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A stone in a place: reflections on the replication of historical artifacts

Carolyn Korsmeyer

Brock’s Seat, St. Mark’s Cemetery, Niagara-on-the-Lake. Photo by author.

Material heritage is always a casualty of war, and sometimes combatants even target the treasured artifacts of their enemies. In either case, products of art and engineering that have marked the history of a region for centuries are damaged, often irreparably. Heavily damaged or destroyed objects may be mourned, rebuilt, or replaced, and in our own time even replicated to a high degree of exactitude. The results of these latter efforts have proven controversial, and the values that the copies possess are certainly complex. Here I introduce consideration of what can and cannot be replicated with some examples of material heritage for which once heated political sentiments have long since cooled.

Among the gravestones in the historic cemetery of St. Mark’s church in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, there sits a large rock. It resided in that place, more or less unnoticed, for over a hundred years. Then in 2011, in anticipation of the bi-centennial of the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States, weeds were cleared away and a plaque was installed. The inscription on the plaque reads:

Early in the War of 1812 Major General Sir Isaac Brock Sat on this rock on the edge of the Niagara River As he contemplated American intentions.

Brock was a hero of the War of 1812, and eighty years after the end of the war, Ontario historian and fervent royalist William Kirby had the stone transferred to the cemetery from its original position overlooking the river. The plaque adds an explanatory poetic comment taken from Kirby’s Annals of Niagara:

Place it in the old churchyard, this stone In honoured memory of heroic Brock Whose seat it was. . . . His clear eye alone Foresaw the way to victory . . .

One can see why General Brock would have chosen that rock for his ruminations (presuming Kirby was correct in identifying his selection). It is about the size of a thick chair cushion and has a convenient saddle-back indentation in the middle. But apart from its useful shape, there is little about this object that would command attention. It is a common kind of regional fieldstone, has few notable aesthetic qualities, and was not fashioned into anything that would count as a work of art or engineering. In short, it is a minor example of a historical landmark and quite out of the running as an object of important heritage. However, precisely because it possesses so few of the traits valued with more significant objects, it prompts inquiry into why it merits a commemorative plaque—namely, that it achieved its standing by virtue of having been touched by someone whose historical prominence made his activities worth recording.

Although its aesthetic power is often overlooked, the sense of touch provides an indispensable dimension of appreciation for objects of cultural heritage. It imparts an awareness of contact with someone from the past who touched the same thing. Even more, as a sense that registers physical position, it contributes to consciousness of where one is—of place. Sensory tactile qualities are not important for these claims; whether an object is soft, smooth, gritty, or sticky, for instance, is not germane. Rather, being near enough to touch something from the past delivers a sense of continuity, for the possibility of repeated palpable contact is an intuitive sign of endurance over time. It is, therefore, one way to gauge an object’s material authenticity. Being near Brock’s Seat, or even sitting on it—which one could do since there is no barrier—provides a sense of continuity, presence, and place: Here I am on the very spot where Brock sat. Or more specifically: Here I am on the stone that Brock sat on when it was in a slightly different place. But more on change of place later.

Brock’s Monument, photo © 2015 Richard Tomkins, Creative Commons, Wikimedia

Compare Brock’s Seat with the more well-known and certainly more impressive Brock Monument a few miles upriver. This tower is situated atop a hilly park that was once a battlefield, commanding a view over the Niagara escarpment and the international border just below. It conforms to a familiar style for war memorials, being marked with Roman-helmeted statuary and grand design. The monument was erected to honor Brock and General John MacDonell, both of whom fell in the Battle of Queenston Heights in 1812. They are buried beneath the memorial, which thus also serves as a grave marker.

What stands there now is in fact the second monument commemorating Brock and the victory that deterred an American invasion. The first was severely damaged in 1840 by a bomb planted by an anti-British extremist—an all too familiar example of the expression of political opposition by destroying a noteworthy cultural artifact. Nineteen years later, the grander monument was erected and the remains of Brock and MacDonell reinterred beneath.

