How Can 3D Printing Help Archaeology?

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Before starting this post I’d like to point out that what I am writing here is entirely theoretical, as I haven’t yet had the opportunity to work with a 3D printer and am basing the following discussion entirely on knowledge of 3D modelling and a long series of recent news articles unrelated to archaeology.

3D Printing is certainly the next big thing. A few years ago this kind of technology was unheard of, yet now we already can 3D print pretty much everything, including food, rocket engines (NASA recently announced it), guns, people-sized statues and entire working machines. I think the point of non-return was reached when someone built a 3D printer made entirely in Lego (except a laser part, but still) that could make a 3D model of another Lego piece and then print it out, essentially a Lego cloning machine made of Lego. Given that the prices are dropping dramatically, and will do so even more when the original patent is dropped next year, it’s worth enquiring on what this could bring to archaeology.

There are different aspects of 3D in archaeology, and even surveying can be adapted to a 3D printer. Surveying with an EDM provides data in a .xyz file, which is basically a series of points that can be placed in a 3d environment, and then used to create surfaces. However the only possible use that I can see for a model of a site would be to then reconstruct it using Sketchup (or similar program) and then use print out a small version of how the site would have looked like when it was in its prime for a museum display.

Photogrammetry instead can have a great number of uses, and 123D Catch has even added an option to print out the model. The advantage of Photogrammetry is that while 3D reconstructing (through surveying or by measuring distances) is only really effective with large-scale models, Photogrammetry is ideal for any size object.

The combination of Photogrammetry and 3D printing seems particularly good for small finds, as it would be extremely easy to essentially clone any archaeological artefact with a great level of precision. The clone can be very useful if the object is extremely delicate, as it is still great for display (like dinosaur bones made out of chalk), or it allows a mass production of archaeological examples for teaching. Combining it with the Photogrammetric Pottery Reassembly (PPR) method I described in an earlier post we can print reassembled pots without having to glue them together, or they could even be reconstructed entirely using Maya. In situ finds can be printed out in a smaller scale while still in situ to have a record of their positioning. With a good knowledge of 3Ding software it would even be possible to fix damaged artefacts digitally and print out a complete copy of them. For objects that would have been originally painted, it would be possible to paint the copies to show how they would have looked like,

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Larger objects such as statues can also be printed out with larger printers. One of the ideas I’ve been working with is reconstructing archaeological monuments using tourists’ photographs. There are many objects that we have records of in photographs, but that have been destroyed since. It hence would be possible to print out a copy of these objects for people to see. Large buildings can also be recorded and printed out either for record keeping or for display.

Overall the applications of this new technology seem to be many, and I’m sure there are many more that I haven’t even considered yet. All we can do is wait for the revolution.

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