Written in Stone

***Farah Ali, Fatema Alazemi, Hillary Jordan and Janan Nuri***

After attending the British Labs Symposium on 12th November 2018 we #CityLIS students got together to reflect on what we learned during the day. In particular we were inspired by the keynote speech by Daniel Pett and him sharing his story of how he made a 3D image of the Rosetta Stone.

First up is Fatema who was inspired to learn more about 3D printing:

What is 3D Printing? – Fatema Alazemi

Do you have an idea of 3D printing? Many years ago, if I told any person about a machine that could replicate any object as a three dimensional model in 10 minutes, he wouldn’t believe me. But now with the huge and fast improvements in the science and technology of printing, many machines can make a 3D replication of any object in even less than 10 minutes.

How does 3D printing work? It works by adding material to create the desired shape rather than removing material, that is why it is also known as ‘Additive manufacturing’. It helps in getting a detailed replica of an object. This invention made an advanced improvement in many disciplines specially in medicine, cultural heritage, architecture, art and design. Nowadays, there are some companies that afford a 3D photo booth, in which people can have a 3D selfie model instead of a 2D image. In the mid of 1990’s, surgeons started to use 3D printing centric therapies with anatomical modelling for bone reconstructive surgery planning. With this technology, the surgeons were more prepared which in turn meant that the patients received better care. Also, by using the 3D printing technique, the doctors could have a patient specific implant and device for medical use. This was done in many procedures such as, titanium pelvis implantation, titanium lower jaw transplantation, and aplastic tracheal splint. Moreover, in 2014, 3D printing was used to rebuild a face of a patient who had severe road accident.

Furthermore, 3D printing is very useful for education. It can make scientific equipment with high quality and low cost. In chemistry, it could give 3D models of tiny molecules and chemical compounds. In science, students can study the layers of the human body and each internal organ by having a 3D replica of them.

Nowadays, many museums use this technique to print a detailed replica of the objects that are fragile or very rare. By doing this they can preserve the original artefacts from public visitors, and have replicas by the original item, inviting them to touch the replica of the object instead. This creates a new experience in the museum-world, and can help visitors understand the artefacts in different ways. Also the visitors can have a small 3D replica of these objects as a souvenir that are available in the museum shops.

Next we wanted to find out more about the Rosetta Stone, so Farah Ali did some research:

A brief history of the Rosetta Stone – Farah Ali

The Rosetta Stone is said to have been discovered on July 19th 1799 by soldiers in Napoleon’s army. The army were digging the foundations of a fort near the town of Rashid (Rosetta) in Egypt at the time of the discovery. The stone was apparently built into a very old wall. When Napoleon was defeated the stone became the property of the British. The Rosetta stone is a broken part of a bigger stone slab. It contains three types of scripts: hieroglyphics, Demotic and Ancient Greek. The writing on the stone relates to a decree about King Ptolemy V. It is one of many copies that were placed in every temple in Egypt. It is incredibly important in the field of Egyptology as it served as a code breaker for the hieroglyphics, which had not been in use since the fourth century CE.

Hieroglyphics are pictures used to represent objects, sounds and group of sounds. The Rosetta stone features 14 lines of hieroglyphic; 32 lines in Demotic script and 53 lines of Ancient Greek. By comparing hieroglyphic symbols to a known text, scholars used the Ancient Greek script to decipher the meanings of the Hieroglyphics. Almost all ancient Egyptian language and literature can now be understood as a result. The English scholar Thomas Young and the French scholar Jean-Francois Champollion deciphered most of the hieroglyphics.

The Rosetta stone is one of the most important objects in the British Museum and has been on display since 1802. It was moved to an underground location for a brief period during World War One to protect it from threats of bombs. This move may help us to understand why the Rosetta stone was discovered in a wall. Conquests in Egypt may have resulted in old cultures like that of the ancient Egyptians being destroyed and objects like the Rosetta stone being seen as a threat to the new conquerors culture. Or following a LIS perspective it may just have been classed as worthless and weeded out in the information life cycle. We will never really know how the key to the hieroglyphics ended up in a wall although we do know it opened many doors to the past.

