Scholarship in 3D: 3D scanning and printing at ASOR 2018

I recently attended the 2018 ASOR conference (one of the main conferences for my field in the United States), and was absolutely thrilled to see on the conference schedule no less than four sessions devoted to digital technology – either their use as a tool for scholarship, or as an object for study in their own right. While I could (and will) devote many posts to the fascinating presentations I sat through, I thought I might instead start by giving an overview of the innovative ways in which 3D scanning and printing technology is being used by academics. This kind of technology has been much covered in the media in recent months, especially as a response to the destruction of ancient artifacts by extremist groups, and its potential as a scholarly and pedagogical tool has not gone unnoticed by academics. Though it is not as widely-used as might be desired, the use of such technology is becoming more and more mainstream in the academic community, offering opportunities to share physical objects, often confined to one physical space, with a myriad of interested scholars and laypersons alike.

One of the major drawbacks to using 3D scanning as a preservation tool is the time and expense behind making such scans. Dr. Ran Kaftory argued that the academic utilization of 3D scanners is currently minimal due to the expense associated with both owning a scanner and properly training staff, and the lack of portability. He noted that, had there been a portable, affordable option to scan museum collections, the lost collection of the National Museum of Brazil may have been preserved online. Dr. Kaftory introduced the audience to a particularly exciting technological development that aims to help solve this problem; Qlone, an app that turns your iPhone or Android device into a 3D scanner. With the help of a mat (freely printable from the Qlone website), Qlone lets you create 3D models of any object that you can photograph – according to Dr. Kaftory, the only size limit is based on how big of a mat you are able to print. With a real-time demonstration projected for the audience to see, this was a most compelling presentation and having tested this software myself with Dr. Kaftory in the hotel bar after the session, I can personally attest to its user-friendliness. In fact, Qlone is so user-friendly that a group of 7th and 8th graders used it to create a virtual museum:

Qlone appears to eliminate the problems of portability and expense, meaning that high-quality 3D scans can now be made of finds in the field or in museums, without having to transport them to special facilities. I cannot speak to the comparative quality of Qlone scans when compared to those produced by dedicated 3D scanners, but it is most definitely promising technology.

Several other speakers also dealt with 3D scanning. Brad Erickson from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill discussed the access challenges surrounding cuneiform tablets from the ‘Curiosities Cabinet’ at the university library. Not only are these tablets only visible by special request, but very few people appear to know of their existence. Mr. Erickson also spoke of the difficulties he had in photographing the tablets in order to create high-resolution 3D models of them, as the library would not permit them to be taken off-premesis to a photography studio, instead insisting that they be photographed within the library. Regardless of the challenges, Mr. Erickson produced excellent 3D models and spoke of their potential for study both by academics, but also by students in local schools as well as library patrons. These models are available to view on the SketchFab website, and Mr. Erickson will also send the files to scholars wishing to study the scanned objects.

An interesting point brought up by Mr. Erickson is that of safeguarding any 3D printed versions of these models. He had received several requests from students and professors for the files in order to be able to print their own 3D versions of the objects, however, concerns exist as to how best to prevent them from being sold on the antiquities market as authentic objects, rather than modern reproductions. Copies made of plastic are less of a concern in this regard, but with the use of 3D printers able to print in gypsum, this may be more of a problem. Even though an expert would be able to identify such a modern reproduction, it is possible that a layperson would not have the necessary expertise. Mr. Erickson stated that he was attempting to safeguard against this by verifying the identities of scholars requesting the files, but that the had also considered including some kind of identifying mark in the 3D model.

A paper written by Dr. Anne-Caroline Rendu Loisel and Dr. Terhi Nurmikko-Fuller, though sadly not presented by them, detailed the workflow behind creating 3D models of four cuneiform tablets from the British Museum, asking the questions ‘how do we create 3D models for scholars’, and ‘how do we examine the materiality of the tables?’. While only a preliminary paper, some excellent models were produced and, as with Mr. Erickson’s work, lets us consider more seriously the importance of 3D replicas in cuneiform studies. As noted by Dr. Rendu Loisel and Dr. Nurmikko-Fuller, cuneiform is an inherently 3D writing system that is very difficult to properly study though 2D replicas  – either photographs or hand copies – as is traditional. The use of high-resolution 3D images, or printed models, has much potential in training future Assyriologists and allowing remote-access scholarship to those unable to travel to collections housed in museums all over the world.


This post only deals with a small fraction of excellent papers presented at this year’s ASOR conference, but I hope starts to show the amazing work being done in the field by digital Assyriologists! I will be back next month with a more in-depth look at the application of digital technology to the study of the ancient world and, with any luck, an interview to share 🙂

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