Raiders of the Lost Art

ISIS Threatened Ancient Art. 3-D Printing Will Save It.

Wars, tourism, and terrorists have threatened delicate artifacts of the past, but 3-D printing will safeguard it.

Courtesy Oak Taylor-Smith

A pristine, white sarcophagus once held the mummy of the Egyptian Pharoah Seti I, whose father, Ramses, was the revered ruler of the ancient Egyptian kingdom for more than a decade sometime in the 1200s B.C. The sarcophagus located in a tomb chamber decorated with some of the most well-preserved hieroglyphs and paintings of Egyptian mythology known to man. After centuries of mass pillaging—and the mass tourism of more recent years—the tomb has been irreversibly destroyed.

But the Egyptian artifact has been granted a second life at the Antikenmuseum in Basel, Switzerland, as a 3-D printed copy.

In doing so, the European and Egyptian master replicas who have made that happen are betting on creating an entirely new concept of art preservation.

“Once, museums were about having people go through it, they charged copyright fees and prohibited photography to protect their data, whereas now they see themselves as the transmitter of that data,” Adam Lowe, the founder of the specialized 3-D printing organization Factum Foundation responsible for resurrecting the Seti tomb, told The Daily Beast. Art, after all, is “not a dead thing that you appreciate for aesthetic value—it’s a totally living thing, and with tech, we can really study things with great depth and intimacy.”

Factum used 3-D scanning and printing to recreate Seti’s tomb. In doing so made a serious revolution in the antiquities preservation field, which has for years relied on cosmetic alterations. The Basel exhibition, by contrast, uses over 6,000 fragments and years of collected data to put together the 3-D printed sarcophagus, as well as a facsimile of the tomb chamber, that uses soft light to highlight depictions of the pharaohs and their holistic, nature-based counterparts in the parallel, divine realms.

The Seti tomb was first discovered 200 years ago by the Italian explorer Giovanni Belzoni, described by Lowe as a “larger-than-life Indiana Jones figure.” Belzoni, like his fellow members of the European colonialist elite, saw the riches of Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries as their birthright, and freely used wax to peel off reliefs from the chamber walls. Belzoni and his colleagues took home priceless souvenirs, which ultimately ended up in the Louvre, the British Museum, and the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Seti’s sarcophagus was housed in Sir John Soane’s Museum in London since 1824, when it was bought for £2,000. Back in Egypt, the tomb chambers themselves were left bleached and in ruins.

Florence Anliker, a 26-year-old Egyptology student at the University of Basel, which has been an instrumental partner in the translation and research behind the Antikenmuseum exhibit, said that the 3-D printing reflects a painful part of European colonial history in the Middle East.

“Europe kind of screwed up Egypt and many of the other places it’s colonized, and their antiquities,” Anliker said. “Now they’re trying to make up for it in their museums.”

Indeed, a list of private and corporate donors are footing the Seti 3-D printing project. Anliker said that Basel’s unique recent history as an art-obsessed town (there are more than three dozen art institutions boasting works by Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, and other international art luminaries—many under the auspices of Swiss banks and pharmaceutical companies) makes it a fitting temporary home for the Seti project.

Basel’s financial resources are sorely needed in Egypt, a country that has been hit by years of political tumult and, making cultural heritage preservation an increasingly Sisyphean task. It is also coming at a time when the Muslim world’s ancient pieces are increasingly under attack by extremist jihadi groups.

In 2014, when ISIS destroyed much of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, and in 2015 when it bulldozed a 2,500-year-old temple in Nimrud, Iraq, an international outcry to save the world’s cultural heritage translated to little on the ground. Last year, the group released a propaganda video threatening to destroy the Egyptian pyramids, which they condemned as the site for “heretics.”

But where international organizations like UNESCO have largely failed to protect the world’s most treasured art, smaller initiatives like the Factum Foundation have, almost miraculously, used 3-D scanning and printing to create an entirely new approach.

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That approach is successful in Egypt only “because the Egyptian teams are invested in the long-term preservation of the site, because they see the survival of the site as the survival of their own communities,” Lowe said. When the exhibit closes in May, the 3-D printed sarcophagus and tomb room facsimile will be transferred to the Valley of the Kings, the maze-like network of pharaonic tombs in southern Egypt, along the Nile River.

26-year-old Aliaa Ismail, who has been working from Egypt with Factum since 2014, said that the initiative is about both independence on the Egyptian side (if any scanner or camera breaks, the team trained to fix it) and socially responsible tourism on the international side. She aims to grow the team exponentially, starting with the training of a team of 10 local members (five men and five women), who will then go on to train more locals and found a cultural hub for workshops on innovative heritage documentation methods.

“Like any technology at first it is a bit hard for people to understand the purpose of our work, but as we work more and they see the results of our work they are extremely fascinated,” she described Egyptian response to Factum. “Many of the local community in Luxor are looking forward to engaging with us and learning more about the methods of digital heritage preservation.”

Egypt needs the boost. Since the 2011 Arab Spring revolution, political tumult and the spread of terrorism in Egypt has meant a 50 percent decrease in tourists—for years a critical source of income for the Egyptian economy.

Andrea Bignasca, director of the Antikenmuseum, said that pieces like the Seti tomb are crucial to creating cultural unity on a local Egyptian level and, in parallel, could provide valuable lessons to the world’s hyperconnected, hyperglobalized community.

“People today can be in Basel one day, New York the next, Cairo the next, but I’m not sure they know where they come from, their traditions,” he said. “You’re confronted with the fake news, and you have to choose all your information. But Seti, for example, is something to touch from antiquity, for us to point to and so, OK, this was really so.”