Aug 10, 2016 | By Alec

If asked what university faculties could benefit from 3D printing, Archeology wouldn’t be very high up on our list. But that’s exactly where 3D printers seem to be going (probably after the engineering departments). Just two weeks ago, the University of Queensland, Australia, started 3D printing archeological artefact replicas for educational purposes, and now the University of Canterbury in New Zealand is doing the same. Among others, they have already 3D printed replicas of a 3,000 year old Babylonian cuneiform tablet, a priceless terracotta artefact made around 1700 BC.

Fortunately for archeology students in New Zealand, the University of Canterbury owns the James Logie Memorial Collection, a priceless collection of fragile and ancient objects. Unfortunately, their state makes it quite difficult to study them closely. Many are around 3,000 years old, and cannot simply be left in the hands of students, after all. But starting the next semester, students will be able to finally touch the objects themselves, as a series of 3D printed replicas will be introduced into the teaching program for the Logie Collection.

This fantastic innovation is the result of a two year long 3D scanning project of Don Clucas and Paul Docherty from the Mechanical Engineering department and Logie’s curators Terri Elder and Penny Minchin-Garvin. They selected a series of artefacts which were 3D scanned and 3D printed by the Mechanical Engineering department.

Among them is this remarkable Babylonian tablet, which uses the syllabic script called Cuneiform to list land grants in ancient Babylonia. While a very interesting object, it falls apart very easily. “Cuneiform tablets deteriorate over time and as with everything else it is a case of dust to dust,” says UC Classics Professor Victor Parker. “So anything that can be done to replicate tablets in their three-dimensional form before they crumble is extremely important. Also, such replicas can be used for teaching purposes without risking increasingly fragile originals.”

The same can be said for the Greek cup made by the Logie Painter in 525 BC (the namesake of the collection). While impossible to handle, a 3D printed replica can be very useful for teaching high school students about archeology principles. “They will be able to handle the object and thereby better visualize and understand its use,” said Terri Elder. “The cup would have been used in a symposium (a Greek drinking party). It is one of the heroes of the Logie Collection, as there are only two other cups in the world by this painter, known to have survived.”

To ensure the best quality, a polyjet 3D printer was actually used for the tablet replica. While you could argue that some of the original quality is lost, the Artec Spider 3D scanner that was used actually records textures as well. A video of the process can be seen here. The result is a full-color 3D print that approaches the original object as best as possible. The 3D images are also shared online with students, allowing them to study the objects away from campus and even 3D print them themselves.

What’s more, the student response has been excellent so far. “They just light up when they are getting to handle the objects, even if they are replicas and not the originals,” Elder said. “Students that have interacted with the real objects, and the replica objects, tend to recall the information better and they tend to recall it for longer as well.”

Student Kate Tinkler, who had the opportunity to work with the objects already, called it a fantastic idea. “It's so different to looking at something through the glass. You can feel the size and the weight of it and all those tiny details,” she said. “There's never anything you can hold without gloves because half of the stuff is so fragile, you don't want the oil from your fingertips eroding into the paintwork.”

According to Dr. Paul Docherty, a senior lecturer in Mechanical Engineering, they are already planning to greatly expand this initiative. “The project has been very exciting as it has allowed a new dimension of tactile interaction with the replicas of antiquities that would not be possible with the real thing. In the future, we hope to increase the number of scanned antiquities and put 3D representations of the collection online,” he says.

They are also already looking to expand the project to include the collections of other museums and universities, which could act as a huge boost for archeological research efforts. “It would open up the possibility for us to share objects with collections overseas, partially where the cost of freighting the original object would have been too much for us to bear,” Elder said. 3D printers are thus quickly becoming indispensable at universities everywhere.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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