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VCU Archaeology

But, I have the real thing, why would I need a 3D printed replica?

by Bernard K. Means

For the 5 years or so that I have been 3D printing replicas of artifacts, bones, and various historical items, I have repeatedly heard variations on the same refrain: why would I/you/anyone need a 3D printed replica when I have, or have ready access to, the real thing? I have heard this from  a wide spectrum of professional archaeologists, curators, and collection managers. This attitude stems partly from the fact that the replicas I produce are usually made of plastic, so do not duplicate the weight or feel of most artifacts–although thanks to my talented Virginia Commonwealth University students, they at least resemble the real thing. This materials problem can be solved by replicating artifacts with glass, ceramics, or metals–although not as easily or cheaply as plastic.  Still, even if I could replicate the feel and weight of an object, and not just its appearance, I would still be asked the same question: why replicas?


So, why this attitude? This partly stems from the notion that archaeologists/curators/collection managers need function as gatekeepers to the past. People should come to us to see the real item, which we might deign to loan to them, and learn its proper significance. If we produce replicas of artifacts, the replicas can be in a different place than the real item, even simultaneously, and we can lose control of our message(s).

Control seems to be another major issue. For the objects that I have 3D scanned, I have the option of posting them to my Sketchfab site, and can either make them only viewable and manipulable, or add the option of making the files downloadable.  The downloadable files are posted with a Creative Commons license that indicates they should not be made commercial. Not all the 3D models I post are downloadable, and I follow this course at the request of the organization that holds ownership over the original object that was 3D scanned.  This reluctance to make models available for downloading and possible 3D printing derives from a number of overlapping reasons

  • the aforementioned attitude that there is a real object, so why would anyone want or need a replica?
  • the artifact/bone/historical object belongs to a museum/cultural heritage location, and no one else should have an unsanctioned copy
  • a fear, usually by upper management, that someone will 3D print multiple copies of an object, make lots of money, and destroy a revenue stream for a museum/cultural heritage location
  • a general fear that if people can download objects and interact with them, they might find no reason to go to the place that holds the real object
  • individuals who download objects might remix them in ways that a museum or cultural heritage location finds unacceptable/objectionable

What people are missing is that making archaeological or historical items more readily available, in whatever form, helps us democratize the past, and open up interpretation of archaeologists and non-archaeologists alike.





2 thoughts on “But, I have the real thing, why would I need a 3D printed replica?

  1. Or, for the following (excerpted from Wikipedia):

    Peking Man, Homo erectus pekinensis, is an example of Homo erectus. A group of fossil specimens was discovered in 1923–27 during excavations at Zhoukoudian (Chou K’ou-tien) near Beijing (written “Peking” before the adoption of the Pinyin romanization system), China. In 2009, the finds were dated from roughly 750,000 years ago, and a new … dating suggests they are in the range of 680,000–780,000 years old.

    Between 1929 and 1937, 15 partial crania, 11 mandibles, many teeth, some skeletal bones and large numbers of stone tools were discovered in the Lower Cave at Locality 1 of the Peking Man site at Zhoukoudian, near Beijing, in China. Their age is estimated to be between 500,000 and 300,000 years old. (A number of fossils of modern humans were also discovered in the Upper Cave at the same site in 1933.)

    The original fossils disappeared in 1941, but excellent casts and descriptions remain.

    Posted by Gary L Griffiths | May 11, 2016, 9:16 pm

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