3D printing for archeology and museology

3D printing is very helpful in archeology and museology as it allows researchers to scan and replicate historical objects, to study them in depth and it also offers many interactions with the public.

What are the added values for archeology and museology?

3D scanning and 3D printing can help archaeologists, curators, museums and enthusiasts to maintain their collection, to restore it, or to duplicate art pieces and historic artifacts.

These technologies also allow to study each piece with an unprecedented level of details.

Finally, 3D printing can have an educational role by facilitating the access to historical objects and introducing some fun in the experience.


Protecting historical items and archaeological excavations

Preserving original collections

With 3D printing, archaeologists or museum curators can improve the conservation of their collections by repairing and duplicating their most fragile or damaged items, while preserving the originals.

It only takes a few minutes to 3D scan a human-size statue. The 3D file obtained can then be saved, archived, edited and 3D printed.

Non-contact 3D scanners are recommended to avoid damaging the items.

A 3D scan of a human-size statue with the Artec Eva handeld 3D scanner.

A 3D scan of a human-size statue with the Artec Eva handeld 3D scanner.

A 3D modelling of an excavation site conducted by Archéotec.

A 3D model of an excavation site conducted by Archéotec.

Excavation sites

Archaeological sites are often found on construction areas, and can stop or slow building projects. Therefore, archaeologists have only a limited time to lead searches in those excavation sites. They need to work quickly and to follow constraints rules.

Professional 3D scanners, with a large scanning area equipped with a GPS allow archaeologists to obtain a 3D model of the search site. Thus, it is easier to visualize locations of archaeological remains and optimize the excavation site researches.

Helping researchers and museums curators

Producing virtual explorations

With 3D scanners, it is possible to produce “virtual explorations” of archaeological pieces.

The Quai Branly museum in Paris uses 3D scanning in order to see through ancestral coffins filled with objects, which cannot be opened without damaging them.


A dual view of a “fardo”, a Peruvian coffin and its virtual exploration conducted by the Quai Branly Museum.

The analysis of statue's engravings with the 3D software Smithsonian X.

The analysis of a statue’s engravings with the 3D software Smithsonian X.

Working on details

Using 3D software to explore 3D files collected by a 3D scanner allows researchers to zoom in on objects, and to apply color or light filters. Invisible details are then revealed and radiation-sensitive artifacts are preserved.

With 3D printing, it is possible to replicate an entire object or specific parts. Researchers can then work on the copy while preserving the originals.

Fostering global collaboration

By using 3D scanners to capture 3D models of historical artifacts, researchers can easily share their data with the scientific community, worldwide.

Other researchers in the same field can then work on the shared 3D file and even 3D print their own version of the object.

Universities can also offer their students to examine copies of historical artifacts. Originals are then preserved.

The 3D reproduction of a skull that allow students to examine it while preserving the original skull.

The 3D reproduction of a skull that allow students to examine it while preserving the original one.

3D printing serving museums

Bringing more interactivity to museums and exhibitions

With 3D printing, museums can create realistic replicas of objects from their collections. Visitors can then manipulate these 3D printed versions without damaging the originals.

3D printing also offers the opportunity to create physical representations in 3D of paintings. The Prado Museum and the Museum of Manila have already taken advantage of these opportunities.

For instance, in Spring 2015, an exhibition at The Prado Museum allowed blind visitors to discover five masterpieces thanks to 3D printing. Those paintings in relief permitted visitors to experience the exhibit by touching the 3D printed version of the masterpieces.

An innovative way of using 3D printing and to prove that art goes beyond senses.

A 3D printed painting displayed at the Prado Museum in Madrid to provide a better visitor experience.

A 3D printed painting displayed at the Prado Museum in Madrid to provide a better visitor experience.

A bronze statue, whose broken hands have been replaced by 3D printed hands.

A bronze statue, whose broken hands have been replaced by 3D printed hands.

Restoring damaged pieces of art

It is sometimes complicated to restore art pieces and it can lead museum curators to remove the damaged pieces from their exhibits. 3D scanners and 3D printers are increasingly used in the restoration of works of art, including statues for which it is possible to reconstruct missing parts, such as hands (as shown on the picture).

Bringing home a 3D printed version of your favorite art piece

In some museums, visitors who own a 3D printer can download 3D models from the museum’s exhibition and 3D print them at home. This licence system is offered, for instance, to visitors at the Art Institute of Chicago. For this type of use, the extrusion technology is recommended, but it only allows to 3D print objects in plastic.

Two statuettes of the Vénus de Milo 3D printed thanks to available 3D files on the Thingiverse plateform.

Two statuettes of the Vénus de Milo 3D printed thanks to 3D files available on the Thingiverse plateform.

Facilitating access to cultural heritage through 3D scanning

 Visiting a museum from your home

The development of virtual museums is supported by the overall growth of the 3D printing ecosystem, including non-contact 3D scanners.

For example, French startup Arskan 3D scanned some of the main pieces from the Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon, to create an experience out of the ordinary.

The launch of this interactive experiment in fall 2015, accessible via an internet connection, will make the Lyon Museum the first virtual 3D museum.

A member of Arskan scanning in 3D a statue with the 3D scanner FaroArm.

A member of Arskan scanning in 3D a statue with the 3D scanner FaroArm.

Download and 3D print cultural heritage 3D files

 Scroll and download 3D files made from scanned artifacts

The online virtual museums not only allow the users to scroll back in time but also to create replicas of famous artifacts in the comfort of their homes.

Several online resources are available. The biggest cultural 3D files databases are listed here:

Sketchfab – Museums. More than 30 museums, including the famous British Museum and The Metropolitan Museum of Art display thousand of high resolution 3D scans of their collections. Now visible in Virtual Reality!

> MyMiniFactory – Scan The World. Thousand of 3D files from all across the globe. The 3D files were made from real life objects scanned in 3D. The designs are 100% printable!

> African Fossils. 3D scanned files in HD, classified by time period and type (hominids, animals, tools). A wikipedia section is associated to each single 3D model, for detailed explanations and background of the fossil. A powerful educative resource.

> MorphoSource. MorphoSource is a project-based data archive that allows researchers to store and organize, share, and distribute their own 3D data. File formats include tiff, dicom, stanford ply, and stl. You can browse the cultural files by Institution, Taxonomy, Bibliography and Project.

Case study: the Mosul museum in Iraq


Ancestral sculptures in 3D

Using 3D printing, Iranian artist Morehshin Allahyari has set out to replicate the millennium-old sculptures from the Mosul Museum, which have been destroyed in 2015 by Daesh jihadists.

With the help of experts from US and Iran universities, she managed to design 3D models of the destroyed sculptures. She based her work on documents left about these art pieces.

3D files of the sculptures will be made available to the public and then allow anyone to 3D print them at home. A great way to ensure that this heritage continues to live for the centuries to come.

A 3D printed reproduction of King Uthal. Image Credit: Morehshin Allahyari.