A New Ally for Preserving Cultural Heritage: Realistic 3D Printed Models


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Alexei Vranich at the Tiwanaku ancient site in Bolivia

Extensive destruction has taken its toll on history, but for the last few years, some archaeological sites that have been looted, ravaged and eroded are getting a second chance thanks to 3D printing. Accurate models of some of the most ancient places in the planet can now be redone and will help archaeologists put together pieces that have puzzled them for centuries. These artificial substitutes are a great aid to let one reconstitute ruins. Many ancient sites can now be analyzed using techniques like 3D scanning’s photogrammetry. Archaeological uses for this technology have included 3D printed replicas of skulls, like the ones exhibited at the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery in the UK displaying facial reconstructions of the earliest British residents; the Google Arts and Culture collaboration with Stratasys to preserve 3D scans and 3D prints of some of the world’s most cherished heritage sites; facial reconstruction 3D images of Robert the Bruce, and the The Uffizi Digitization Project, a website with 300 digitized objects from the Florence gallery’s Greek and Roman collection.

3D Print.com consulted with archaeologist and 3D printing enthusiast Alexei Vranich about the advantages of the technology in this scientific field. Vranich is a research associate at the Archaeological Research Facility at the University of California at Berkeley, and is responsible for the project, which seeks to recreate pieces that were found scattered centuries ago belonging to an ancient structure at Tiwanaku in Bolivia. Sites like the Tiwanaku temple of Pumapunku are just the beginning of what seems to be a shift in the way archaeology will rediscover ancient sites. This one in particular has been partially reconstructed using software and 3D printers. Pumapunku, built by a pre-Inca culture, is considered an achievement of Andean architecture, but due to intense looting during the colonial period, it has been left in complete disorder and, until now, its original form was a mystery. Vranich and his team created 3D models of the 150 blocks based on measurements by archeologists, that were entered by hand into an architectural modeling program. The virtual form was subsequently printed in 3D form at a 4% reduced scale.

Alexei Vranich putting together the Tiwanaku ruins puzzle

“One big issue for archaeologists is the amount of work that needs to be done with artifacts in the field. It takes up a tremendous amount of time, money and energy to spend months in the field going through artifacts. In certain cases now, artefacts that could not be removed due to preservation (such as underwater sites) or because they cannot leave the country, or are too large, can now be recorded and inexpensively printed for further analysis back home,” Vranich explained to 3D Print.com. 

One of the 3D printed pieces of Tiwanaku

Vranich also confirmed that he is already working on 3D printed parts for the Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia, along with his team. They expect to reconstruct parts of the destroyed site.

According to the study published by Vranich in the open access journal Heritage Science, “Unlike large architectural pieces , notes or models on a computer screen , 3D printed pieces can be manipulated quickly and intuitively, allowing researchers to try combinations and seek connections rapidly, turning over pieces and testing possible fits. This tactile engagement, along with the ability to quickly try out combinations of the 3D-printed pieces, led to fresh and often unexpected insights.”

This project used Sketchup 3D modeling software and a ZCorp Z310 Printer to model the 140 pieces of andesite and 17 slabs of sandstone. The decision of the material that would be used for the work was not easy. Although polymer-based printing material was less expensive, the archaeologists weren’t happy with how light it was and they could see and feel the layers of the filament which had the effect of obscuring some of the detail. The powder-based 3D printer worked well for this job and gave each piece a marble-like feel. Vranich explains that archaeologists obtain a lot of information through their fingers, which is why he wanted to replicate something that had the feel of stone architecture. Picking up a piece of plastic is just not archaeological.

Putting together the 3D printed pieces of Tiwanaku to restore the damaged site

The method was more expensive but produced a more accurate model. Still, all over the world, scientists are using polymer-based 3D printing to advance the field, like the forty 3D printed artifacts available to school children in southern France, or archaeology students interacting with 3D printed artifacts at the University of Southern Queensland. While Internet Archaeology suggests that 3D printers can already fabricate objects of almost any material in any shape, the next step is a control over the behaviour of materials, where they envisage voxel-based printing as ideal for archaeology. Especially since this lets you use different types, shapes and sizes of voxels as programmable ‘smart’ digital materials that are designed to function in a desired way.

Indeed 3D printing has many advantages in archaeology, it allows the researchers to discover new clues in ancient grounds, they can print what they need on site without having to travel all over the world to find the piece they need, and, it allows museum visitors to handle a replica, turning the “Do Not Touch” sign into “Please, Go Ahead and Touch This”. Still 3D printed models of archaeological artifacts or relics could also be misused. Would people rather see an original ancient relic or fossil in it’s damaged state or a perfectly 3D restored piece? Also, if anyone can recreate an ancient artifact, will that make museums irrelevant? And what happens to copyright laws? All these questions and many more can arise in the coming years as 3D printing becomes more common. Last year, a group of researchers argued that there is currently a lack of ethical and legal guidance regarding 3D data and the standards that need to be implemented.

Although there are quite a few questions surrounding the use of 3D printing in archaeology some countries consider it vital to celebrate parts of their culture that have been lost. This is the case with Maamoun Abdulkarim, Director of Antiquities and Museums, in Syria, who recalled that the safeguarding and protection of the remains of the past have gained a powerful tool, since 3D reconstruction of archaeological sites and finds will aid their conservation. In 2016, a replica of the 2,000 year-old Arch of Triumph of Palmyra, in Syria, was exhibited around the world. The replica was made by the Institute for Digital Archaeology (IDA) using 3D computer models based on photographs of the original arch, which was destroyed by ISIS in 2015. Ancient sites in Syria, Mexico or Cambodia which have been destroyed during wars, looting and conquests, may have a chance to return and could help the newer generations appreciate cultural heritage better, but meanwhile, some legislative and ethical fine-tuning might be needed.

Palmyra arch 3D replica exhibited in London

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