When deciding to focus on the Rosetta Stone, we considered how something which is automatically considered an artefact, is also a document as well. Janan explored this further:

Document or Artefact? – Janan Nuri

Whilst sitting listening to Daniel Pett speak about the Rosetta Stone and how he made a digital copy, I thought about the debate on what a document is, and whether the stone is an artefact or a document. Which might seem strange to anyone outside of the library and information science world, but hear me out.

If we were to define a document, we might immediately think of a text file, either on the computer, or on paper. In general, you might think straight away that it is anything with writing on it. But document theory goes further than that, and unlike the stone, document theory is abstract.

In simplest terms: a document is something that provides information, or evidence.

To quote Suzanne Briet:

“Is a star a document? Is a pebble rolled by a torrent a document? Is a living animal a document? No. But the photographs and the catalogues of stars, the stones in a museum of mineralogy, and the animals that are catalogued and shown in a zoo, are documents.”

The Rosetta Stone should be a little easier to label, because it has writing on it, in three languages no less. It was a document by intention when it was first created. But we don’t look at the Rosetta Stone for what is written on there, the exciting thing about the stone, as stated by Farah above, is that hieroglyphs were translated because of the writing in other languages on it. Visitors at the British Museum clamber around it because of its importance in helping decipher ancient Egypt.

So, should we still call it a document?
Well in Briet’s terms, yes. It is catalogued and displayed in a museum. But also, it is more than that. The Rosetta Stone doesn’t just provide information, it provides evidence that we were able to translate an ancient language. And going back to the original intention when the stone was first created, it provides evidence of King Ptolemy V and his reign as well.

But ultimately in this debate, we must accept that deciding what is a document is subjective, and not everyone will agree on every object. In a way it is art rather than science, and it is why some libraries will save some things, and not everything. Thankfully museums are able to pick up where libraries may have to draw the line.

Finally, Hilary wonders whether the copy gives the same importance or relevance as the original.

A Question of Authenticity – Hilary Jordan

There is an industry centred around discovering art forgeries. Sometimes the forgery is so good that the only thing that can distinguish a forgery from the original is scientific testing (and even then forgers have worked out ways to fool the experts). The question then is does it matter? If the fake is so good, can it not simply be enjoyed as a work of art, as if it were genuine?

The answer is authenticity. And the question becomes, what is it that we enjoy about the art, is it the aesthetics? Or what the art represents?

The same question can be applied to the Rosetta Stone and its 3D image. The image and the original do and do not share a history. The copy is, in one sense, a continuation of the original Rosetta Stone’s story and in another its life began the day it was made. It has no history before that, and it is the history of the Rosetta Stone which gives the Stone its importance.

The thought experiment of the Ship of Theseus examines this. If every part of the ship is replaced over time, can it be said to be the same ship? Can it be said to contain some essential Ship of Theseus-ness which remains over time separate to the physical parts?

The same can be said of the Rosetta Stone. In many senses it is not the physical stone which makes the Rosetta Stone special. In some ways you can argue for the superiority of the copy. The website is accessible all over the world whereas the physical object is not. The quality of the image, and the ability to “get close” to the Stone, so much as to be able to see individual details.

And yet the nebulous concept of authenticity is still present. Is the copy cheaper if it fulfils the same purpose – to educate and amaze? Or is the physical object, the original, superior, simply by being itself, even if we must always be separated by a glass wall?






About Joseph Dunne-Howrie

I am artist in residence in the MA/MSc Library and Information Science department at City, University of London and module year coordinator for MA/MFA Performative Writing/Vade Mecum at Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance.My research interests include intermediality, live performance in digital culture, participatory and immersive theatre, performance documentation, archives, and performative writing.
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