3-D printing may be the wave of the future, but the technique—which is shaking up how architects, scientists, arms manufacturers and countless others go about their trade—will also now redeem the past.
Our story begins some 3,300 years ago, when a rampaging army ransacked the town of Nuzi whose ruins now lie southwest of the modern day Iraqi city of Kirkuk. The conquerors—the Assyrians, one of the more bullying empires of Mesopotamian antiquity—overran the town’s defenses, burned down its buildings, slaughtered or enslaved its inhabitants and looted its temples. What was not plundered was left, in many instances, smashed, tossed down wells and discarded in the smoldering wreck of the city. And there it lay for millennia until a team of archaeologists spearheaded by a number of American universities excavated the site in 1930 and unearthed its broken treasures.
Among the finds at Yorghan Tepe (the modern day name for the site where Nuzi once stood) were a set of lions thought to have flanked an installation of a statue of the goddess Ishtar. These and other objects were, under the colonial administration of the time, divided between local authorities and foreign archaeologists. The remains of one lion—fragments of its hindquarters and front paws—were claimed by Harvard’s Semitic Museum, while another more intact one made its way to the University of Pennsylvania. A decade ago, the two lions were reunited when Penn allowed their statue to be sent to the Semitic Museum on loan; it’s believed the lions were once mirror images of each other (their tails move in opposite directions).
But, with UPenn now seeking the return of its lion, Harvard’s curators were left with a quandary. How could they show off the precious fragments they had to visitors without the more intact version also on display? The solution was 3-D printing. Learning Sites, an outside company that does 3-D scans of archaeological artifacts, had already been at Harvard helping the Semitic Museum digitize some of its ancient wares. The company was then drafted in to help scan UPenn’s lion and digitally model a new physical copy to which Harvard can affix its fragments.
“This is the first physical production we’ve done using this technology,” Adam Aja, an assistant curator at the Semitic Museum, tells TIME. The process of reconstructing the Nuzi lion is underway now; the museum intends to paint the surface of the new lion to match what they’ve determined was its original color. “It was a glaze that degraded over time—originally, a vibrant, bright blue,” says Aja. “As a modern viewer of art, we often expect these ancient pieces to be bland, white statues. But this allows us to tell a whole other story.”
Indeed, the new precision and possibilities opened up by 3-D scanning technologies have implications far wider than their current impact in one Cambridge museum of Near Eastern antiquities. “It does the same thing that photography did to the expansion of the visual arts,” says Joseph Greene, the Semitic Museum’s assistant director. “The practice of renovating objects has been done since the Renaissance. Craftsmen would work incrementally on the object and by the eye, but these were all invasive measures.” 3-D scanning not only allows curators, archaeologists and historians to illuminate the past with accurate replicas, but also digitally preserve and catalog the complexities and detail of oft-brittle, delicate artifacts. It’s a means of holding onto the past.
Greene points to the looting of Baghdad’s National Museum of Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003, where numerous rare objects of Mesopotamian antiquity were destroyed or disappeared. “If we had a 3-D scan of everything in the Iraq museum, the losses it incurred wouldn’t be so devastating,” he says.