LIVERPOOL, England — It could be the gift the Greeks have been waiting for: a chance to reassemble the Parthenon's 2,400-year-old marble statues and friezes, languishing in museums throughout Europe, and restore them to the famous temple atop Athens' Acropolis.
Sounds good so far. What's the catch?
Well, the marbles would be fakes--perfect fakes--scanned onto computer from the original pieces held at 11 sites in Britain, Italy, Germany, Austria and France, and cut by computer-controlled lathes. And the Greeks, who have long demanded the return of their treasures, might not settle for fakes.
"We could put the parts back together again. We can go back in history," says John Larsen, head of sculpture conservation at the National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside. "The replica is now so accurate nobody would notice."
Working out of a former Victorian railway warehouse in this northwest English city, Larsen and his team of conservators are pioneering computer-based techniques to make copies of 3-D works of art flawless to the naked eye.
Their work could change the future of how classical art is enjoyed by future generations--both for good and ill. And it inevitably will spark debate between his team and traditional conservators, who have argued that works of art have meaning only in their original settings.
Wide Scope for Abuse
For most people involved in the restoration or care of antiquities, the future applications remain unclear.
"This is the thing with developing technology. It's still in the experimental stage," says Dyfri Williams, head of the Greek and Roman antiquities department at the British Museum.
Williams says he has used the technique only once so far--to make a laser map of one antiquity in his department.
Larsen acknowledges that the scope for abusing the technology is as wide as its beneficial applications.
"The potential is there to make absolutely perfect fakes," he says. "One of my jobs is to understand faking technology. If we, as a museum, purchase a work of art, I have to see it's authentic. If I don't understand the technology, I could end up spending a lot of money buying something made in Taiwan yesterday."
Not only could the art world see a rash of newly "discovered" statues, but the computer technology also enables the machine to scan a sculptor's work, examine his or her style and then produce a wholly new work of art.
"With half a dozen Rodins, you can produce an original work," Larsen says.
Larsen's high-roofed, whitewashed workshop feels like a cross between an emergency ward for injured sculptures and an eccentric professor's laboratory.
In one corner, a statue of Buddha lies under the kind of gadget you'd normally expect to find in a dentist's office. Behind it sits an 18-inch-by-1-foot frieze of a Roman charioteer.
The frieze comes from Ince Blundell, a country house north of Liverpool with a large collection of Roman sculptures badly damaged by 200 years of pollution from the nearby city.
The charioteer's body has been eaten away, while many of its finer touches are barely visible. Next to the frieze is its replica--perfect in every detail. The only difference is that you can touch the replica without worrying if the heat from your hand will fragment marble that has crystallized over time.
A Perfect Template
Perhaps surprisingly, what Larsen and his team are doing isn't the stuff of rocket science. The computer and lathe are standard high-tech equipment, while the software was developed by an ordinary British company.
Using the bust of a separate statue, physicist Stephen Fowles shows how it's done. He holds a scanner about 1 foot from the bust and, in a movement akin to spray-painting, runs the laser's red light over the statue's features. On a computer screen next to him, the statue appears as a 3-D image, offering a perfect template for replication.
Larsen notes that copying such treasures as the Parthenon's friezes--which include the Elgin marbles held by the British Museum, taken from Athens by the Earl of Elgin in 1812 and long demanded by Greece--is just one of many possible applications for the technique.
Many of the world's antiquities, degraded by pollution and the elements, could be saved by storing them away and replacing them with perfect fakes, he says.
"We have to take a pragmatic decision," he says. "Even if pollution is cut tomorrow, works of art are deteriorating as rapidly, if not faster, than ever. Most artifacts have been severely damaged already."
Perfect copies also would enable the blind to understand the shape and feel of works that would be at risk of disintegration under the constant touch of human hands, he says. And children who would never have the chance to see inside an Egyptian tomb could visit a perfect re-creation.
"Archeology takes more and more things away from the public," Larsen says. "We can put things back."