Who Owns The Past: Another Possible Solution, Saving Iraq’s Cuneiform Tablets

Recently I wrote a review on Cuno’s new book Who Owns Antiquity. In that review I expressed my disappointment at the few solutions Cuno proposed. The next day, I returned to the subject with a post discussing the Virtual Vault at the Arizona State Museum. In this post I would like to point you to another possible solution – one being used to help preserve Iraqi antiquities.

This comes from the Discovery Channel:

A technology normally used in reconstructive surgery to create prosthetic limbs is now being applied to create reproductions of Iraq’s precious and fragile cuneiform clay tablets, according to an Italian team of researchers.


Called “Duplication and Rebirth,” the project consist of an electronic catalogue with bibliographical references, photographs, and when possible, 3D images of the tablets. These three-dimensional models can then produce exact replicas of the original relics.
“So far, we have recorded almost 20,000 artifacts scattered throughout the world,” Negri said.
While scholars estimate that roughly five million of the tablets are still buried in the mounds of Iraq, some 500,000 are kept in museum and private collections worldwide.
To obtain 3D images and subsequent perfect replicas of the tablets, the researchers used sophisticated laser scanners and a technology called rapid prototyping.
After a laser ray scans the surface of the tablet to obtain the necessary data to build a 3D image, a software builds the three-dimensional model.
“This data is the key to rapid prototyping, but can be also used to recreate virtual copies of the clay blocks, which can be viewed on a computer or over the Internet. Our goal is to build a 3D virtual museum accessible to scholars everywhere,” ENEA engineer Sergio Petronilli, told Discovery News.
The last part of the process involves rapid prototyping. Using the previously built 3D model, the technology builds up layers of thermoplastic material and creates a perfect replica of the original. Unlike using silicon or latex casts, the process does not damage the fragile clay surface.

Assuming the files and data are then spread via open access, this would allow scholars around the world to study the material without vitriolic discussions about ownership and without the need to transport delicate artifacts.
For another example of how people are attempting to preserve and disseminate knowledge about cuneiform You can also check out the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative.


4 Responses

  1. I thought this was a good idea when I first read it. I still do. It major advantage of 3D images is that they are electronically portable and nondestructive. But they are costly and not everyone has a prototyping system. People have been making dental casts of tablets from a very long time. I have several on my bookshelves. The problem with casts is that the process of making the mold can be harm the tablet. Photos of tablets just don’t work. It is a corollary to Murphy’s Law that the light will always be becoming from the least helpful direction at the most difficult to read place on the tablet.

  2. Yes, the cost of the prototyping system is the main stumbling block.

  3. So skip the prototyping and just use the models on-screen or to produce 2D prints. Or wait a few years – it’s the 21st Century, dammit! – till everyone has access to a pantograph and can reproduce any object they desire. Then we can all have something to talk about on the videophone while we relax in silver jumpsuits in our hovercars.
    Sorry, what’s that? What do you mean, it’s not THAT 21st Century?

  4. John – Hovercars? What do have against good, old fashioned, American jetpacks built with good, old fashioned, American values? Why, I bet you are not even wearing an good, old fashioned, American flag pin on your lapel…

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