Harvard’s 3D-Printing Archaeologists Fix Ancient Artifacts

By Joseph Flaherty | December 17, 2012

Indiana Jones practiced archaeology with a bull whip and fedora. Joseph Greene and Adam Aja are using another unlikely tool — a 3-D printer.

Greene and Aja work at Harvard University’s Semitic Museum, using 3-D printers and 3-D scanning software to recreate a ceramic lion that was smashed 3,000 years ago when Assyrians attacked the ancient Mesopotamian city of Nuzi, located in modern day Iraq.

Using a process called photomodeling, the Harvard team photographed sculpture fragments in the museum’s collection from hundreds of angles to create 3-D renderings of each piece, then meshed them together to form a semi-complete 3-D model of the original artifact. They compared the digital model to scans of full statues found in the same location, noting the gaps and creating the missing pieces and support structures out of 3-D printed parts and CNC carved foam. The technique worked successfully: The reconstituted sculpture will be displayed at the museum when this gallery is reinstated in 2014-15, but will likely be online well before that.

“This is conservation and protection for the cultural world similar to that undertaken for the natural world,” Greene says. “3-D imaging can be used not only for objects, but also for standing monuments.” says Greene. Basically, broader access to 3-D scanning tools could create a kind of “version control” for material culture.

The progress they’ve made with the program also indicates that 3-D printing could revive old methods of research and teaching. ”The new turn in pedagogy for teaching with objects, and development of massive open online instruction, such as the Harvard-MIT initiative edX, means that use of this technology will only increase,” he says. Now, if a clumsy undergraduate drops an artifact, a new one can be printed in the lab.

Read full post here. (Originally posted December 10, 2012)