Initial Uses of 3D Printing in Archaeology


3D printing is the new thing, no doubts about it. There is so much potential to be unleashed with this technology, and finally we are breaking through the last barrier that stops us from 3D printing every day, which is cost. I wrote an article a month ago about the subject, and already the price for a basic 3D printer has halved, from 1500 £ to 700, and it is bound to decrease even more with the end of the patent which should be next year. Soon every household will be able to print out designs downloaded from the internet of any object they may desire, and with scientist at work on printing food and many other things, the possibility are endless.

Given this boom in interest and popularity, and the detail of which 3D printers are capable of, it would be foolish to think that the archaeological world can avoid being swept in. From exact replicas of artefacts, to miniature sites for display, we are soon going to be treated to new ideas in archaeology.


Some of these ideas have already started producing some results, and one of the most interesting articles I have found is this one:

I won’t go into detail on the background, as you can read the article yourself, but the main story is that a group of archaeologists have managed to 3D print mummies using x-ray images, therefore leaving the bones within the bandages.


The real thing to notice here is the beautiful detail achieved by the archaeologists involved. The skeletons are perfectly replicated, leaving little to interpretation and preserving something that may easily get damaged if unravelled. I’m assuming that the best approach in this case would be using a CT scan to get the 3D model, rather than from a series of simple X-rays, as these would be too inconsistent to work with. This does create the problem of having to get this type of equipment for archaeological use.


This experiment however is important for one main reason: it is something we could not do before. Often with new technology the problem is that people see it as technology for technology’s sake, as in something without an actual practical use that we do simply because we can. Recreating skeletons of mummies without damaging the actual bones relies entirely on 3D printers, and it is not possible to find any traditional approach to it. It therefore shows that the potential is there and it can bring innovation.

How Can 3D Printing Help Archaeology?


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,


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.