Dealing with ancient art is a tricky business. There's a bad way to do it, like "restoring" a hundred-year-old fresco of Jesus by painting a new, vaguely human face over the original visage (and launching an Internet meme in the process). There's also a good way, thanks to one of our favorite technologies: Reconstructing artifacts through 3D printing. Harvard University's Semitic Museum has combined 3D scanning and 3D printing to rebuild a ceramic lion that was broken to pieces in Mesopotamia 3000 years ago.
By photographing the broken pieces of the sculpture from every angle, the Harvard team of Joseph Green and Adam Aja were able to put together accurate 3D renderings that could then be combined into one model and printed into a replica structure.
The technique offers huge benefits. Broken artifacts can be reassembled as replicas, with no risk to the original delicate pieces. Students can study them and learn how the original pieces were formed. Simply having 3D models of historical relics will be a great archival and educational tool.
Harvard's museum workers weren't the only ones to come up with the idea of recreating classic art with 3D printing. Artist Cosmo Wenman built two incredible busts with a MakerBot Replicator with a similar technique: Creating 3D models from digital photography, then printing multiple parts and assembling them into a large sculpture.
Wenman's sculptures are impressive showpieces for what 3D printing is capable of, though the quality of his pieces clearly benefits from a detailed "Epic Bronze" patina finish. He spent days transforming the 29 pieces of extruded white PLA plastic plastic into something that resembled a classic sculpture. Come to think of it, that makes 3D printing a great technology for art students, too--they can recreate sculptures or build sculptures with the help of a single 3D printer, no stone or clay required.