Over 3,000 years ago the town of Nuzi was a thriving community. That is, until the Assyrians decided to wipe the town from the face of the map. Nuzi's citizens were slaughtered, their temples destroyed and their treasures looted or broken.
In 1930 an Archeology team unearthed the remains of Nuzi at the Yorghan Tepe dig site in Iraq. Among the rubble they found a set of stone lions believed to flank the entrance to a temple. One of the lions was in bad shape; only the tail and part of the paws remained. It was claimed by Harvard's Semitic Museum who had archeologists at the dig site. The other lion, in far better condition, was claimed by the University of Pennsylvania.
In 2003 the University of Pennsylvania allowed its lion to take a road trip to Harvard so that it could be used as part of a display. Ten years later they remembered the lion and asked Harvard to return it. Harvard's curators were left with a bit of a problem; their lion was so damaged no one could tell what it was unless they displayed UPenn's lion alongside it. Not wanting to be left with only the damaged half of a set, Harvard researchers did the next best thing; they decided to scan UPenn's lion, print a 3D model from the scans and use that model to repair their own damaged statue.
To get the project moving, representatives from Harvard contacted Learning Sites, a company that had previously pitched in to help Harvard scan some of its ancient treasures. "This is the first physical production we've done using this technology," said Adam Aja, an assistant curator at the Semitic Museum. The project is currently underway and Harvard's curators plan to not only to fix up the damaged portions of their lion, but to restore it to its former beauty. "It was a glaze that degraded over time—originally, a vibrant, bright blue," says Aja. "As a modern viewer of art, we often expect these ancient pieces to be bland, white statues. But this allows us to tell a whole other story."
The story of the Nuzi lion will be told again later this year, thanks to modern day 3D printing technology. The scans of the statue will be turned into a 3D printable file and layer by layer, a replica of the statue will emerge. "[3D printing] does the same thing that photography did to the expansion of the visual arts," says Joseph Greene, the Semitic Museum's assistant director. "The practice of renovating objects has been done since the Renaissance. Craftsmen would work incrementally on the object and by the eye, but these were all invasive measures."
The Harvard Semitic Museum is not the only museum to recognize the value of 3D printing and scanning for the restoration of historical artifacts. The Smithsonian has reproduced a statue of Thomas Jefferson this way and they even have their own 3D scanning team called the Laser Cowboys. Across the world in Basel, Switzerland, artist Cosmo Wenman is busy scanning some of their priceless statues. He plans to publicly release the 3D printable files when he's finished.