Recreating Ancient Heritage Through 3D Printing

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The original Rider [Image: State Office for the Preservation of Monuments on the Stuttgart regional board, Ginger Neumann]

In the 19th century, an Austrian mine operator named Johann Georg Ramsauer working near Hallstatt, Austria encountered a sizable prehistoric cemetery containing more than 1,000 burial sites. The graves were of men, women, and children who had lived and died in this area between 800 and 500 BCE during what has come to be known as the Hallstatt period. Since then a number of graves and settlements have been discovered in adjoining areas that are also part of this culture. The reason for the abrupt ending of the civilization is unknown, but the objects found in the graves continue to tantalize archaeologists to this day. Although many of the graves have been robbed, some objects have come down to us from this distant past, including a particularly captivating figure on horseback called the Rider of Unlingen.

Watercolor commissioned by Johann Ramsauer documenting one of his cemetery digs at Hallstatt

The Rider, executed in bronze, sits astride a double horse, whose broken legs indicate that the figure once formed part of some larger object, possibly on the lid of a vessel, the rest of which disappeared when the grave was robbed. Depictions of human figures from this time period are extremely unusual, and this particular piece is one of the oldest representations of a mounted rider from north of the Alps and as such is an extremely important part of understanding the area’s cultural history.

The difficulty in studying pieces of such importance lies in their very rarity, which restricts the number of people who have access to the piece. In addition, because of the dangers inherent in transporting or handling such unusual pieces, there are necessarily limits to how many times they can be directly examined. Traditionally, expansion of access has been given by creating replicas, but the mold making techniques required for such recreation hold inherent risks to the object itself, risks too great to take with an object of such rarity.

Using no-touch scanning techniques provided through the latest in 3D technology has opened up a new world of opportunities for recreating such rare cultural artifacts as often as necessary. In the case of the Rider of Unlingen, x-ray computer tomography (CT scanning) was used to create a 3D digital model that was then evaluated using VGSTUDIO MAX 3.0 software. The resulting STL file was then ready for 3D printing, meaning that the object can be reproduced anywhere by anyone with access to a 3D printer, significantly expanding the number of people who have access to studying the object and greatly reducing the price of reproduction.

The ability to create such replicas is the focus of a current exhibit on display at two museums highlighting the Rider. As Nicole Ebinger-Rist from the Baden-Württemberg State Office for the Preservation of Monuments explained:

“The replica created is being shown as part of the exhibition entitled ‘The Rider of Unlingen’ – Celts, horses and charioteers. It’s an exhibition at two museums showing what state-of-the-art technology can do today. True-to-detail reproduction without direct molding (which could potentially damage discovered objects) is crucial here. In the museum world, original specimens are grouped together in exhibitions, allowing them to be contrasted with comparable objects. These comparative collections give exhibition visitors and scientific researchers insight in a historical context. A replica which is faithful to the original can be made accessible at museums in many different places around the world.”

The replicas are sufficiently life-like in detail to allow for in-depth study, as 3D scanning technology picks up an extremely high level of detail and 3D printing can create objects with an advanced level of precision. In this case, the replicas were created by Concept Laser’s Mlab Cusing machine, which solidifies powder into a three-dimensional form.

Instead of being plasticky replicas, they feel very real, according to Ebinger-Rist:

“All of a sudden, you’re holding an object from the 7th century BCE in your hands, except that it’s made out of powder from the 21st century. You’ve got a cultural-historically relevant copy in your hands and are looking at 28 centuries gone by. It’s simply overwhelming. 3D printing is a wild technology. Every archeological find has its own magic, especially when they are as unique as the Rider of Unlingen. When you’re holding a reproduction which resembles the original one-to-one, it’s a very special thing, and very important for further research.”

A high level of detail: The 3D-printed copy of the Rider of Unlingen [Image: State Office for the Preservation of Monuments on the Stuttgart regional board]

From the dust of civilizations and the powders of modern technology comes the opportunity for greater understanding of the cultural history of humanity. Discuss in the Ancient Heritage forum at

[Source/Images: Concept Laser]


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