they retire from exhaustion; and when erosion and damage passes the critical point, the authorities can simply print off another copy. Another interesting aspect of this idea is that the facsimile can be used to generate the income which can then be invested in conserving the original. The copy could feasibly become a ‘travelling exhibition’ available to be assembled anywhere, Egyptian tombs coming to a gallery space near you soon.

King Tut Tomb Scanning 03

I am also amused by the idea of using this technology to create a hard copy ‘back up’ of at-risk spaces. Perhaps the most significant and flood-threatened crypts of Venice should be replicated and stored in dry comfort at the higher altitudes of mainland Italy, safeguarding the heritage against the inevitable? The concept conjures images of vast archives where the architectural treasures of human civilization can be safely stored, hoarding heritage hard-copies in preparation for an impending climate apocalypse like Noah.

In fact this practice of replicating antiquities and re-presenting them was highly fashionable in the 17th and 18th Century, as gentlemen returning from a Grand Tour would furnish their stately homes with plaster replicas of Greek and Roman statues and friezes. Although these are clearly recreations, after a century or two of immaculate presentation they do begin to acquire a gravitas of their own. So it is with architecture; the seemingly gothic fabric of Bristol Cathedral’s nave and western facade were in actuality built between 1860 and 1890, in the style of the churches it replaced. The replica has become revered. 

The difference here I feel is a matter of substance. King Tutankhamun’s recreation is merely a surface, admittedly an incredibly advanced one. A mere surface will never trick the human senses into actually believing in the full immersion of the replica, surely? I wonder if it would ‘feel’ old? Would it smell decrepit, sound dense, be palpably ancient? I expect not – Juhani Pallasmaa would call it “The isolation of the eye from its natural interaction with the other senses”. The debates surrounding this research are fascinating, and grasp at some of the thorniest subjects that contemporary conservation philosophy negotiates – In some form or another these questions apply to all work we do with Listed Buildings. Whatever your opinions on these issues there is certainly no doubt that these technological innovations are amazing, and the team behind this project are breaking new ground that could change the way we interact with our heritage forever.


Further reading (and thanks for the images):
Factum Foundation: http://tinyurl.com/bk8hlge
Bldg-Blog article: http://tinyurl.com/aejakx2
A great BBC broadcast on the project:  http://tinyurl.com/b2ge5k7

The Archive of Architectural Treasures

Architectural Deep-Storage



4 thoughts on “Robots & Replicas

  1. amazing! you could print a copy anywhere around the world. Can this new technology already match texture and colour convincingly?

  2. An interesting piece Charlie!
    Deliberate damage, careful conservation, or even the tell tale signs of full restoration tell their own story, and both say more about those in the present than they do about an original piece. I mean this in terms of a cultural frame of mind of any given epoch.
    I’d point here to thoughts on managed decline, or controlled entropy. For that is all we can really aspire to if a “piece” is to retain authenticity, instead of becoming another mirror, held up to those in the here and now.

  3. So true that the work we do to historic environment now will be scrutinised and judged by all the future generations who will go on to manage the sites. I wonder what this method of replication says about our current epoch’s ‘cultural frame of mind’ ?

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