Sep 1, 2015 | By Alec

3D printing is often referred to as a truly futuristic manufacturing tool, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be used for ancient purposes. Why shouldn’t historians and archaeologists benefit from it as well? For as PhD student and archaeologist Billy Ó Foghlú from the University of Canberra reminds us, it can also be used to recreate delicate or largely destroyed historical artifacts, which he proved by 3D printing a replica of what people thought was a Bronze Age Irish spear butt, but what turned out to be part of a musical instrument.

The artifact in question was the Conical Spear Butt of Navan that had been found in Ireland in the early 1900s, but was likely made sometime between 100BC and 200AD. It is a rather typical case of many historical artifacts – only a small piece remains, forcing scholars to make educated guesses as to what it might be and what happened to it. And a hundred years ago historians and archeologists were more preoccupied with writing about wars and dynasties, rather than societies, so this part was quickly imagined to be a spear butt. But as Billy Ó Foghlú proves, you can learn a lot more about an object by handling it and reusing it, something for which 3D printed replicas are perfect.

As he explained to reporters, he arranged for a scan to be made of the original piece, which was 3D printed by a 3D printing studio in Sydney. This 3D print was subsequently used as a mold to cast a piece in bronze. ‘The resulting piece that I got back, and this only took about a week, was actually made in a manner almost identical to the original way — being cast in a mold,’ he says. Very soon, it turned out that it was an excellent addition to another replica of an old-fashioned horn. ‘I had made this big replica of a horn, over two metres long, and I had mimicked the thickness of the metal ... and basically just stuck it in and tried to play,’ Mr Ó Foghlú said. ‘Suddenly the instrument just came to life.’ Not only did it make it far more comfortable to play, it also gave the horn a much wider range.

The scientist went on to state that this enabled scholars like him to interact with objects in a completely new way. ‘I had seen pictures of these artefacts, which obviously is very little to make a scientific theory on,’ he says. But this new level of interaction enabled him to realize that this object had a completely different purpose.

Bronze cast of the 3D printed replica

Mouthpieces like this had been used throughout Bronze Age Europe, but very few had been found in Ireland. This find emphasizes that the Irish culture was much more focused on music than previously thought. ‘These horns were not just hunting horns or noisemakers. They were very carefully constructed and repaired, they were played for hours. Music clearly had a very significant role in the culture,’ he said. ‘A number of instruments have been found buried in bogs. The ritual killing of an instrument and depositing it in a burial site shows the full significance of it in the culture.’ This is all part of a study recently published in Emania.

In part, he believes the earlier classification mistake was made because of the time in which these objects were found, which was also at different times than the horns themselves. ‘None of these [horns] were excavated ... in such a way that you could find these things," he said. ‘Basically you come across lots of artefacts to which people don't know the exact function of them. A lot of them were found during farming during the 1800s where you don't have any archaeologists at the time, so they don't record things quite accurately and their functions are lost.’ But even in this far-off scientific field, 3D printing seems to offer a new avenue for scholars.



Posted in 3D Printing Applications



Maybe you also like:


Leave a comment:

Your Name:


Subscribe us to Feeds twitter facebook   

About provides the latest news about 3D printing technology and 3D printers. We are now seven years old and have around 1.5 million unique visitors per month.

News Archive