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Preserving the past: 3D printer recovers artifacts

By Emily Crane
On February 25, 2014

When the anthropology department was burglarized in June, one of the many priceless artifacts to be lost was a painted vessel from the Greater Nicoya region of Costa Rica-not worth much monetarily, but impossible to replace, anthropology professor Jeb Card said. Despite ongoing attempts to recover the artifacts, officials have yet to catch so much as a scent of them. The vessel is most likely gone forever.

But the lessons and knowledge it contained are not. Students will continue to be able to hold it, analyze it and learn from it-well, a replica of it, that is.

Last spring, Card chose to scan this artifact using the university's new 3D scanner before the artifact was stolen, collecting and safely storing all the information on the artifact's dimensions and coloring on his hard drive.

And last week, using the B.E.S.T. Library's new 3D color printer, he was able to recreate the vessel in its exact dimensions and color.

"We're not giving up on the original artifact but we can restore some of what has been lost," Card said. "The material [of the artifact] is important; we don't have that anymore. We couldn't sample it and say where it comes from. But we can do stylistics analysis."

Unlike other 3D printers on campus that print items in plastic with hollow, honey-comb interiors, the color printer in the B.E.S.T. library prints by putting down layers of Gypsum powder and coating them with ink from inkjets. The final product is denser and more costly to produce, but preservers far more detail than the plastic replicas produced on regular 3D printers, senior library technician John Williams said.

"I can do a lot with this printer," Williams said. "For instance, I could print full-color topographical 3D maps. It has a much bigger build bed so I can print bigger objects."

And the printer is not only reserved for librarians and archaeologists-every student on campus can utilize this 3D printer, paying 25 cents per gram for the final product.

Williams said it was an honor to work with Card in bringing the lost artifact back.

"It was a privilege to be able to recreate an object that was stolen," Williams said.

And though Card said he too was glad to be able to use the new color printer to recover some of what was lost in the robbery, he is more excited about the possibilities of his scanner.

"[The replica] will look good on exhibit but for me, the digital aspect is way more exciting," Card said. "I have literally e-mailed artifacts to people and they printed them out. In this case, it helps us recover from a robbery which is great, but the everyday uses possibilities are even more exciting."

Thanks to the 3D scanner, academics and amateurs alike can access artifacts from around the world with the click of a button. Card enthusiastically spoke of the possibilities of creating "virtual museums" online where entire catalogs of artifacts would be available for download.

As the technology catches on though, Card said he expects to see it muddy some waters that, until now, have been fairly clear.

"This raises the issue of who has the right to copy and scan artifacts," Card said. "This is going to complicate things, but in a good way. [...] It undermines certain kind of business practices in museums. For example, a museum with cool artifacts but crap exhibits will lose out. But a museum with great exhibits will be fine."

And of course an additional benefit to the 3D scanning technology is its ability to gather and safely store priceless data. In the future, though artifacts may be lost, stolen or damaged, much of their information will safely be preserved on hard drives and in cyberspace for generations to study, analyze-and even print in color.

Among the estimated $8,000 of artifacts stolen was a Civil War-era pipe that served as Junior Claire Meyer's final project for her Introduction to Archaeology class last spring. After spending hours working with it and studying it, she was upset to see it taken. But because she too had done a 3D scan of the pipe, she has been able to print replicas of it since the burglary.

"To hear the pipe was stolen was quite disheartening," Meyer said. "Almost like someone stole a painting you've devoted hours to in order to create it. But to have Dr. Card be able to re-print the object thanks to the 3D printer was awesome. While It may not be the real object, the essence of it is still there."

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