Some thoughts on the future of 3D printing in Roman Britain and Roman Syria

I am currently involved in two projects relating to 3D printing: one in Roman Britain and one in Roman Syria. I am not a ‘techie’ person, which gives me a different perspective as I am not a staunch proponent of the technology – merely a curious observer. I don’t think we should relinquish ourselves to the inevitably of this technology, nor do I think it is my decision whether or not 3D printing is a good thing. In both projects, I am interested to find out what other people think might be the future of this technology in museums and for archaeology.

The Roman Britain project is run jointly by me and Amanda Hart at Corinium Museum (and funded generously by the Roman Research Trust). In this project we have laser-scanned and 3D printed a selection of objects that were featured in the ‘Food for Thought’ exhibition in summer 2015. We have used these objects in a series of focus groups with people of different backgrounds and expertise in order to find out their feelings towards these objects and where they believe the value in them lies. The focus groups are ongoing, so these are some preliminary thoughts.

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Some of the objects, 3D printed and original, from the Corinium Museum focus groups.

So far, it would seem that very few people are firmly for or firmly against the technology – it is clear that we cannot just assume that everyone welcomes it as a way forward. Most people can see a role for 3D prints in public engagement, but very few can think of clear research questions that could be answered by 3D prints. Most people think that the prints feel ‘wrong’ (wrong texture, wrong weight etc), with some openly claiming that they seem ‘cheap’. More surprisingly (to an archaeologist), a couple of people stated that they actually prefer the 3D print to the original object. Finally, in our most recent focus group an important discussion arose concerning the fate of experimental archaeology in a 3D printed future. It was felt strongly that 3D printing cannot and should not take the place of experimental archaeologists, who bring with them so much embodied, material knowledge and experience that must not be lost – in any future steps, we must take great care to protect and support this knowledge and its bearers.

The second project involves a 3D print of part of the Temple of Bel from Palmyra that is to be exhibited in Trafalgar Square next week (19th-21st April 2016). My role here is tangential – I am not involved in the print itself, nor in the Institute of Digital Archaeology. My link comes out of my ‘Remembering the Romans in the Middle East and North Africa’ project and my wish to raise awareness over the cultural importance of the archaeology of this region. My role next week is to invite visitors to write postcards to Palmyra, telling us what their hopes are for the future of the site and how they feel – positively or negatively – about the 3D print.

The question over whether to reconstruct Palmyra or not has raised fierce opinions on both sides of the debate. I’m still thinking through my position: I don’t think I fall in either of the camps at the extreme ends of the debate, but here are some of my initial thoughts. Sadly for Palmyra, this is not the first time this city has suffered (Aurelian did a thorough job on it in the Roman period), nor has the site escaped previous reconstruction efforts. That said, we should not blindly repeat the past, nor should we proceed without careful thought for the future. 3D printing technology is still new and not completely understood. From my limited experience with the Corinium objects, I have been surprised by the fragility of some of the objects (and have to confess to breaking one of them quite easily). If – and it is a big if – 3D printing technology is to be used in some way on any site, including Palmyra, we need to test its robustness in a range of environmental conditions, before we commit to it as a conservation method. There is also the big issue of cultural memory to consider and how 3D printing might contribute, or even disrupt, this process.

All in all, I think we need more open discussion about the future of this technology. If the Corinium focus groups have shown anything, it is that we (as self-appointed experts) should not assume that we know what other people think about this technology – my expectations have been confounded numerous times on this project! We must think before we act in any direction. There are many concerns and issues that deserve much more discussion and thought with and by people from all backgrounds. I hope I am helping to encourage such discussion, even if in a small way.

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