Bones and Stones. St Catharine’s College, Cambridge 3D Scanning and Digitisation Conference

Phillip.Lindley | December 14, 2012

WP_000034revThis was a wonderfully interesting and intellectually stimulating conference.  The budgetary assistance allocated by Ross Parry’s team was augmented by a generous grant from JISC: special thanks to Paola Marchionni of JISC, and to Peter Findlay, for his able chairing of the round table at the end of the conference.

In putting the conference together, I wanted to stimulate discussion about the relationship between Art and Science and the subject of Heritage Science in particular.  Introducing the issues with distinctively Leicestershire contributions to the subject, I started not with the familiar C.P. Snow ‘Two Cultures’ debate, but the – to my mind – much more profitable precedent of William Cheselden and his employment of artists and mechanical aids for the magnificent Osteographia illustrations, published in 1733.  Here scientist and artists, worked together, using the best available technology, to present the 3D object to the viewer. Fascinatingly, Cheselden was well aware that though the primary function of the images was pedagogic, the prints (and drawings) themselves, whether of diseased skulls or skeletons carefully posed, were possessed of great individual beauty.

We then moved from bones to stones. My introduction to ‘Representing Re-Formation’.  Looking at my conceptualisation of the project, I went through the stages of analysing the Howard monuments with the draughtswoman Jill Atherton.  She and I measured every single stone, our work culminating not just in our elevation drawings of each face, showing every stone, but Jill’s fine isometric drawings, showing ‘exploded’ views of the monuments.  I remember talking to Prof May Cassar about this work in 2009 when I was at New Haven, and it is terrific now to see these drawings and to see the guidance they have given to George Fraser’s Physics team.  We used a commercial contractor, Europac, to scan thWP_000025reve monuments and all the relevant excavated fragments and George’s PhD student, Nishad Karim, is now doing the technical work, disassembling and virtually reassembling the monuments, following George’s and my instructions. It was fascinating to hear other speakers talk about similar projects to our own: here the papers by Anna Thirion, Laura Bartolome Roviras and Jack Hinton were particularly relevant.  Anna, in particular, had reassembled components of a twelfth-century tribune, scanning and virtually reassembling it, on her own. This was inspirational.  Laura’s report on the wonderful collaborative project running in Spain provided many comparisons for our own work, whilst Jack’s team in Philadelphia had already compared Houdon portraits of Franklin using 3D scanning in 2006. Issues of scanning art objects were also superbly dealt with by AnneMarie La Pensee and Marcos Rodrigues, as well as by our own George Fraser.  One big issue here was conveying the status of the reconstructed 3D objects, whilst another, clearly of great interest to JISC, is the use of such models for education, teaching and learning.  The contributions of the ten students to whom we had given full scholarships were of enormous interest during the discussions.

Ross Parry chaired day two, where the focus was pulled out from art history to the use of 3D scanning more generally.  The trio of papers by Mike Howe, Andy Wilson, and Paul Bryan (whose support and guidance have been so valuable to us), offered a remarkably inspirational series of case studies, demonstrating the enormous potency of 3D scanning for digital archiving, research, and for teaching.  Many of the scans were also staggeringly beautiful. It was interesting to see the input of artists from the gaming industry in Mike’s project adding colour to replicate the fossils’ appearance (compare Charles Stothard’s use of colour in the nineteenth century, in his 2D print reconstructions of medieval monumental effigies).

David Arnold and Stephen Gray gave us real insights into issues of standards and offered a timely tour d’horizon.  David’s Europe-wide perspective was illuminating as was Stephen’s analysis of the challenges and opportunities facing us.  My own view is that we are at the beginning of a paradigm shift, in which 3D scanning, digitisation and printing will transform our understanding of 3D objects in a way comparable to, but even more important than, the invention of photography, with access through the web making unique objects apprehensible everywhere.

The final paper was Doug Pritchard’s magnificent series of Scottish Ten projects.  Seeing Historic Scotland’s 3D scanner being hauled up Mount Rushmore, or descending into Rani Ki Vav, and the superb scanned results, provided a suitably heroic end to the papers.  Peter Findlay then chaired a lively round table, in which many of the students played a big part. I left wanting to organise more such conferences and to draw in more projects.  Debbie Williams said exactly the same thing and offered ideas for involvement of other S&H projects. Watch this space!

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