• 12.28.12

Using Digital Fab, Harvard Rebuilds A Piece Of Iraqi History

Scientists at the Semitic Museum are using a CNC router to re-create a statue destroyed 3,000 years ago.

When the Assyrians sacked the ancient Iraqi city of Nuzi (near modern-day Kirkuk), they did what all good invaders do: smashed temples, burned houses, and ruined great works of art.


More than three millennia later, researchers at Harvard’s Semitic Museum are using ubiquitous digital technologies to repair some of the damage wrought upon Nuzi’s ruins. According to the Harvard Gazette, the increasing availability of digital modeling and fabrication techniques is allowing the museum to “wring new data from objects that have been in our basement for 80 years,” says assistant director Joseph Greene.

Photo by Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

The victim in question–a small stone statue of a lion–was one of four that guarded a temple in Nuzi. “It was discovered in 1930 smashed to pieces, along with thousands of beads, numerous figurine fragments, and additional cultic paraphernalia outside of the temple at the center of the city,” explains the museum on its website. Harvard owns only two small parts of the original statue: its front paws and its backside. One of its fully-intact cousins, which sat on the other side of the temple doors, lives at the University of Pennsylvania.

With the increasing ubiquity of 3-D scanning and printing technology, researchers at the Semitic Museum began to wonder if they could create a prosthetic midsection for their lion based on Penn’s. They invited Learning Sites–a company that re-creates ancient objects based on archeological findings–to give it a shot. Reunited for the first time in 3,000 years, the loan lion and the fragment of its cousin were placed side by side for a round of tests. The company used simple photo modeling techniques to generate a precise 3-D copy of the lion based on 120 photos. “It is very cool to hold a duplicate of an ancient artifact in your hand, especially one that was created by such leading-edge digital technologies and not by someone spending hours carving one by hand,” Learning Sites President Donald H. Sanders told Co.Design. “This is not your grandfather’s archaeology.”

Photo by Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

For now, both the broken lion and its cousin are on exhibit at the museum. But next year, the museum’s curators will finish the job of making it whole once more, using a CNC router to create a foam replica of the lion’s midsection based on the 3-D model. They even plan to paint the original statue, explaining that “material scientists at Harvard’s Strauss Center for Conservation and Technical Studies determined that the yellow was originally a deep blue.”

The project brings up some interesting questions about archeology and modern technology–questions which truthfully, have plagued museums for decades. For example, thanks to infrared cameras, historians have realized that the pristine white statues of classical antiquity were actually painted garish colors (in some cases, archeologists even scrubbed off the flaking paint to make the statues seem more dignified). Historians have argued for decades about whether to re-paint the statues, and the same dilemma applies to the Semitic Museum’s re-creation of its lion. Is it best to re-create the past as it once was, or to present it in the state it was found?

Read the Gazette’s full story here.

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.