Brock’s Monument, Queenston Heights, Ontario, Canada. Niagara Falls Public Library, Record ID 89768. Wikimedia Commons.

The stone and the monument are similar in the objects of their commemoration, and they manifest a congruent set of values and references. The grounds for their value, however, are quite different. The stone has only minimal visual interest; it is important not for how it looks but for what it simply is: the same object where General Brock is thought to have sat—not the most profound meaning, but the one that sustains having a dedicatory plaque. Were the stone lost or destroyed, there would be no point to replicating it or finding a replacement, since it is only significant for having been touched by Brock, and no new stone can possess that property.

In contrast, the damaged monument was considered worth rebuilding after it was destroyed, not by replicating the exact look of the first but reproducing its commanding vertical design and its traditional memorial style. Its relation to Brock has nothing to do with his physical touch, for the object came into being long after his death. The importance of position and proximity still obtain, however, for it continues to mark the place where the battle was fought. And the tower’s service as a grave marker was preserved—or resumed, since the graves had to be moved again. (In an act of unintentional symmetry, the stone now called Brock’s Seat was transported to a graveyard.)

Several points emerge from these examples. First, material objects from the past possess at least one kind of value that cannot be reproduced or replicated, should those object be destroyed. Certain qualities, such as striking appearance, can be reclaimed with a good replica, and thus surface aesthetic properties and artistry can be resurrected. If the object was noteworthy for the originality of its design or inventive engineering, however, admiration of those attributes must be redirected to the lost artifact, since the replica would not itself manifest originality or inventiveness (unless the replication technique is the object of appreciation). However, nothing that is valued primarily for what it simply is qualifies as a candidate for replication at all. Replicas can reproduce certain aesthetic properties and continue to impart historical information, but they can never be the object whose proximity provides the thrill of presence when some material artifact from the past is before one.

The prospect of rebuilding destroyed artifacts, even their exact appearance, has particular salience today, since techniques of replication have become near miraculous thanks to 3-D scanning techniques and computer-guided manufacture. Even a huge object can be resurrected from destruction, most famously now the Palmyra arch of Septimus Severus, destroyed by ISIS in 2015 and reproduced by the Institute for Digital Archaeology. The worth of such replications is highly controversial. In a frequently cited article from The Guardian, art critic Jonathan Jones declares: “It is always more moving to see the real stuff of the past, however damaged, than to see a faked-up approximation.”

In reply to such sentiments, the head of the Institute, Roger Michel, declares that “heritage resides in mind and spirit.” He dismisses the importance of the material object enduring through time, thereby also dismissing the acquaintance that touch and other proximal senses can furnish. In the process, he offers startling redefinitions of ‘originality’ and ‘authenticity’.

Before considering the arch more closely, let’s shift attention away from wartime destruction and look at two contrary evaluations of an even larger replication project: the Paleolithic painted cave of Chauvet. The differing assessments of Chauvet and its replica at Caverne du Pont d’Arc are dramatically summed up in two headlines: “Finally, the beauty of France’s Chauvet Cave makes its grand public debut” and “Don’t fall for a fake: The Chauvet cave art replica is nonsense”.

The author of the latter review—Jonathan Jones again—excoriates the illusion presented to the senses by a work of engineering that is manifestly not the real thing. He recommends that the public avoid the replica and visit instead one of the painted caves still open to the public; his choice is the cave at Pech Merle.

"To stand before a painted mammoth in Pech Merle is an overwhelming encounter both with an extinct mammal and the mind that portrayed it. Everything about such encounters – however rare and difficult – is unforgettable. You need to smell the dank, hear the drip-drip of water, sense the massive darkness just beyond the lit pathways – and pinch yourself that here among these majestic underground rock formations an ice age artist created a portrait of a mammoth that has the power and truth of a Rembrandt."

In contrast, Joshua Hammer, writing for the Smithsonian magazine, found the experience at the replica Chauvet cave to be “startlingly authentic,” declaring that “It feels, and even smells, like a journey into a deep hole in the earth.” Both these comments draw attention to the experience furnished by another proximal sense: not touch this time, but smell. (Italics were added to both quotes.)

