Case Study: Creating 3D Printed Historical Artifacts


One’s ability to access archeological discoveries has traditionally been held back by distance and location. When an artifact of interest is discovered several hundred or even several thousand miles away, archeologists and students without the funds or means to travel are left out of the discovery altogether.

For education and research purposes, this presents a problem, because while photographs and videos are useful, they don’t come close to actually seeing, holding, feeling and noting an artifact’s details in person. Furthermore, some artifacts are of such value and precedence that even the archeologists who discovered them aren’t allowed to touch – they can only observe.

3D printing offers a solution to this, since it is possible to create 3D printed models of artifacts that are highly accurate and at minimal cost – something which Virginia Commonwealth University has been doing now for several years with success.

Creating 3D Printed Historical Artifacts


Dr. Bernard K. Means, who has Ph.D. in Anthropology from Arizona State University, Tempe, and a B.A in Anthropology from Occidental College, created the Virtual Curation Laboratory (VCL) in August 2011 as part of a project funded by the US Department of Defense. The Virtual Curation Laboratory, which is part of Virginia Commonwealth University, 3D prints models of historical artifacts using Fused Filament Fabrication 3D printers, including the Ultimaker 3.

Using the NextEngine Desktop 3D scanner to scan artifacts, the Virtual Curation Laboratory has 3D printed a wide range of artifact replicas for demonstrative purposes, student research projects, PR activities and for research support. They have also printed models for museums, which might not sound particularly useful, but they actually are, since visitors can touch the models to get a real sense of the artifact’s texture and form without worrying about damaging the real thing. Some models have also been used in other universities and colleges for educational purposes.

The 3D Printing Process

Creating 3D printed historical artifacts involves much the same process as any other model. Dr. Bernard K. Means starts by scanning the model, and then edits the mapped model to eliminate noise for a dimensionally-accurate drawing. Depending on how the model will be used, sometimes it will be edited to have a flat section so that it can be affixed to a wall or table.

The 3D scan is then sent to print on the Ultimaker 3. The printing process takes several hours. Some models are also printed in two parts if they are too big for the build platform.

In the image below, we can see a facial reconstruction in progress:

3D scan of facial reconstruction in progress

And below, we can see the 3D printed model coming to life:

3D scanning a partial facial reconstruction

Here’s a break-down of the 3D printing process:

1. Scan – Using the NextEngine desktop 3D scanner or a similar piece of equipment.
2. Edit – Using ScanStudio. Further editing may be needed with Meshmixer or Meshlab.
3. Print – Using the Ultimaker 3, which is favoured for its reliability and uptime.
4. Finishing – The model is sometimes painted in acrylics to give it a more authentic finish.

In addition to educational and research purposes, Dr. Bernard K. Means is interested in expanding the Virtual Curation Laboratory’s reach. With regards to this, Dr. Means said: “I am also interested in making archaeology, history, and paleontology more accessible through 3D printing to audiences who have limited access to experiencing them, such as the visually impaired or individuals confined to home or care facilities.”