A robot copies the Parthenon and complicates the position of the British Museum

The British museum runs out of arguments. The Institute of Digital Archeology, based in Oxford, has put the most important cultural institution in the United Kingdom on the ropes: in the last month, it has created exact copies of two pieces of the jewel of Greek heritage, of which almost 40% of the total preserved in the English museum and half in the Acropolis Museum in Athens. The return to Greece of the marbles of the frieze and the pediments of the Parthenon could enter a decisive phase thanks to a robotic milling company, located in Carrara (Italy). A part of the bas-reliefs and sculptures carved by Phidias and his workshop 430 years before Crist, were stripped of their place between 1801 and 1805 by order of the British officer Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin, and taking advantage of the Ottoman invasion.

The British Museum bought the antiquities from the Earl and has exhibited them since 1816. It has 15 metopes, 17 pediment figures and 75 meters of the original 160-meter-long frieze and refuses the restitution of the sculptures considered the culmination of classical art. Greek President Kyriakos Mitsotakis brought the issue center stage during Downing Street talks with Boris Johnson in November.

In May, the country's culture minister, archaeologist Lina Mendoni, said to Guardian: "Lord Elgin used illicit and nefarious means to confiscate and export the Parthenon sculptures, without actual legal permission to do so, in a blatant act of serial theft." The half frieze is a reminder of the humiliation that the country suffered from the Turks and the British aristocrat and they want to be repaired.

The pieces carved now by the robot are going to be exhibited in the coming days in London in a place that has not yet been revealed. Roger Michel is the executive director of the Institute for Digital Archaeology, supported by the British Council, and confirms that the two pieces they have copied will be ready for exhibition at the end of July, because "the sole purpose of the Institute is to encourage the repatriation of Parthenon marbles". The organization explains that copies like this will allow the British Museum to fulfill its educational mission "meaningfully", "while promoting the ethical management of important heritage objects". Roger Michel has already met with the Greek ambassador to the United Kingdom, Ioannis Raptakis, to tell him about the new initiative "aimed at resolving the long-standing dispute." The robotic versions would replace the originals held by the British Museum, which would be "returned to Greece".

The members of the Digital Archaeological Institute are nicknamed the "new monuments men" (referring to the body of Allied soldiers who dedicated themselves to rescuing works of art looted by the Nazis during World War II). The organization created in 2016 a copy of the famous 2,000-year-old Arch of Triumph in Palmyra (Syria), destroyed by the Islamic State in 2015. The 15-meter-high arch was made of Egyptian marble and was presented in Trafalgar Square in London. They also have plans to "reprint" the Temple of Baal, also in Palmyra, and replicate the tragically lost monuments in Mosul and Nimrud.

Technology has advanced significantly since those copies and the fidelity of the replicas has become more precise. The level of detail in contemporary versions is "sub-millimeter scale". That is, the human eye does not detect the differences. "It will be very difficult to detect the differences between original and copy, even for experts," says Roger Michel. "Everyone understands that it is time to return these objects to the Parthenon and to Greece, but keep in mind that they have been in the possession of the British for 200 years and are among the most beloved exhibits in the museum," says the director. "It is an opportunity to build deeper bonds of friendship between Greece and Britain. And visitors to the British Museum will not be faced with a blank wall, but will continue to see what their parents and grandparents saw," says Michel. Visitors will even be able to touch the pieces, which will have their original color applied.

In March, the Institute hoped to have scanned one of the pieces found in the British Museum. But the museum management rejected the formal request. In any case, they were able to scan part of the marbles with an iPad prepared for the creation of 3D works. Despite the museum's refusal to scan it, the Institute will reproduce a metope from the British Museum's Parthenon sculptures, depicting a combat scene between centaurs and Lapiths. The aim is to present the results to the Permanent Mission of Greece to the United Nations and to museums in London.

Digital images can be made using 3D photos or the composition of a digital model using 2D photos, as they did with the reconstruction of the Arch of Palmyra. The marble carving then takes four to eight weeks to complete in the robotic milling workshops of the company Robotor/TorArt, close to the immense quarries of Carrara. In the company that collaborates with the British Institute of Digital Archeology they have been working for years with contemporary artists such as Jeff Koons or Maurizio Cattelan.

From the Italian company they say that the authors have returned to the mythical stone, because they no longer need to be trained in the technique. Simply order the machine to make the part. The method is similar to the traditional one: they start from the marble block, the one that carries the sculpture inside. Michelangelo said it. Then the miguelangelesque robotic arm explores the innumerable articulations of matter, through computational logic -with algorithmic strategies- and a diamond tip that is in charge of roughing, modeling and profiling.

In Spain, the debate between the replica and the original happened in 2016 due to the irreversible degradation of the Altamira caves due to the pressure of tourism. A CSIC report made it clear that any open regime promoted organisms that exert a destructive factor. The most reasonable thing was to close it, as is already the case in other caves, and divert the tourist flow to the replica of the cave. However, the specialist Gäel de Guichen drew up the master plan in which he opted to reopen it.

The justification he gave for the controversial decision was that "sensible and emotional experience" was not possible in the copy. At the center of the controversy was the alleged inability of a copy to move the public. For the CSIC experts, this argument was too weak to take it into account, although the responsible authorities did not listen to them. In fact, the replica reproduces much better the details of the cave, which is a space resulting from the deterioration of the cavity after the last glacial period. The Paleolithic reality was very different: dim light and hardly any room to stand.

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