Although they appear to report disagreements about the same thing, these radically different assessments are in fact directed to two different intentional objects: what a Paleolithic painted cave is, and what such a cave is like. The replica invites us to engage with the object with guided imagination to discover what we would experience if we were there in the real, the true, the authentic Chauvet cave. The former protests the absence of the real thing and the willful deception of sense experience, lamenting that the experience is fraudulent, for even what one smells is manufactured. A replica can look like, sound like, smell like, taste like, and feel like the original. But it cannot be the same. Touch has a double role here: to tell us what tactile qualities feel like and to bring us into contact with something wondrously old. Only the former can be experienced in duplication. A replica can thus boost the imagination towards a vivid and thrilling illusion, but it cannot offer an encounter of being in the presence of the real thing.

I have sympathy with both the negative and the positive evaluations of replicas, and in the case of this cave believe that the importance of protecting the real thing while permitting visitors a taste of what it is like to be inside is pretty marvelous. But also the fact that one visits the reproduction in the appropriate, if only proximate, vicinity is part of its marvel, for the replica Paleolithic caves that have been erected are fairly near their originals. Nearness is part of the encounter: knowing that the surrogate one sees, smells, and moves through is matched, and in a sense anchored, by a real thing nearby that—for very good reasons—one cannot visit. Part of the experience of an object of material culture is being there before it, but sometimes being nearby is the best one can attain.

For replicas of artifacts now destroyed, such as the Palmyra Arch and countless other relics of history, that consolation is unavailable. The replica stands in for the lost arch with marvelous accuracy of detail, although it is smaller than the original. But it provides neither acquaintance that the sense of touch permits, nor the experience of place that exploring among the ruins of Palmyra would have delivered. Indeed, it has less value from the latter perspective than does a fragment of rubble from the original structure. The digitally-produced arch displays what a monument from antiquity was like when it was still an identifiable ruin, but there is no matching equivalent that still exists—nothing that we know is still nearby.

This wrenching change is exacerbated by the fact that, for the time being at least, the arch travels far away from its home territory. (Noticing the extreme oddity of large, wandering artifacts is probably blunted by the fact that museum pieces travel all the time.) Moreover, the traveling Arch has taken on new meaning that is quite different from its original significance. It is not only a stunning replication that informs us about appearance, it is also presented as a defiant gesture against the forces that destroyed the original. At its unveiling in New York City in September, 2018, Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen made that point and declared, “What could be more appropriate than to have this symbol of freedom in front of City Hall?” But the Arch of Septimus Severus, commander of the conquering armies of the Roman Empire, surely was never a symbol of freedom; it is the replicated arch that has been endowed with this value. Precisely because it is not the real thing, the new arch possesses entirely different interpretive properties.

A replica of a destroyed artifact reminds us of something that exists no longer; a replica of something fragile is a protective surrogate. There may be good reasons for both, but the increasing possibilities of greater and even more marvelous replication techniques will not obviate a fundamental fact: No matter how indistinguishable from their originals they may appear, replicas cannot transport us into the palpable presence of things from the past. An exact replica of the most splendid cultural artifact will inevitably lack this capacity, which a mere stone in a graveyard can yet possess.


Figure 1. Brock’s Seat, St. Mark’s Cemetery, Niagara-on-the-Lake. Photo by author.

Figure 2. Brock’s Monument, photo © 2015 Richard Tomkins, Creative Commons, Wikimedia

Figure 3. Brock’s Monument, Queenston Heights, Ontario, Canada. Niagara Falls Public Library, Record ID 89768. Wikimedia Commons.

About the author

Carolyn Korsmeyer is a Research Professor of Philosophy at the Department of Philosophy, at The University of Buffalo. Some of the ideas presented here are developed in her recent monograph Things: In Touch with the Past, published by Oxford University Press, 2019.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on the Heritage in War blog are those of the post author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of members of the Heritage in War project, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Open University or Stockholm University.

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