Miami uses hi-tech tools to recreate stolen artifacts

Jeb Card, a visiting professor of anthropology at the university, is using 3-D scanning and printing to create replicas of ancient artifacts, including two that were stolen from the department last June.

Last spring, before the items were stolen, Card scanned a 19th-century pipe and a painted effigy vessel from the Greater Nicoya region of Costa Rica. The scans stored their digital information on his computer.

“Now, I’m actually working with 40-some students on scanning stuff as a standard part of our archaeology courses. It’s got four laser strips, and they bounce off an object to get the physical dimensions of the object. It also has two digital cameras that take pictures like your phone. And they then layer that all together,” Card said.

Last week, with the use of a new color 3-D printer at Miami’s B.E.S.T. Library, Card created replicas of the stolen objects with the same dimensions and colors. The printer puts down layers of gypsum powder and coats them with ink.

The replicas can’t recreate everything that was lost when the items were stolen. For instance, the 3-D model couldn’t replicate all of a Civil War pipe, or the clay of a tablet. That would mean that the replica can no longer give clues about the age of the artifact, or where it came from, Card said.

“It’s like taking a photo. A photo is not a perfect replica of somebody’s face. It’s a very good replica, but there will be shadow, there will be reflections. We deal with that. But the form of it — that we have,” Card said.

And with that form, Card and his students can still gain valuable information.

“I can hand a cuneiform tablet (replica) to my students, so they can see what the world’s oldest writing looks like. I don’t have the original clay object, but I have something that looks and feels just like it,” he said.

Printing 3-D objects is just one facet of the advanced technology Miami uses. There will be an open house from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday at Laws Hall to demonstrate various virtual reality systems. These will include Oculus Rift, which is like a wearable cell phone built into goggles with motion trackers, and Razer Hyrdra, which is like an advanced version of the hand remotes on a Nintendo Wii system, said Eric Hodgson, an executive vice president for academic affairs.

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