With modern 3D scanning and 3D printing technology, the entire world could be exposed to the wonders of antiquity, yet most museums continue to make available only a select few high-quality 3D scans of their artifacts. However last month a big story made the rounds about a pair of artists who wanted to challenge that attitude. The artists said that they managed to surreptitiously capture a high-quality 3D scan of the bust of Nefertiti, currently on display at the Neues Museum in Berlin. According to reports, and an accompanying video, the 3D scan was done using a Kinect that was hidden under the scarf of one of the artists, Nora Al-Badri, while the second artist, Jan Nikolai Nelles, recorded the stunt.
The pair quickly released the 3D scan online, and they made it very clear exactly why they 3D scanned, and were now sharing, the priceless artifact with the world. They not only challenged the Neues Museum’s right to own the ancient bust, but directly accused them of theft. And frankly, considering how many European countries unceremoniously looted Egyptian tombs and historical landmarks for decades, it’s pretty hard to argue with their goals. They are hardly alone in questioning the right of European museums to own artifacts that rightfully belong to Egypt, nor are they alone in believing that digital copies of these artifacts should be made available to the general public. Sadly, based on the artists’ statements, what many in the 3D printing and 3D scanning community suspected from the beginning is likely true; the story is almost certainly entirely made up.
“Al-Badri and Nelles scanned the head of Nefertiti clandestinely in the Neues Museum Berlin without permission of the Museum and they hereby announce the release of the 3D data of Nefertiti’s head under a Creative Commons Licence. The artists 3D-Print exhibited in Cairo is the most precise scan ever made public of the original head of Nefertiti. With regard to the notion of belonging and possession of objects of other cultures, the artists intention is to make cultural objects publicly accessible. The Neues Museum in Berlin until today does not allow any access to the head of Nefertiti nor to the data from their scan. With the data leak as a part of this counter narrative we want to activate the artefact, to inspire a critical re-assessment of today’s conditions and to overcome the colonial notion of possession in Germany,” the pair wrote on the project’s website.
While the goals and attitudes of the artists are noble and even laudable, a critical assessment of the art project simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Doubts were first raised by Chris Kopak and Mike Balzer, hosts of All Things 3D podcast when the pair interviewed the artists and their story didn’t seem to match up to reality. Blogger and computer graphics expert Paul Docherty also found flaws in the story and posted a lengthy dismantling of the stunt over on Amarna3D, where he pointed out some pretty glaring errors in the artist’s account of events. Errors that could really only be made by someone who doesn’t really understand how 3D scanning technology works. Especially when the 3D scanner supposedly being used was an Xbox Kinect, which, frankly, could never in a million years have captured a scan as detailed and clean as the one released by the artists.
“From the video we can see that Al-Badri and Nelles utilised a Microsoft Xbox 360 Kinect Sensor. In order to make this work as a mobile scanner it would need to be connected to a laptop and use low cost 3D scanning software such as Skanect. The Kinect sensor also needs an external power supply in order to function. A potential solution could be to drive the sensor from a battery pack similar to the ones that charge mobile phones or pads. Unfortunately to get enough power to last for a decent scan time you would need to have a large pack or a number of them daisy chained together. These would be rather bulky to conceal and are quite heavy. A backpack would be the obvious choice for this. The laptop and batteries could be stored in a good load bearing position and cables could be run easily to the sensor. As we can see in the video there is no backpack evident nor any other suitable carrier,” Docherty wrote in his article.
Take a look at the original video itself:
When the logistics of how they said that they captured the 3D scan are looked at closely, Nelles and Al-Badri’s story just falls apart almost instantly. Beyond just the glaring flaws in the story based just on what can be seen in the video, the most compelling evidence that the artists are not being truthful comes down to the extremely high quality of the 3D scan itself. When All Things 3D hosts Chris and Mike asked exactly how such a detailed scan was made, Nelles claimed that the device that they used was given to them by some hackers and that he and Al-Badri actually didn’t know specifically how it worked. He claimed that once the scan was completed, the hackers took the data and constructed the 3D model for them. Mysteriously, the hackers in question were unavailable to comment on their technique.
Even had the artists, or the hackers, managed to put together a smaller, more compact way of powering the Kinect, which doesn’t even look like it’s turned on in the video, it wouldn’t explain how absolutely beautiful and clean the 3D scan that they released is. In order to capture a high-quality 3D scan, the scanner would need to be pointed at the object being captured continuously and uninterrupted. However, in the video the artist is shown repeatedly covering and uncovering the Kinect, which was held at slightly above waist height, to avoid detection. How exactly is a 3D scanner, that for all intents and purposes was stationary, going to capture the top of the bust that was well above the device’s line of sight?
Additionally, there is simply no way for the Kinect to capture a statue that is being kept in a glass enclosure, as Nefertiti’s bust is. The infrared light emitted from the Kinect would be unable to completely penetrate the glass, and any data that it did manage to collect would be extremely low resolution. Even on its very best day under optimal conditions a Kinect is only going to produce a 3D scan that is accurate down to about two or three millimeters. There are ways to 3D scan through glass, but it’s complicated and requires an ideal setup that is clearly not evident in the original video. It would, I suppose, be possible to combine multiple partial 3D scans in order to make a complete model, but again the limitations of the Kinect device itself simply would not have been able to capture enough detail to produce the 3D model that was released.
While the evidence is, at this point, almost impossible to refute, what remains to be understood is what was the purpose of the fraudulent story. Where did the 3D scan itself come from? So far we don’t really know, however there are several plausible theories out there, and none of them, if true, would be very good for Nelles and Al-Badri. Early theories included the suggestion that the artists simply 3D scanned a high-quality replica and passed it off as the real thing. It is also possible that they somehow got a hold of the museum’s own private 3D scan data and used that. 3D scanning and 3D printing expert Cosmo Wenman, who also wrote up a thorough debunking, believes that it was actually both.
“I began looking for the highest quality Nefertiti replica I could find. My search led me to the museum’s own replicas, and the museum’s own 3D scan: I found TrigonArt, the German scanning company who, in 2008, produced a high-quality scan of Nefertiti for the Neues Museum. TrigonArt is rightfully proud of their work, and their website includes a page showing a 360-degree orientable and zoomable preview of the scan they made of Nefertiti for Neues. I encourage you to take a look for yourself and compare it to the artists’ own scan. Even in this limited preview viewer, opening it up full screen and zooming in, you can see that every feature—including super-fine submillimeter details—appear to exactly match the model that the artists released,” Wenman explained.
If the 3D model supplied by the artists is in fact the TrigonArt 3D scan, which is owned by the Neues Museum, there are going to be some legal questions in Nelles and Al-Badri’s future. Did they hack the museum or TrigonArt and gain access to the 3D scan? Did someone who works for the museum or TrigonArt give Nelles and Al-Badri the data? Or did the mysterious hackers, that may or may not exist, simply use them as pawns to release the data? So far there are more questions than answers, and it is unlikely that we will ever have this whole mess sufficiently explained.
This turn of events is unfortunate, because the project did start a much needed conversation about Egyptian artifacts owned by museums all over the world, their rightful place and the public’s right to access them. Sadly, that conversation will now be replaced by the discussion over the scandalous nature of this entire endeavor. What do you think of this whole story? Discuss in the 3D Printed Nefertiti Bust forum over at 3DPB.com.