Move Over Contemporary Art: Archaeologists 3D-Print Ancient Artifacts

by Jillian Steinhauer on December 13, 2012

The Semitic Museum’s recreated Nuzi lion statue (click to enlarge) (image courtesy Learning Sites via Wired)

On the heels of Hyperallergic’s Hrag Vartanian predicting the rise of the 3D printed art object, Wired has a story about a project at Harvard in which archeologists are using the technology to recreate an ancient one.

The archeologists, Joseph Greene and Adam Aja, work at the university’s Semitic Museum, which owns the remains of a 3,000-year-old lion statue excavated from a temple in the ancient Mesopotamian city of Nuzi. The museum’s lion had long ago been smashed into pieces by the Assyrians when it was discovered in 1930, but it has a mate, owned by the University of Pennsylvania Museum. For the project, the Semitic Museum contracted an organization called Learning Sites, Inc. to photomodel — a process by which “a series of overlapping photos are taken and run through some algorithms to produce a detailed 3D model,” according to a blog post on the Semitic Museum’s site — both its own fragments and the full Penn lion. After the model was made, the team printed a three-dimensional, full-scale replica in high-density foam.

Perhaps most interestingly, the next step involved placing the existing artifacts into the surrounding foam body. The foam was then painted what scientists estimate was the sculpture’s original color, making for an entirely recreated ancient object. On the one hand, this is a pretty amazing way to be able to study history, make it accessible, and bring it to life; on the other, one can’t help but wonder if it’s kosher to just place the original artifacts inside of a printed replica like that.

3D-printed cuneiform tablets (Image via

Wired points out that the Semitic Museum isn’t the first to go this route: China’s Palace Museum is recreating selected objects from the Forbidden City, and Cornell has made 3D printed cuneiform tablets. The Smithsonian even 3D-printed Thomas Jefferson. Could this process, as it becomes more popular and more refined, lead to a flood of false artifacts in the antiquities market?

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  • samktg

    Sure it’s kosher. Have you seen the statue of Hatshepsut as a Maned Sphinx at the Met? The majority of the work is plaster cast from a companion piece now in Cairo. If the Met can do it, why not the Semitic Museum?

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      Fair enough. It still makes me nervous, though. Not sure why. Messing with history? Maybe I’m too much of a purist.

  • grumblebumble

    Had the exact same thought as samktg. This is just using a slightly different technique from what we’re used to seeing in museums.

  • Kim Matthews

    I read an article last year about silver objects designed by Piranesi and made using CAD with 3D printing to create investments for casting. It was pretty awesome.

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