New 3D scanner brings ancient artefacts to life for digital age

Birmingham engineers have developed an inexpensive 3D scanner to catalogue ancient artefacts in a bid to create a worldwide digital library to preserve historical items for future generations.

The novel system uses a smartphone, costs as little as £100 and could be sent to museums and archaeological sites across the world, even scanning items as soon as they are discovered to reduce risk of damage.  3D models can be produced quickly and made accessible across a range of modern digital devices, reducing the need for expensive and complex laser scanning equipment.

Scanning cuneiform tablets with a smartphone

The instability of world regions such as the Middle East has placed significant risk on the preservation of heritage collections and, by creating a low-cost, easy-to-use 3D scanner, efforts can be made to digitise important artefacts before they are lost forever.

Dr Tim Collins and Dr Sandra Woolley from Electronic, Electrical and Systems Engineering (EESE) have been using the new system to scan and reassemble fragmented cuneiform tablets using algorithms developed at the university.

Reconstructing cuneiform fragments on a touchscreen display

Dr Tim Collins, lecturer at University of Birmingham, said: ‘The new system gives us the ability to create high quality, low-cost 3D models of ancient artefacts. This is vitally important for the preservation of fragile historical items and could aid museums in creating cutting-edge visual displays for visitors.

Cuneiform script is one of mankind’s earliest systems of writing, first developed in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) around 3300 BCE. Scribes would write onto small clay tablets, many of which have become broken and, subsequently, separated. Cuneiform tablet fragments are distributed in museums across the world; the British Museum alone houses many thousands of pieces. An inexpensive system makes cataloguing these fragments easier and more accessible. The matching algorithms we have developed allow us to join together fragments housed in collections around the world to create digital models of completed tablets.

The team recently visited the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery where they created 3D models from photographs of items from the Staffordshire Hoard, the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found, in order to investigate new ways of increasing the interactivity of museum collections using touchscreen and virtual reality technology.

The team would like to thank the Leverhulme Trust for their financial support and to fellow research team members E. Ch’ng, A. Lewis, L. Hernandez-Munoz and E Gehlken, and also the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and British Museum.