In 2015, due to the aggression of Iraq, the Syrian triumphal arch was destroyed. Thanks to modern technology, archaeologists managed to recreate the aforementioned artifact from Egyptian marble only one year later. The replica was made thanks to the basis of digital documentation, which allowed the creation of a 3D model… but the arch itself never returned to Syria . On 13 November 2020, Cambridge University Press published a paper by a Polish researcher Dr. Monika Stobiecka, entitled Archaeological heritage in the age of digital colonialism, in which she addresses the issue of the impact of digitization on the care of monuments .
Who is dr Monika Stobiecka?
In 2014, Dr. Monika Stobiecka graduated from the University of Warsaw with a master’s degree in art history. A year later she did it again, graduating her second major programme – archaeology. It was the work entitled Nature of the Artifact, Culture of the Exhibit The status of an archaeological object in the museum space, which the researcher prepared under the watchful eye of two amazing women – prof. dr hab. Maria Poprzęcka (URL: https://pl. wikipedia. org/wiki/Maria_Poprzęcka) and prof. dr hab. Ewa Domańska (URL: https://pl. wikipedia. org/wiki/Ewa_Domańska), that earned her a Phd title .
Monika Stobiecka’s first media successes occurred in 2016, when she won a scholarship from the Lancorkońskie Brzezia Foundation. In 2018 she stayed at Stanford University, where she also had the opportunity to guest lecture (Kościuszko Foundation Scholarship). Her successes can be listed and listed all over again: a scholarship holder of the Foundation for Polish Science (2019, START scholarship for the best young Polish researchers), a finalist of the science awards competition of the weekly “Polityka” (2020), as well as a laureate of the Anna Zeidler-Janiszewska award for the best book debut (awarded by the Committee for Cultural Sciences of the Polish Academy of Sciences in 2021). In 2020 she was also a guest lecturer at the Archaeology Centre at the University of Toronto .
Dr. Stobiecka’s work is definitely worth noting. In 2020, the researcher was recognized by Cambridge University Press, which then published one of her research papers, entitled Archaeological heritage in the age of digital colonialism.
The ruined heritage
In the face of armed conflicts, not many people think about cultural goods. However, it is worth mentioning that contemporary threats arising from the geopolitical situation in the world also include the destruction of buildings or other monuments that embody the bond between generations living in distant historical periods. Care for monuments can be called a manifestation of respect for the past. May their deliberate destruction be called a cruelty?
An example of the destruction caused by the armed conflict is the ruined monuments in Ukraine. It’s not only the people who are suffering – the history is suffering as well. Since the beginning of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, many ukrainian heritage sites were destroyed: the former headquarters of the Ukrainian Museum of Antiquities named after Vasyl Tarnovsky in Chernihiv, the Cathedral of the Asleep of the Mother of God in Kharkiv, or the Donetsk Academic District Dramatic Theatre in Mariupol . As Dr. Stobiecka writes: When heritage is threatened as a result of politics, more and more specialists try to find remedies for the inevitable loss. Those tragedies raise awareness of and for heritage also among the general public. .
Referring to the post-war image of many countries whose heritage has been completely destroyed (an example of which is the following photograph of Warsaw taken after World War II), archaeologists have initiated a new branch of their profession, called digital and cyber rescue archaeology .
Digital and cyber rescue archaeology in practice
Digital and cyber rescue archaeology is based on the fact that groups of researchers are working to collect detailed data on places of special concern (in relation to heritage). They create precise databases of information and, if a specific object is destroyed, they reproduce it, as was the case with the Syrian triumphal arch .
As Dr. Stobiecka writes in her paper: Complex technological tools and expanding computer-based skills are being gathered together in new institutional frameworks. More and more, however, mainly Western universities and archaeological faculties are launching dedicated digital and cyber labs[…]. Western scholars also establish non-profit organizations dedicated to the protection of heritage threatened by destruction .
