Will 3D printing save history?

While the 250,000 people killed, 6.5 million displaced and 4.8 million refugees since 2011 (UN estimates) are the real tragedy of the Syrian conflict, the speedy resurrection of Palmyra’s famous Arch of Triumph using 3D photos and 3D modelling techniques is being hailed as a defiant act. The message? If they knock it down, we have the technology to rebuild it – and quickly.

360 degree photos and video are most associated with virtual reality, but 3D modelling is now being used to faithfully reconstruct – and even 3D-print – ancient monuments and artefacts. Palmyra in Syria is an UNESCO World Heritage Site, a 1,800-year-old Roman monument all but destroyed late last year by Daesh.

3D printings of the site from the New Palmyra Project’s data (Image Credit: New Palmyra Project)

Pioneering project

Reconstructed using a 3D computer model created from photographs, the Harvard University-based Institute for Digital Archaeology (IDA) last week displayed in Trafalgar Square, London, a life-size replica of the Arch of Triumph. The replica will arrive at the now secure Palmyra site later this year.

Not only is it a pioneering project for a new generation of digital archaeologists, but it’s all happened very quickly. So very quickly, in fact, that some worry that it’s become a propaganda tool for the Assad regime. Others think it a defiant message to anyone disrespecting critical world heritage. Either way, there’s no doubting that technology will play a huge role in resurrecting Palmyra and other world heritage sites.

Palmyra attracted around 150,000 tourists a year before the Syrian War (Image Credit: Wikimedia)

Eye in the sky

After the capture of Palmyra, before and after satellite imagery from UrtheCast was consulted by the UN to confirm the site’s devastation. UrtheCast’s goal is to monitor all world heritage sites daily – close-up 3D scans are one thing, but the world’s heritage sites need constant monitoring. From the skies above.

Given the anticipated vandalism of Daesh, 2014-15 saw something of a rush to 3D-scan world heritage sites in Syria. Digital archaeologist Bassel Khartabil started his New Palmyra Project, CyArk and the Lahore University of Management Sciences digitally documented heritage sites in Pakistan, and the IDA populated its open-source Million Images Database, capturing millions of 3D images of threatened objects.

Something missing? Palmyra as UNESO photographed it last week (Image Credit: UNESCO/F. Bandarin)

Drones and 3D printing grids

A team from UNESCO has just visited Palmyra to assess the damage, armed with radar to scan beneath the monuments, and with drones to produce 2D aerial images of them from the air. Faithful reconstruction demands precision, so the entire site will again be mapped in 3D.

“A machine in one or two hours gives you a perfect reconstruction of an object … before it would take weeks and weeks,” Francesco Bandarin, assistant director-general for culture at UNESCO, told the Wall Street Journal.

The New Palmyra Project extensively photographed the site using 3D cameras (Image Credit: New Palmyra Project)

However, the main work has already been done. The IDA already had 360-degree images from Palmyra in the Million Image Database, and has therefore been able to accurately reconstruct the Arch of Triumph using proprietary cement-based 3D printing techniques. A 3D printing grid will be set up on the site itself to repair other sections.

Top Image Credit: Institute for Digital Archaeology

King Tut’s tomb tech

Even the theory about there being a hidden room at all comes solely from forensic 3D laser scans by Factum Arte in 2009 that mapped the chamber in excruciating detail to produce high-resolution 3D scans.

The use of 3D scanning and 3D printers in archaeology is fast becoming decisive. In April 2016 international archaeologists in Egypt used infrared thermography to map the walls of Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings, which might giveaway the location in a secret chamber of the long-sought resting place of Queen Nefertiti.

British Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves used the 3D data to develop an intriguing hypothesis about Nefertiti, and Factum Arte itself then went ahead and built a 1:1 replica of Tutankhamun’s tomb, which opened two years ago.

3D printing is also being used to revive vintage cars (Image Credit: KWSP)

Recreating lost artefacts

That was until engineering company KWSP from Brackley in Northamptonshire, UK, manufactured a one-off gearbox cover using only an old black and white photograph of the car. KWSP design engineers measured and scanned the existing gearbox and then created CAD data of the complete historic assembly in 1927, reverse-engineering the entire vehicle before 3D printing the components they needed.

While the riches of Tutankhamun’s tomb – pulled out of the ground in 1922 – are now safely (well, safe-ish) locked away in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, until recently a vintage Amilcar from just a few years later lay in tatters.

“It has been a fascinating and hugely rewarding challenge to use the latest in digital fabrication to recreate a unique component, using modern manufacturing design techniques that interface with an assembly that was handmade in the 1920s,” says Kieron Salter, managing director of KWSP.

“This is where advances in 3D printing really bring value, but it’s not just about pressing a button and producing an object in three dimensions,” he added, stating that the real added value is in the design validation and final manufacturing.

3D scans can also be used to recreate artefacts and 3D printing downloads in the virtual space (Image Credit: LGfL)

Virtual reconstruction

As well as digital reconstruction, 3D imagery of objects and artefacts can also be used extensively in the virtual space. The London Grid for Learning (LGfL) just won an award at BETT for its Maya: A Journey through the Maya World digital teaching resource, which uses augmented reality. It also makes available 3D printing files for some of the AR artefacts – a model of the Maya flute can be downloaded and recreated with a 3D printer.

Digital defiance

Although Palmyra is getting all the headlines, the Institute for Digital Archaeology is planning more 3D-printed replications throughout 2016 and 2017. “It is our hope that it will become a model for future similar endeavours,” says the IDA’s website. “While there are those who seek to encourage us to forget the past – to forget the shared history that unites us – we are dedicated to ensuring that the visual reminders that keep that history alive remain a part of the human experience.”

Palmyra’s famous Arch of Triumph may have gotten fast-tracked, but the list of world heritage sites destroyed or damaged by Daesh alone is extensive. Lives need rebuilding in Syria way more than Palmyra, of course, but with 3D modelling and printing techniques maturing fast, the age of defiant digital reconstruction is quickly taking shape – and the Universe of Things just got a whole lot more serious.

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