Aug 10, 2017 | By David

One sector that has particularly benefitted from the growing accessibility of 3D technology is cultural heritage. Advances made in 3D imaging and 3D printing mean that antiques, relics and other artifacts can now be easily scanned and duplicated by museums and other cultural organizations for a whole range of different purposes. The technology enables an object to be preserved in virtual form in a digital archive, shared between institutions, replicated in case of any damage, and much more besides. This proved particularly useful recently for the organization in charge of preserving Joint Mitnor, an ancient cave in England, which had suffered the loss of many important fossils after a theft.

Joint Mitnor is located in a quarry in Devon in the south of England, and was the site of some major archaeological discoveries. Back in the 1930s, a group of youths stumbled upon the cave and found what later turned out to be the fossilized bones of the 4-meter tall straight tusk elephants, which are now extinct. The bones of bison, hippos, wolves, and many other animals no longer to be seen anywhere near this region were also found. After being a popular tourist site for decades, the cave in Buckfastleigh was broken into by thieves just over two years ago. They caused some serious damage, as well as making off with some of the valuable fossils.

Young elephant tooth, Joint Mitnor Cave

The Pengelly Trust, a charitable organization that manages the cave, sought to replace these fossils and make the cave operational as a heritage tourist site again, with the help of 3D printing technology. The Trust collaborated with a team from the National History Museum, which provided its services for free, as well as the University of Birmingham.

According to Farah Ahmed, the head of imaging at the National History Museum, "When we heard about the Joint Mitnor cave project, we jumped at the chance to be involved.. The museum boasts some of the most advanced scanning technology in the world and by using innovative CT scanning on the museum’s own Joint Mitnor collection, we were able to create high definition 3D scans of each object.”

After taking 3D scans of some very similar bones that had been excavated from the same cave back in the 1960s and were now located in the NHM in London, the team were able to turn these 3D images into 3D printed replica fossils, to replace the ones that had been pilfered. This was no easy task though, as they found out when they attempted to use the 3D printers at the University of Birmingham. “Our printers were set up for small industrial tasks, not for leaving them working away hour after hour on objects as complex as the elephant tooth’’, said Robert Stone, professor of interactive multimedia systems. ‘’It broke two of them.”

Eventually the 3D printed replicas were finished and ready for display. The Joint Mitnor cave project also saw Stone’s team produce a 3D virtual reality representation of the prehistoric cave environment as it would have been when the fossilized animals were alive, back in the temperate period between two ice ages.

As for the location of the original fossils, that’s still unclear, but what the Trust knows for sure is that it’s unlikely that they were stolen by young vandals or petty thieves. The cave was protected by a solid steel security door, and the intruders must have known there was something of value to be had inside, as well as knowing collectors to whom they could sell their loot.

After being closed since September 15, the cave will reopen on August 12, and free guided tours will be available from the Pengelly Trust.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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