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Imitation, it is said, is the sincerest form of flattery. At a replica park in China, for instance, consumers have lately embraced some of the world’s greatest monuments. At Window of the World, in Shenzhen, visitors can see scale models of everything from the Sphinx to Angkor Wat. People there are unlikely to leave China to see the real thing. But what kind of experience do they have, and should those of us who value archaeology be concerned about its authenticity? We know that copies can be useful educational tools, providing access to monuments whose distant location or fragility render them off limits. Since 1963, visitors to the caves at Lascaux in the south of France have not been able to actually visit the prehistoric site, but since 1983 have been able to explore a modern simulation of the cave and its paintings. The caves themselves cannot be visited because the mere presence of humans introduces heat and humidity that will precipitate the paintings’ destruction.

In an age of mass tourism, where free entry to the Roman Forum has caused notable damage to its paving stones in just a few years, it may become necessary to restrict access to ancient sites if we wish to preserve them for future generations. As a solution, authorities in Rome, Venice, and other popular destinations are contemplating offering “virtual tours” experienced while seated in a theater. If it means that we will be extending the life of and actually preserving the originals, one might ask, who would argue with such an approach?

The one significant objection to the wholesale creation of replicas of antiquities is that these iconic places and artifacts are then viewed by the general public without what archaeology terms context. Context is inextricably linked to a find because it tells us about the time in which it was created and the people who were responsible for making it. Archaeologists argue that without context, sites and artifacts cannot be fully understood. Without context, artifacts may even be devalued in some way. They may be seen as merely exotic, or intriguing, or beautiful, but ultimately, devoid of meaning.

Best practices for mounting exhibits with complete information about context, when any replica is presented, are important—indeed, essential. Preserving and protecting archaeological heritage is no easy matter. We must be custodians not just of the objects and sites themselves, but also of the meaning they carry to us from the past.

Elizabeth Bartman is the president of the Archaeological Institute of America.

« President's Letter N/D 2011

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