How a 3D-printed piece of Palmyra landed in Toronto
It's a story of art, history, copyright, creativity — and 90 kilograms of plastic
In a loading dock beneath a downtown Toronto hotel, a massive wooden crate is waiting to be unpacked. It looks like it might hold the finds from a paleontological dig — it's certainly big enough to fit some dinosaur bones — but there's a historical artifact of a different sort inside.
The crate moves through freight elevators to a carpeted conference room, and over the next two hours, a monument takes shape.
The Tetrapylon was one of the most famous structures in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, marking the intersection of two roads. It was destroyed by ISIS earlier this year when the Islamic militant group retook control of the city.
But here, in a Delta Hotel, the Tetrapylon has been reimagined in 3D-printed plastic — made to look as it might have originally stood when built around AD 270. It was presented to the public for the first time last month.
"A preservation project is the wrong way to think about this," says Barry Threw, interim director of #NEWPALMYRA, the volunteer organization that digitally constructed the model.
While prior digital archeology projects have focused on preservation — taking snapshots of structures, statues and buildings as they exist today — #NEWPALMYRA's contributors are more interested in reimagining the city as something new. Their models of different historic structures from Palmyra are made available for anyone to download, remix and use.
"We're looking forward more than backward," says Threw, "taking this place that's a symbolic battleground for control over the Syrian cultural identity and its people, and sort of freeing it, digitally."
The 3D-printed Tetrapylon was on display at the annual Creative Commons Summit, held April 28-30 in North America for the first time.
Creative Commons was founded in 2001 to reimagine how copyright should work in an increasingly digital world. There are various CC licences designed to give creators more nuanced control over how their work can be copied, shared, credited and reused — with an emphasis on making more works available for free.
The Tetrapylon's digital model, for example, is licensed CC0 — a public domain designation, where anyone can use the work in any way they want without permission. For that, you have Syrian activist Bassel Khartabil to thank.
He's an open-source software developer and a Creative Commons supporter. He ran a hackerspace in Damascus, and in 2005, began creating 3D models of Palmyra's structures to show others around the world the history and culture of his country.
"Sharing as a concept is pretty core to his constitution," Threw says.
But Khartabil's friends believe that work cost him his freedom. He was detained in 2012 by the country's military police and subsequently jailed. No one, not even his wife, has heard from him since 2015, when he was moved to an undisclosed location. His whereabouts remain unknown.
Threw and others have volunteered to continue Khartabil's work — partly in the hopes that it might help raise their friend's profile and one day lead to his release.
'We'll probably make it weirder'
Ryan Merkley, the CEO of Creative Commons, spearheaded the idea to have the Tetrapylon printed and put on display. He wanted "find a way to bring the commons to life" — which isn't always easy with a concept as obscure as copyright — while honouring Khartabil and his work.
"People talk a lot about [how] the content is free. But what's even more important is that the content is accessible," Merkley says. "That anybody anywhere can see, and sometimes even touch, these things is remarkable. And I think we get jaded and don't realize how powerful that can be."
The Tetrapylon — printed on a large format 3D printer called the Gigabot, created by Texas-based re:3D — is 25 pieces in total and weighs about 90 kilograms. The finished product stands more than two metres tall and took 800 hours to print.
Re:3D co-founder Matthew Fiedler says it's "the largest single installation we've created." Labour and material cost between $15,000 and $20,000, he estimates.
Merkley hopes the Tetrapylon finds a permanent home at a place like the Royal Ontario Museum or Art Gallery of Ontario.
"Our project only has meaning through people engaging with it," says Threw.
That might mean seeing the printed model in person, but it could also mean downloading the digital files, sharing them, modifying them and reimagining them in different media or architectural styles.
Unlike other attempts at scanning and modelling Syrian history, #NEWPALMYRA is not really an exercise in digital preservation or archaeological accuracy; it's more of a creative project that marries history and art.
"We'll probably make it weirder as we go," Threw says.
"If you want to build on a space station or make the thing into a futuristic utopia, I think we encourage more of these totally speculative things."