Can archaeobotany benefit from 3D printing technology?
Two things I’ve read recently have led me to ask myself this question. The first was reading that a researcher at Massey University, New Zealand, had created 3D printed models of pollen scaled 2000-3000 times actual size. Dr Katherine Holt noticed that her students struggled to identify pollen types through the two-dimensional imaging of traditional optical microscopes. Having seen 3D models being viewed on a computer screen, she thought that the next obvious step would be to 3D print scaled-up models of pollen and, using a confocal microscope, created 3-dimensional models of pollen from four tree species.
The second thing came from a little closer to home. Dr Roger Close, a vertebrate palaeobiologist at Oxford University, used the Natural History Museum’s X-Ray Computed Tomography scanner to produce a highly detailed 3D model of a 170 million year old fossilised mammal jawbone from the Isle of Skye, Scotland. The normal process would be to smash, chip and scrape the fossil from the surrounding matrix and examine it under a microscope. However, using the CT scan data to produce a scaled-up 3D print of the jawbone, he was able describe the fossil more easily and see features not discernible on a computer rendering. Not only this, but the 3D data was made freely available for other researchers to download and print their own copies.
The archaeobotany connection
It’s easy to see where this is going – can 3D printing be used to help teach the identification of ecofacts, such as pollen, seeds, or small invertebrate parts, to students and volunteers? I can‘t see why not. The New Zealand case reports that the 3D models created a connection with a microscopic reality that the balloons or plasticine models previously used to demonstrate pollen morphology couldn’t achieve. While the 3D fossil is aiding research directly, it also shows the incredible detail that certain 3D imaging technologies can achieve. Okay, the equipment needed for this kind of scanning is quite exotic, but a benefit can clearly be seen.
The final point is that these questions may not be the most interesting. Certainly the harder question is how can the benefits of teaching with 3D models be measured? It seems obvious that there must be some benefit, but how can this be quantified and compared to how these skills are already being taught, and not just specifically in the case of archaeobotany, but across the heritage sector more broadly?