3D models of ancient artifacts or digital archaeology

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In the new laboratory of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of the Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IAE SB RAS) scientists are busy scanning. Ancient stone tools, animal skulls and bones of primitive people, ceramics of the Neolithic and the Bronze Age are under investigation. The aim is to obtain accurate 3d models of such objects in high resolution. Therefore, there are hundreds of archaeological artifacts in the laboratory digital library. GIS- and experimental modelling, as well as traceological methods and mathematical statistics are applied for the study of the material culture of ancient communities.

Thus documented, a finished 3D model becomes part of the collection and can be displayed to anyone without handling its original. Scientists admit that the very possibility of creating and transmitting of electronic copies of archaeological material is a huge step towards collective research. You can simply send a 3D model of stone and bone tools to colleagues by e-mail. Researchers from around the world can see unique artifacts and even hold them in their hands after printing them out on a 3D printer.

The technology of 3d models generation allows you to enhance the image many times over for a more thorough research and even “cut” the electronic version of the find into thin layers, as well as make various measurements. Accurate 3d measurements allow for high-level research and in combination with traceological studies, reconstruct the function of artifacts. Moreover, with the help of various tools the lost fragments of artifacts or bones are reconstructed, Interestingly enough, the mammoth tusk figurine found two years ago was scanned and the staff of the IAE SB RAS digital laboratory managed to recover its lost parts, reconstruct the original shape, determine the direction of the holes, and calculate the center of mass. It turned out that the object used to be sewn onto the clothing, since the holes were made obliquely and were above the center of mass of the product, which ensured its stable position as a patch.

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A digital archaeological artifact is a significant and recent innovation for scientists. Having measured thousands of coordinates, it is now possible to compare forms and peculiarities of stone tools, as well as of paleontological and anthropological finds from different archaeological monuments and even from different continents. The main advantage of such an analysis is its verifiability. If other scientists examine the same 3D models, they will get exactly the same result.

This innovative method makes it possible for researchers to analyze artifacts and bone residues from all periods and territories, namely from Paleolithic to modern times. With a 3D model you can make an exact double-layout of any artifact, for example, for exhibiting at an exhibition. This is especially useful in cases when it comes to fragile things or anthropological materials that require high preservation of DNA for genetic research. Comparison of the form of stone tools and bones can provide researchers with the information on the most likely migration routes and the possible interaction of ancient people, on the population dynamics of humans and the species diversity of animals.

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Two RangeVision scanners are in action at the laboratory – a compact Spectrum, that has just returned from the Jonzac Neanderthal site in France, and a more powerful, stationary RangeVision Pro. They are mounted on tripods in front of the table, with a small turntable for the artifacts under study on it.

Pavel Chistyakov, a researcher at the digital laboratory explains: “The scanner is calibrated for artifacts of different sizes and the average number of images for creating a 3D model is 12–13. The cameras fix the geometry of the object and its texture. Before scanning, the projector imposes a moving grid of light and shade onto the object and the camera captures this grid and builds a digital model of the object surface on it. Accuracy varies from 0.15 to 0.04 mm”.

With the help of a special program you can automatically distinguish the 3D relief of the pattern made by stone or metal tools. The researcher at the lab Vasily Kovalev says: “Another area of 3D reconstruction is the study of petroglyphs. With the photogrammetry and 3D scanning it is possible to obtain a highly-detailed digital copy of the surface of images. Information about the technology and morphology of petroglyphs can be used for their relative dating”.

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According to the head of the laboratory, Doctor of Historical Sciences Ksenia Kolobova, 3D modeling is widely used in archeology throughout the world. As she puts it, “virtual 3D models created during the excavations make it possible to record and preserve all the information about the spatial characteristics of archaeological objects under study much more accurately than any text, drawings or photos, therefore to obtain 3d models of artifacts we basically use whitelight scanning technology, laser scanning and photogrammetry”.

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