Mar 3, 2016 | By Benedict

Jennifer Grayburn and Benjamin Gorham, two PhD students from the University of Virginia, have been using their university Makerspace to 3D print replicas of fragile and immovable archaeological findings.

The Scholars’ Lab Makerspace at the University of Virginia is currently being put through its paces for a number of additive manufacturing projects in a wide range of academic disciplines, but history of art and architecture doctoral candidate Jennifer Grayburn and archaeology doctoral candidate Benjamin Gorham have been utilizing the 3D printing technology for a particularly interesting purpose: To rebuild lost civilizations of Iceland and Sicily, one 3D printed brick at a time.

“The Makerspace is part of the Scholars’ Lab and the intention is to have a place where people can tinker and experiment to integrate interactive objects into both research and teaching,” explained Grayburn, who is also a Makerspace Consultant helping students from all disciplines to incorporate 3D printing technology into their academic projects.

Grayburn and Gorham have each been working to preserve fragile and immovable archaeological findings—by using aerial drones and on-the-ground photography to make precise topographical images of their findings. These topographical images can then be used to create 3D printed scale models of the archaeological discoveries, which can be used for further close examination.

The ancient city of Morgantina, Sicily in Italy, has been subjected to archaeological exploration since 1884, with UVA academics in charge of the project since 1978. The Bronze Age city has a rich history, having been inhabited by Greek, Syracusan, Roman, and Spanish citizens over its lifetime. Unfortunately, the ancient ruins of the city are extremely fragile—moving them would likely damage or destroy them, so archaeologists are best served leaving the finds in place and documenting them on-site. Grayburn and Gorham’s technique represents one of the most thorough ways of doing this.

“[Documenting] used to just mean sketching out the sites on paper or CAD,” said Gorham, who has a particular interest in the ancient Silician city. “But now that we have this capability, we can actually ‘lift’ things out of the ground without really lifting them out of the ground. We do this by photographing the findings many times, weaving those photos together for a complete 3D model, and then printing it.”

Although the doctoral students can only 3D print their findings on a much smaller scale, the Ultimaker 2 3D printer at the university is capable of printing with an adequately fine level of detail for further inspection. When looking the 3D printed replica of part of the Morgantina site closely, ridges can be seen which signal where different layers of wall had been added over time. A doorway-obstructing terracotta pot can also be seen.

Gorham has, until now, been 3D printing his replicas in random colors, according to whichever 3D printing filament the Makerspace has had in greatest abundance. However, the doctoral candidate hopes to create more chromatically accurate models in future: “When we start doing them on larger scale, I would absolutely love to paint them to resemble the actual ground soil types, the stone features and the terracottas,” he said.

Grayburn, on the other hand, has already begun painting the 3D prints of Norse artifacts she has been researching in Iceland—artifacts like a 12th-century carved stone from Hítardalur, which must remain on-site due to Icelandic heritage laws. “I’m slicing the 3D models and printing them in pieces that we can glue together to get close to the size of the original item,” she said. “My aim is to reproduce it, and paint it so that it actually looks like stone. The idea is to preserve the carving details before they erode further and to reproduce them so that students who can’t travel to Iceland can still interact with the object instead of just seeing it reproduced on a screen in the classroom.”

Grayburn has also been experimenting with different 3D printing materials in order to produce the most accurate 3D printed reconstructions. The student has been using a blend of plastic and powdered metal to reconstruct Viking artifacts such as helmets and belt buckles: “What you end up with are metal objects that you can then tarnish. They react just like the true metal artifacts do,” she said. “So these projects are actually a way to reconstruct artifacts in their archaeological state.”

Both Grayburn and Gorham hope to someday use the 3D printing technology at their disposal to create 3D printed replicas of bone findings. 3D printed bone replicas would allow archaeologists to more easily compare findings and ascertain the origins of their findings. The doctoral candidates are all in favor of open access databases of 3D models, such as the burgeoning Morphosource, which can help to speed up and increase the accuracy of archaeological research. “The use of 3-D printing has always been based in this open-access community, and in the concept of open sharing to de-commercialize things and objects,” Grayburn said.

The two UVA students will be sharing their own 3D models with the academic community, since the archaeological sites themselves will not last forever. “Erosion, tomb robbing and clandestine intervention are always a problem,” Gorham said. “One of the jobs of archaeologists in the field is always to figure out some way to prevent or circumvent losing artifacts, and this is one way to do that.”

“That’s why open sharing and recreation is a huge deal,” Gorham continued. “Even before it gets to the actual 3D printed model, having these objects digitally in a format that we can post on websites and send to other parties amplifies our ability to build an audience and secure our findings.”

Want to get a closer look at the digitally reconstructed city of Morgantina? Check out the interactive 3D rendering below.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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