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Touching history: Bringing the past into the future

Page last published: 25 Jun 2014

Nicole Leong shows 3D prints of select ancient artefacts from Macquarie's Museum of Ancient CulturesWhat do we commonly wish to do when we see artefacts? We want to touch the objects, inspect and feel their intricacies, and study closely these relics from the past. However, the fragile nature of historical objects, especially of ancient artefacts, limits our access to them.

Thanks to an innovative research project which combines Macquarie University's expertise in medical imaging and ancient history, Macquarie students can now have hands-on experience with the ancient world.  Using 3D scans and prints, students are able to access, analyse, and conduct non-destructive detailed studies of ancient artefacts.

Learning and teaching history

The "Digitisation, 3D modelling, analysis, preservation and replication of small objects of antiquity" project is a collaboration between Dr Jaye McKenzie-Clark, an Early Career Fellow from the Department of Ancient History, and Professor John Magnussen from Macquarie's Australian School of Advanced Medicine. The purpose of the project is to increase the accessibility and availability of teaching resources. The project also aids in the conservation and preservation of ancient artefacts. The original objects, which are too fragile to be handled, will no longer be at risk of damage or destruction.

The project has so far produced 3D scans and prints of select ancient artefacts, some of which have already been integrated into the Archaeology and Society (AHIS230) unit, enhancing students' learning experience.

The introduction of virtual and 3D printed objects allows for a multisensory learning experience which is especially beneficial for people with disabilities, those who are visually impaired, or those who are studying via distance education. The project team has produced around 25 high-fidelity 3D virtual models and thirteen 3D replica prints of ancient artefacts. They are now seeking to expand this library of virtual and 3D printed objects to further increase its accessibility and availability to a wider range of audience, and to enhance the learning and teaching of Ancient History at Macquarie.

Bringing history and technology together

McKenzie-Clark and Magnussen worked with Bachelor of Philosophy/Master of Research (BPhil/MRes) students Keira De Rosa, Samantha Jones and Nicole Leong who were trained to use specialised 3D scanning equipment and software.

Leong, whose childhood dream was to study Egyptology, says that her involvement in the project led to a greater interest in academia and research.

"This project has definitely inspired me to pursue other areas of research, more in the application and uses of [3D scanning and printing] in Egyptology and museums, its uses in education, and how to develop and utilise this technology to its full potential so that it can be used as a learning tool," said Leong.

Jones, a Merit Scholar, also shares, "I learned how to use a 3D scanner and how to process 3D images. In order to scan them you have to be fairly meticulous over lighting, angles, and more. From this project I've been able to see and experience a whole new facet to teaching ancient history. Not only did my involvement in this project reinvigorate my passion for [Ancient History and Archaeology], it also made me realise that I love teaching and coming up with exciting new ways to teach."

In April 2014, Leong, De Rosa and Jones presented their 3D prints in a display and lecture at the Macquarie University Art Gallery, as part of the "Affinities: 7 Museums, 50 Objects" exhibition. They talked about the 3D scanning and printing methodologies and applications, and showed prints of ancient artefacts. The objects were printed in various materials, sizes and cross-sections, exemplifying the high fidelity of the 3D scans. The prints provide accurate profiles of the original ancient artefacts, helping students and the public to better visualise, understand and appreciate the objects.

De Rosa said, "Being a part of this project has been the most amazing experience of my university career. I not only was able to learn how to use 3D scanning equipment and how the process of 3D printing work, the project also opened my thinking about how this technology can be utilised within the realms of museum conservation, learning and teaching, and research."

Looking into the future

3D technologies have been used in manufacturing, design, health care and education since 1980s but it has only been within the last 10 years that these technologies are integrated into the fields of ancient history, archaeology and museum studies.

Providing access to ancient history through the use of innovative research techniques, the "Digitisation, 3D modelling, analysis, preservation and replication of small objects of antiquity" project puts Macquarie University at the forefront of delivering transformative learning.

"Macquarie is pushing and breaking down boundaries so that everyone can have access to an education. Macquarie continues to produce world-class graduates and has always been innovative in learning, teaching and research," De Rosa said.

Leong adds, "I guess you could say that as Ancient History students we're always looking into the past while Macquarie is continuously looking into the future."

Interested to study Ancient History? Learn more about our undergraduate, postgraduate and research degrees from our courses website.

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