There is very little in the way of research into the human past that does not now take advantage of the web, mobile technology and other scientific advances of the last several decades. One of the successful experiments with the greatest wow factor is 3D printing.

It has been used to create a full-size reproduction of King Tutankhamun's mummy and to repair Rodin's sculture, The Thinker. Now it has been utilized by faculty and students at Cornell to safely create replicas of cuneiform, one of the world's most ancient systems of communication. (The writing first appeared in the Mesopotamian city-state of Sumer around 3,000 B.C.E.)

3D printing takes a scan of the object to be duplicated, then uses the scan to guide the printer's rendering, laying down thin polymer sheets until they build up into the figure. A modeler finishes, adding texture and color, or, as in this case, a color 3D printer is used.

For scholars and students, the culmination of the process of studying the tablets and discs covered in the wedge-formed writing, is to study the objects themselves first-hand. High-resolution digital photos are very helpful but some detail is simply invisible until you hold the object in your hand and move it around in the light.

Since the objects are held in far-flung collections, to do so is to take time and spend money, both of which are in short supply.

It is possible of course to take a casting of the object and create a replica that way, but there is always the chance that such a process will result in the degradation or outright breaking of the delicate ancient objects. So, in concert with Near Eastern and Judaic Studies professor David Olsen, Hod Lipson, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell University, is creating 3D versions in the Cornell Creative Machines Lab, according to the Cornell Chronicle.

The project page describes the technical process.

"A Next Engine desktop 3D scanner was used to take 3D laser scans of the tablets. After scanning, the accompanying software, ScanStudio HD was used for post-processing and outputting 3D printable files of the tablets. With the VRML file format, prototypes were made (using ZCorp powder-based ink-jet printers) that match the look of the original tablets in color and texture. The software also has the ability to output the files in STL format for creating prints using other printing technologies (FDM, SLA, etc.) that do not retain color and texture matching."

The price for the actual 3D color printing itself was only about $25 per piece and the process allows for automated creation of enlarged copies.

So far, they have created six prototype 3D printed cuneiform tablets. Further refinement will be needed to make the copying process consistently useful but it is an exciting start.

Photos from Cornell Creative Machine Labs | other sources: A Blog About History