Unfortunately, many scientists point out that the current measures are ineffective. Dr. Stobiecka’s article was published 2. 5 years ago. Since then, many cultural monuments have been destroyed, as can be seen for example in the above-mentioned Ukraine. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to find a reliable source that can really tell us how many monuments in the world have been destroyed since 2020, not only as a result of wars but also natural disasters. In the not so distant earthquake in Turkey, for example, Gaziantep Castle, dating from the 2nd century AD, was destroyed , and in 2015 the earthquake destroyed famous buildings in the UNESCO-listed Kathmandu Valley of Nepal . But is it moral to deal with cultural heritage more than human tragedy?
Syrian triumphal arch
The Syrian arch, located in Palmyra, was considered a symbol of the ancient domination of Rome over Syria. It was built in the 3rd century AD during the reign of Emperor Septimus Severus (do not confuse him with Severus Snape from Harry Potter). This cultural monument embodied power and vividly presented the scale of the conquest of the Roman Empire. In 2015, it was destroyed as a result of the ISIS attack on Syria. Many people ask themselves – if it embodied colonialism, why was it reconstructed? Actually, the Syrian press did not promote the replica – mention of the arch appeared only during its unveiling in London (actually only a link to the video on YouTube was ever published). The Syrians did not comment on the fact that the arch unknowingly travels the world. – London, New York, Dubai… In her work, dr. Stobiecka develops reflections on the fact that the appropriation of a Syrian cultural monument can be considered a kind of contemporary colonialism. Reconstruction of the arch was and is still is thought of as a huge success, but the fact that the arch is unlikely to return to Syria is downright devastating.
According to dr Stobiecka: The replica is in itself a translation from the ‘real’ to the ‘unreal’, a negotiation between the ‘original One’ and the digital ‘Other’. As an object it may seem uncanny, weird, unusual, imaginary, sanitized, alienated – and certainly as lying between the ‘well-known’ tradition (the Western concept of heritage) and the ‘Other’ (a copy, something that is unfamiliar for thinking about heritage). ‘It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation’. No matter how faithful, the copy has no characteristics of the passage of time. In her work, Dr. Stobiecka calls the reconstructed version of the monument a sanitized version of the past. As she writes: According to this, where traditional beliefs and patterns are driven by technological improvements and progress to the creation of the meaning […], we are sentenced to deal with hybrid fetishes that are out of our control, that can be everything and nothing. Instead of using the opportunity to create new forms of heritage on the fertile and active ground of post-destruction landscapes, the replica as a form of new heritage is just a wasted chance to truly engage in people’s tragedy.
In the context of Polish culture and heritage, works such as Dr. Stobiecka’s research can serve as inspiration for a debate on methods of preserving, interpreting, and utilizing cultural heritage in the modern world. This is a significant aspect for the Polish cultural and educational market.
Article authorized by dr Monika Stobiecka.
- Biogram of dr Monika Stobiecka published on the page of the University of Warsaw, URL: http://al.uw.edu.pl/kadra/stobiecka-monika/
- Article published on 22.04.2022 on the government page of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage Destroyed Heritage in Ukraine; URL: https://www.gov.pl/web/kultura/zniszczone-dobra-kultury-na-ukrainie
- Article published on 07.02.2023 r. on rp.pl, entitled: Turkey: Ancient castle destroyed by an earthquake; URL: https://www.rp.pl/kleski-zywiolowe/art37912961-turcja-starozytny-zamek-zniszczony-podczas-trzesienia-ziemi
- Article published on 10.05.2015 on rmf24.pl, entitled: The earthquake razed monuments in Nepal. “Their reconstruction is a matter for all humanity’’ URL: https://www.rmf24.pl/raporty/raport-nepal/najnowsze-fakty/news-trzesienie-ziemi-zrownalo-z-ziemia-zabytki-w-nepalu-ich-odbu,nId,1730145#crp_state=1