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3D printing brings ancient history right to the classroom

TAMPA, Fla. -- The future of studying ancient history is now only a 3D print away.

Archaeology students in the Museum and Technologies class at the University of South Florida are physically seeing, touching and exploring exact replicas of artifacts from around the world without ever leaving the classroom.

Utilizing laser-scanning techniques at the University of South Florida’s Alliance for Integrated Spatial Technologies (AIST), researchers are reconstructing pieces of history that until now, have only been a virtual concept. The laser scanners bring artifacts and monuments to life creating 3D images from the scan data and information.

USF Assistant Professors Lori Collins and Travis Doering built AIST in 2006 and have been rapidly expanding the capability that the laser scanning can document and preserve.

Traveling to Mexico, Egypt and Greece documenting artifacts, pyramids and battleships, Collins and Doering document and preserve world heritage sites. Now, through 3D printing, they can bring those artifacts right to the classroom.

“It’s a line of sight instrumentation,” Collins said. “We capture the data around an object or place, through many setups, and then we use software to register that data together into a 3D model. We also use photography that allows us to image surfaces, pull out details, and see things that maybe aren’t apparent or maybe not readily seen by the human eye.”

During a laser-scanning project at San Andres in southern Mexico looking for evidence of early-carved writing, the team digitally documented an Olmec Stone Roller Stamp, artifact date c.650 B.C.E. The ceramic roller seal is believed to be a representation of some of the earliest forms of writing.

By bringing that scan data back to USF and using specialized 3D software, the team created a virtual version of the artifact allowing the piece to be shared in the classroom and explored without damage to the original, which is locked away in a vault in Mexico.

Graduate student Joseph Conrad works with the 3D imaging software and designs the scan to be printed. The artifact is sliced into vertical layers and sent to a 3D printer.

“Essentially what the software is doing is slicing this model into a bunch of individual little pieces,” said Conrad. “It slices it so it will have layer upon layer on it. It builds directions for the model to print using those slices and layers.”

For this type of 3D printer, plastic wire is loaded in much like paper in a traditional printer and heated up to 230 degrees Celsius creating liquid plastic. The liquid plastic is squeezed through an extruder and follows the patterns and layers that the software designates, moving back and forth printing an exact 3D replica to perfection.

As 3D printing techniques become more accessible, alternative materials such as silicone, metal and powder resin can be used to achieve almost any design. The potential for innovation grows when you consider alternative material like human skin tissue, which could create body parts, and edible substances, which could print out pieces of food.

Scanning techniques and 3D printing have recently allowed USF history professor William Murray to unlock ancient mysteries. Murray studies ancient Greece during the period 31 B.C. and has been trying to recreate and understand the Actium War Monument since 1978.

The war memorial is “a victory monument built by the first Roman emperor, Augustus. It was when he was called Octavian,” Murray explained.

As a representative symbol of naval power Octavian had his Roman engineers build a 180-foot retaining wall with a monument to commemorate the victory. Thirty-five of the warheads or rams from the defeated ships that fought in the Battle of Actium were placed in the wall.

“He took them off the bows of the warships and he lined them up on this terrace. And then above the rams he had this inscription in foot tall letters that ran the length of the wall about 150 explaining who he was and why he did it and what he was dedicating there,” said Murray.

Only in recent years was he able to discover keys to the architectural design of the structure of the memorial.

It wasn’t until 2009 that Murray was able to collaborate and work with AIST to scan the site, bring that data back to USF and determine the size and scale of the bronze rams used to commemorate the victory.

“I was able to bring their technology to my site and with the help of graphic designers who work in 3D graphics, we turned the sockets into hypothetical rams that fit them,” Murray said. “I guess you could say we reverse engineered the rams from the holes.”

According to Murray, the laser scans and 3D prints of the rams illustrated an architectural aspect of the monument that would never have been discovered without the 3D capability.

“Now this tells us something very important, how did these ancient engineers build this thing? It meant that they put the blocks in around the ram,” Murray said. “This is something that we figured out was so based upon the angled nature of the ram socket. Printing in 3D like this demonstrates it perfectly. You can show this to a class you can show this to anybody and they get it immediately when they look at it.”

Arts and Sciences Alliance for Integrated Spatial Technology (AIST)    
Author: Katy Hennig