3D scanning of a Mastodon tooth from the Yukon during The Valley of the Mastodons conference and workshop. Credit: Virtual Curation Laboratory

If you own a 3D printer, or can access one through a school, local library or 3D printing service bureau, then you can 3D print a replica of George Washington’s false teeth, a key to Edgar Allen Poe’s trunk that was reportedly found on his body, and even molars from mastodons—an extinct relative of the elephant that roamed North America until the end of the last Ice Age. For those learning about or teaching kids about the institution of slavery in the U.S., artifacts associated with enslaved laborers and found by archaeologists at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, George Mason’s Gunston Hall, James Madison’s Montpelier, and Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest are all ready to be downloaded for free and 3D printed. All of these objects and many more were 3D scanned by the Virtual Curation Laboratory (VCL) and can be seen and freely downloaded.

A rapidly growing number of museums, archaeologists, paleontologists, and historians are taking the real objects that they have discovered during research expeditions, have on exhibit, or keep stored deep in their vaults, and translating them into 3D digital avatars. Do you want to see the Rosetta Stone, which unlocked Ancient Egypt’s past? The real one is in the British Museum, but perhaps you don’t have the means to travel to London, England, and see it or the thousands of other items on exhibit there that span millions of years of the earth’s history. Luckily, the British Museum has made their 3D digital model of the Rosetta Stone viewable and downloadable by all—as well as an expanding number of treasures from their expansive collection of the world’s heritage. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. is another major gatekeeper of our world’s past and they are digitizing select items.

Capturing the past in 3D

What makes the efforts of these archaeologists, paleontologists, historians and museum specialists different from people who use software to create 3D digital objects for 3D printing? Although creating and designing solely within a computer program has a role, a major focus for museums and others who study and preserve the past is to create accurate 3D digital models from real objects. This minimizes handling of the real objects, makes it possible for researchers to study them without having to travel all over the world to visit a museum or research facility, and, of course, allows museum visitors or the general public to handle a replica just one step removed from the actual artifact, fossil, or historical relic.

There are a number of ways to create a 3D digital model of an object. The VCL relies primarily on the NextEngine Desktop 3D laser scanner—this 3D scanner is portable and can be easily transported across the globe.

Another type of 3D scanner is the lower resolution, but moderately priced Structure Scanner, which can be mounted on any Apple iOS device and provide real-time 3D scanning. This scanner is very portable and can be easily tossed into a small book bag or purse.

One accessible way of capturing the past in 3D is through photogrammetry, which uses software to stitch together dozens of hundreds of photographs to create a 3D model. Scan the World is leading a global effort to scan the world’s cultural heritage, and make it accessible to all through free 3D models that are guaranteed to be printable on any 3D printer.

Visiting student Mariana Zechnini holds a printed set of passenger pigeon bones. Credit: Virtual Curation Laboratory

Why print the past?

There are a number of reasons why one might want to print the past. 3D printed replicas can be integral to a museum’s or research institution’s efforts to reach out to the public, can be important educational tools on the K-12 and undergraduate levels, and as part of tactile, e.g. touchable, components of temporary and even permanent exhibits. 3D printed replicas of artifacts, fossils, or historical items can be repeatedly handled without damaging the real things, and therefore help promote awareness of the past without endangering the actual representatives of the past. If an object’s replica is lost, damaged, or stolen, it can be readily and inexpensively replaced. Archaeologists, paleontologists, and other explorers of the past can present their discoveries to the general public, while simultaneously protecting their findings for future generations to study.

Many people are tactile learners and 3D printing can enhance educational efforts. There are many well illustrated guidebooks that help with these efforts, but these do not compare to a student’s ability to learn by holding a 3D printed replica of a stone tool or bone that has the shape and dimensions of the actual object. As more and more institutions place artifacts, bones, and fossils online, it is becoming increasingly easier for anyone to assemble accurate collections of known specimens—without actually having any real specimens.

This is particularly useful for schools or small institutions with limited space and even more limited budgets. These type of collections are not only useful for teaching developing scientists, but are themselves useful for making identifications in field or laboratory settings. Unlike real type specimens, 3D printed replicas can be easily and safely carried into the field and if made from plastic and therefore lightweight, one can actually carry hundreds of type specimens in a backpack or satchel.

Museums are increasingly incorporating 3D printing into the exhibit design process. One can take the 3D digital model of an object and easily create a custom mount to support that object when it is on exhibit. The VCL is increasingly working with museums through the medium of 3D printing. The Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH) recently closed an archaeology exhibit entitled “Exploring Virginia” that featured over 100 3D printed replicas of archaeological objects from around the world—an exhibit featuring this many real artifacts would have been too expensive for the museum to host. Right now, the VCL is using 3D scanning and 3D printing to help VMNH with an exhibition of an Ice Age giant ground sloth whose skeleton is incomplete. The VCL has 3D scanned right and left elements, digitally mirrored them, and then printed the missing “left” and “right” bones.

For the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the VCL created 3D printed replicas of artifacts dating to the signing of the U.S. Constitution that could be mounted on walls. Visitors can touch these replicas, while seeing the actual artifacts safely protected behind glass. They also have a teaching cart full of 3D printed replicas the help hands-on learners, such as small children.

A powerful expression of how 3D printing can transform access to the past is evident in the VCL’s partnership with the Virginia Historical Society. They want to make their marque exhibit, “The Story of Virginia”, more accessible to the global audience they reach through distance learning via 3D digital models posted online. They are especially interested in making the exhibit more meaningful to blind or visually impaired visitors by creating touchable versions of historical items locked safely in glass cases. People who are mobility challenged can also appreciate the museum’s collections even if they are unable to visit the museum in person.

By making 3D printable digital models of artifacts, fossils, or historical items available freely online, the Virginia Historical Society and like-minded institutions make access to the past more democratic. The revolution that is 3D printing is revitalizing our ability to explore the ancient history of our planet from the comfort of our own homes.