Mar 22, 2016 | By Tess

Over 3,000 years ago during the late Shang Dynasty in China, people inscribed questions onto ox bones and the insides of turtle shells seeking the answers to life's questions. The relics, or oracle bones as they are now more commonly known, were then used in pyromancy divination rituals to determine the answers to said questions. The ancient oracle bones are now the oldest existing written documents of the Chinese language, and have given much insight into Chinese society from 1339-112 BCE, effectively still providing answers to questions contemporary societies have about ancient Chinese civilization.

Recently, in an effort to further research in the field of oracle bones, the Cambridge University Library, which itself has 614 ancient Chinese oracle bones in its collection, has 3D scanned and 3D printed one of them. The 3D printed oracle ox bone, the first of its kind, has given researchers the unique ability to tactilely manipulate the ancient divination tool.

Charles Aylmer, the Head of the Chinese Department at Cambridge University Library explains, “Some of the bones have already been included in the Cambridge Digital Library but now new technology provides readers around the world an even closer look at these precious artefacts.”

The 3D scanning was carried out by an expert in the field, archeology professor Dominic Powlesland, who is a pioneer in the field of digitizing and processing archaeological data. The bone was then 3D printed in association with the media Studio of Addenbrooke’s Hospital. The high-resolution 3D model of the inscribed ox bone, which itself measures roughly 9 x 14 cm, reportedly knits together about 1.3 million aspect points, making for a complete 3D view of the bone’s surface and details. The print itself was additively manufactured on a 3D printer traditionally used for making surgical models for maxillofacial and orthopaedic surgery.

The 3D model of the oracle bone, as opposed to 2D representations of it in the past, gives a comprehensive and full record of all of the bone’s inscriptions as well as the scorch marks caused by the pyromancy rituals. As Aylmer points out, “The oracle bones are three-dimensional objects, and high-resolution 3D imagery reveals features which not only all previous methods of reproduction (such as drawings, rubbings and photographs) have been unable to do, but which are not even apparent from careful examination of the actual items themselves.”

Significantly, the 3D model and 3D print of the 3,000 year old oracle bone has provided researchers with added information about the reverse side of the bone, which had until now been neglected due to the lack of ability to properly represent it. Aylmer continues, “To hold a 3D print of an oracle bone is a very special experience, as it provides the same sensory impression as that obtained by the people who created them over three thousand years ago, but without the risk of harm to the priceless originals.”

In a way similar to that of dealing with dinosaur fossils, 3D scanning and printing have provided a way for scientists and researchers to examine and manipulate ancient artefacts without compromising or damaging the actual ancient pieces themselves. Thanks to the technology, we will perhaps be able to find out more about 3,000 year old Chinese societies from the oracle bones, which have already shed light on areas such as warfare, hunting, agriculture, medicine, meteorology, and astronomy of the time.

The ancient oracle bone along with its 3D printed counterpart will be on exhibit along with other key historical artefacts as part of the Cambridge University Library’s 600th anniversary celebration. The exhibition, called “Lines of Thought: Discoveries that Changed the World” will give visitors insight into the institution’s 600 year old collection and will be running until September 30th, 2016.




Posted in 3D Printing Application



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