Archaeologists have long studied ceramics discovered in their digs. Recording information about these findings, however, has traditionally been limited to two-dimensional representations (e.g., sketches & photographs) or data (e.g., text descriptions, numeric information such as dimensions, estimated dates, etc.).
New 3D modeling technology is now being used in archaeological research to capture richer visual information about ceramics discovered in the field.
As an example, I point to 3D models of clay figurines discovered at Koutroulou Magoula in Greece. The figurines depict human, animal or hybrid forms made of local clay.
Many of these figuines were painted, incised and otherwise decorated. Human fingerprints remain on some specimens, remnants from the original makers’ pressing fingers into the damp clay. These clay figurines form one of the largest collections of Neolithic figures in all of Greece.
Researchers have used a combination of technologies such as multi-faceted photography, 3D scanning, reflectance transformational imaging and multispectral photography to transform 2D images and descriptive data into marvelous 3D visualizations.
Viewing these 3D models is not the same sensual experience as holding these small clay items in your hands, but it’s pretty darn close.
There is a lot of work going into replicating texture in visual terms, so the viewer gets a tactile sense of the object even though he/she cannot actually hold the clay object. With Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) technology, an object is photographed from a stationary position, but light is moved to different positions around the object, creating different specular highlights and shadows. Software is then employed to blend the different digital images together, and specular highlights can be adjusted to replicate the qualities of particular materials like clay. (Light reflections off clay are quite different than light reflecting off shiny steel.) Laser scanning can produce very finely modulated 3D models of objects – and this technique has in fact been used to record and visualize individual fingerprints on Hohokam clay figurines. Scanning light across a Nabean lamp sherd revealed what was identified as a left-hand thumbprint from the vessel.
What’s amazing is the ability to zoom into these 3D visualizations to almost microscopic levels. Here is a screenshot of one 3D model (Figurine PHGM_2020_104-21), showing a close-up of carved lines depicting rolls of fat on the tummy of the figurine.
More information on the techniques employed with 3D visualizations of ceramic figurines can be found in an academic paper by Costas Papadopoulus, et al entitled “Digital Sensoriality: The Neolithic Figurines from Koutroulou Magoula, Greece. (Beware: this paper and the research Papadopoulus discusses is very, very geeky.) You can download the paper from ResearchGate at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/332038304_2019_Digital_Sensoriality_The_Neolithic_Figurines_from_Koutroulou_Magoula_Greece_Cambridge_Archaeological_Journal.