Enhancing archaeological research with 3D printing and 3D scanning technology

Enhancing archaeological research with 3D printing

Using 3D print technology and custom 3D digital data collection methodology, the Virtual Curation Laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University has created an extensive catalog of American Indian artifacts and historic items. This impressive project supports a wide range of research activities involving new theories and cutting-edge technologies that make archaeological discoveries more accessible to educators and researchers worldwide.

Viewing artifacts – a historic issue

One of the key issues that often affects archaeologists is access to artifacts. When a piece is located some distance away, it becomes costly (and time-consuming) to travel to view it ‘in the flesh’, which can have a negative impact on research.

Likewise, handling original artifacts can be risky, as many items are easily damaged. 3D print technology resolves both issues. Virtual artifact curation enables researchers to access digital data files – permitting full 3D observation and manipulation (and accurate measurement), without needing to travel to a specific repository.

Furthermore, these files can be turned into models, using a desktop 3D printer. By 3D printing a replica of an artifact, researchers and students can freely handle and examine, which provides a powerful, more meaningful connection to the past. It’s a welcome break from the traditional ‘look, don’t touch’ ethos of museums.

Hands on archaeology with 3D printing

Developing the Virtual Curation Laboratory

Dr. Bernard K. Means has a B.A in Anthropology and a minor in Physics from Occidental College, Los Angeles, and a Ph.D. in Anthropology from Arizona State University, Tempe. He created the Virtual Curation Laboratory (VCL) in August 2011, as part of a US Department of Defense (DoD) Legacy Resource Management funded project, to test how effective the NextEngine Desktop 3D scanner would be at creating digital models of archaeological discoveries on DoD land.

Developed to support the research of undergraduate students majoring in Anthropology at Virginia Commonwealth University, the VCL is funded mostly through internal and external grants, in addition to special projects undertaken for museums, which are usually related to 3D printing. Not only does it make artifacts more accessible to a greater number of people, but it also challenges the way people view archaeological research.

VCU alumnus Cameron Walker cleans up a 3D  printed replica
VCU art student Isabel Griffin uses a 3D printed replica from India in an artifact illustration exercise

Bringing the past to life, layer by layer

The VCL team uses an Ultimaker 3D printer to create their models, primarily because they like the wide range of materials available to print in. Aside from material choice, they also value “reliability in operation and in the generation of viable 3D printed models.

The 3D printed artifact replicas have a huge range of practical purposes, including:

  • Demonstrations in classrooms or lectures
  • Student research projects
  • PR activities
  • Research support
  • Tactile materials for museums and opportunities for visually impaired (enabling visitors who can’t attend the museums to ‘touch’ the history)

By placing a 3D printed artifact in a museum, visitors can not only view perfect replicas of important historical items, but touch them too, gaining a better understanding of the texture and form. They also serve a key purpose in education, to teach students about artifact identification and analysis.

3D printed signature of George Washington
Accessible 3D printed archaeological items for visually impaired

Bernard informed us that he primarily creates 3D printed models for classroom use, though interns do quite a lot of the work, especially with painting the models. There are many great benefits – the most important being:

  • Extending reach. With 3D printing, people across the world have better access to artifacts, and a chance to improve their historical/archaeological understanding. Even those who don’t live near a cultural heritage location are able to enjoy the benefits of having access to these items – location is now no longer a restricting factor.
  • Sharing media. The scanned files can be shared and manipulated in multiple dimensions, generating new interpretations and insights into archaeological remains.
  • Closer detail. Researchers and students can view 3D scanned files in greater detail, seeing it from a number of different viewpoints. It’s easy to see the artifact from every angle.
  • Flexibility. The 3D digital files can be used and scanned and 3D printed anywhere around the world.
  • Seamless integration. The technology integrates easily into traditional ways of curating archaeological artifacts and brings the field up-to-date.

I am also interested in making archaeology, history, and paleontology more accessible through 3D printing to audiences who have limited access to experiencing them, such as the visually impaired or individuals confined to home or care facilities.

Creating 3D printed artifacts

Bernard uses portable equipment to make 3D replicas of artifacts, which enables him to make scans and prints from virtually any location in the country. He outlines the steps required to create an artifact replica model.

  • 3D scan. The basic artifact replica creation workflow starts with a 3D scan. The VCL primarily works with 3D scans of artifacts, rather than things that were ‘born digital’ (i.e. created on a computer). Often, the team travels to locations to scan archeological findings, such as human or animal skeletal remains, historical items, or increasingly, fossils – especially of Ice Age animals. The most commonly used machine is the NextEngine desktop 3D scanner, which Bernard used throughout the US and on one trip to the Cayman Islands. The team also uses a Structure Scanner, attached to an iPad Mini 4. It doesn’t offer such a high resolution, but is highly portable, which makes it more suitable for trips abroad.
  • Editing. After scanning with the NextEngine, the team uses the 3D scanner’s native software (ScanStudio) to edit out the model noise and combine multiple scans into one model. This process normally requires two scans in total. If required, they then further edit or modify the digital model in Meshmixer or Meshlab. For example, they may need to remove a part of an object to make one side flat, so it can be adhered to a research poster or exhibition panel.
  • 3D printing. Once the artifact is scanned and edited, it is ready for 3D printing. The team uses PLA, then pliers and a Dremel to remove the support structures. To create a more authentic appearance, the model is usually painted with acrylics, in a color that closely resembles the original item.
  • Storage. Afterwards, the 3D printed artifacts are stored in thematically organized boxes and are used for teaching or public outreach. They might also be sent to a museum or other facility if created on commission.

The scan takes approximately an hour (when using the NextEngine scanner), editing takes around two hours, and the 3D printing of the model takes about four hours, though exact times are dependent on size and resolution. Here are some scan examples, to demonstrate the complexity and quality.

3D scan of facial reconstruction in progress
3D scanning a 3D printed facial reconstruction

Hopes for the future

Bernard comments that his students are “energized by their engagement with others working to preserve and make the past come alive.” The VCL opens up the back rooms and deep storage areas of collections repositories – finally making them accessible to the masses.

The technology also allows his team to scan on location, or even borrow collections to 3D scan back at the VCL. Even if students are unable to engage directly with the 3D printed models, they can still access the digital files and explore them online. It makes it much easier to accommodate individual student interests while making the past a lot easier to explore.

Bernard would like to see more universities and research labs embracing 3D print technology; using the resulting models to encourage original research, and even letting educators incorporate replicas into their presentations. He also wants to foster a more cooperative network around the world – with researchers and 3D print experts not only duplicating but complementing one another’s efforts.

Creating 3D printed replicas

What's next?

3D printing clearly demonstrates just how much technology can achieve in the field of archaeology. Bernard predicts that, in time, artifacts may be augmented in virtual reality, allowing the student or researcher to see and ‘feel’ the objects in the comfort of their own environment. Bernard adds that he also feels that 3D printing offers huge potential for those who are limited in the way they can experience artifacts, such as those who are visually impaired. 3D printed models may also be beneficial for those in home or care facilities.

3D printing can be used in a variety of different applications, making education and research more accessible and exciting for a greater number of people.

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