ISIS-destroyed palace lives on — virtually — at Williams College Museum of Art

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Photo Gallery | Remembering the ancient Assyrian palace of Nimrud

WILLIAMSTOWN — An ancient Assyrian palace, part of a 3,000-year-old Iraqi archaeological site Islamic State forces reportedly destroyed, is still intact in a virtual world at the Williams College Museum of Art.

An interactive, 3-D reconstruction on public view in the museum's antiquities gallery offers a life-like tour of the massive structure starting with an aerial perspective, then moving through rooms and courtyards to show where artifacts and sculptures in the museum's collection were originally located. Peopled with animated figures, the video gives a feeling of actually walking through the palace built in Nimrud, in northern Iraq, in 650 BCE by King Ashurbanipal II.

Earlier this month, Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, bulldozed the ancient palace and surrounding ruins, according to Iraq's Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

"ISIS continues to defy the will of the world and the feelings of humanity," the ministry said in a statement reported on CNN.com. "They violated the ancient city of Nimrud and bulldozed its ancient ruins."

Only record left

Created for WCMA by a local company, Learning Sites Inc., the virtual record is believed to be the only such record of the palace left in existence, said company president Donald H. Sanders.

"It is very important to have such video reconstructions," said Magnus T. Bernhardsson, professor of Middle Eastern history at Williams, in an email interview. "These add to our understanding of the site in general and the general context in which the object(s) were found. "

Sanders, who holds degrees in architecture and archaeology, but has never been to the Nimrud site, said he and his crew of designers and programmers rely on existing photos, drawings and plans to determine layout and proportions when creating archaeological visualizations for clients like museums, schools and publishing companies.

"We consult with experts in the field to help us interpret what we're looking at and reconstruct what's missing," he said. For historical accuracy, he said tools built into the interactive graphics allow people to see the original evidence and how much was made up.

Sanders saw a need for such videos while teaching archaeology at Columbia University in the 1980s. All that his students had to look at in most instances, he said, were "a bunch of rocks." However, the technology at that time was not far enough advanced, he said, to be used on desk or laptop computers.

In 1992, he met another researcher, William Riseman, who was working with a computer-aided design program call DataCAD and a shading program called Velocity to design new buildings. Riseman was beginning to apply the process to archaeological reconstructions when he and Sanders met at a conference and formed a working relationship. Riseman died on a business trip to Brazil in 1993 and Sanders carried on the work, now in its 17th year.

'Immersive experience'

WCMA commissioned the video in 2001 and updated it with a more sophisticated version in 2011.

It has "been critical for Williams classes, younger school groups, and the general public," said Elizabeth E. Gallerani, curator of Mellon Academic Programs at the museum. "The video creates a far more immersive experience for the visitor."

It was designed to show the original palace locations of two relief wall sculptures displayed nearby in the same gallery. One is a king and the other a bird-headed creature.

Both were given to the college by an alumnus, Dwight W. Marsh, Class of 1842. A missionary in Iraq in the 1840s, he met the British explorer Sir Austen Henry Layard, who was leading the excavations at Nimrud, and obtained two of the reliefs for his alma mater, Gallerani said. Cut into pieces and transported by camel to Beirut, they were shipped across the Atlantic to Boston — the first to come to America — and installed in the college library — now the rotunda of the museum — in 1851.

"I've worked with Donald Sanders for a variety of projects about the intersection of cutting-edge technology and ancient works in our collection," Gallerani said. "It's rewarding to see the objects come to life and become more accessible, catalyzing discussion across disciplines and generations."

Other tablets, reliefs and objects from the Nimrud dig went to Amherst and Dartmouth, to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and to the British Museum in London, which has the largest number.

Nimrud inaccessible

The fate of the actual palace is still in question because observers have not been able to get close to the site.

"This area is unsafe and now inaccessible," said Bernhardsson.

Most of the artifacts uncovered since the 1840s went to museums, leaving only items at the Nimrud site too big to move. Among them were the giant human-headed, winged bull statutes the Assyrians considered guardian figures. It is these that are feared lost.

"Iraq had an excellent track record of protecting and preserving its antiquities for most of the 20th century," said Bernhardsson. "It was not until foreign invasions and occupations that the country was thrown into utter chaos and anarchy that has made the country's archaeological heritage particularly vulnerable to attack."

Ironically, the Assyrian culture targeted by IS as pre-Islamic idolatry, was, like IS itself, war-like, blood thirsty and much feared by its neighbors.

Sanders held out hope that IS is well aware of the monetary value antiquities have on the world market and broadcast video attacks on them as "a gesture of power."

Still, he said "in this part of world, destroying a predecessor's artwork nothing new. "

The West has not been immune to committing similar atrocities, Bernhardsson said.

"Though Europe has been somewhat peaceful for the last 50 years," he observed, "there have been a number of cultural genocides on the European continent in the last 100 years. In the United States, a number of Native American sites have been destroyed for a variety of reasons. So all cultures around the world are guilty of destroying particular aspects of their historical record."


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