The Islamic State group, in an effort to eliminate artifacts without Islamic significance such as sculptures in museums or valuable remnants of ancient architecture, has caused immense destruction in the Iraqi and Syrian cities it captures.
Naturally, historians and artists across the world are mortified at this unreserved busting spree that targets the irreplaceable fragments of history left by some of humanity’s oldest civilizations. In March, militants armed with power tools and sledgehammers attacked a historical archaeological site in an ancient Assyrian city in Iraq, Nimrud before demolishing it with explosives and bulldozers. Since the supporters of these artifacts cannot link arms and block the militants from overrunning a site, they have instead set out to preserve these bits of history digitally, where the Islamic State militants cannot get them.
In a UNESCO initiative, volunteers on the ground in the Middle East and North Africa equipped with 3D cameras are rushing to document at-risk artifacts into 3D image files before any harm can come to them. Morehshin Allahyari, an artist in San Francisco who spearheaded this 3D printing project, “draws” the 3D images herself based off photographs of smashed artifacts.
The artifacts do not remain mere virtual images, since artists create plastic versions of the original objects with 3D printers based on the collected image files. Morehshin has already begun printing her own models, embedding inside the printed replications flash drives containing scores of information about the original artifact. Like a hydra’s severed head, every smashed statue will yield a thousand replications, thanks to 3D printing technology. First-century relics are already available on Thingiverse, the prime online repository of 3D model files, which any printing hobbyist can download for free.
Far from the Islamic State, students and faculty at Georgetown have access to these same technological capabilities. Two state-of-the-art 3D printers sit on the first floor of Lauinger Library for use by the Georgetown community. The purchase of the two printers was motivated by feedback from the community, excited about 3D printing technology.
Communities like our own may still be unsure of how to use this technology or what to use it for. Requests for prints in the Makerspace are few and most are for one-use academic purposes, such as a simple model of the Eiffel Tower for a French class or a transfixing physical pattern that represents sound waves.
The Gelardin New Media Center in Lauinger Library offers a free course on Tinkercad, a 3D design platform that normal people can use without taking a summer course at MIT. After sending in a file for printing, a specialist at Gelardin edits the file to optimize chances of a safe printout. Professional 3D printing is pricey and printing objects can cost anywhere between 15 cents to $175 per centimeters squared depending on the printing method and the materials used for printing. The library thankfully only charges people for the cost of the plastic filament used in the printing process and not for their service as well.
Most consumer-ready 3D printers print with plastic filament, a long, plastic noodle wrapped around a spool. The extruder is a small, heated vessel that melts the plastic filament, which emerges from the extruder through a nozzle onto the print surface.
Precise motors, following code instructions from a “slicer” program, move the nozzle through the three-dimensional print space. The slicer looks at the 3D image and generates a winding path that puts the nozzle in the right places to pour plastic.
The student body has not yet unlocked the artistic and entrepreneurial potential of this tool. Although most of us go through enough grief trying to get two-dimensional printers to do our bidding, getting familiar with an additional dimension is worth the struggle. I do not expect everyone to directly undermine the destruction made by radical militants in the Middle East, but I believe that 3D printing gives everyone the ability to enhance our 3D world in a unique way. After all, you don’t even have to build anything – you just have to draw it.
Patrick Soltis is a sophomore in the College. Innovation Smack Talk appears every Friday.
Correction: This article previously stated that the UNESCO initiative to document at-risk artifacts in the Middle East and North Africa is linked to Morehshin Allahyari’s artistic project in which she draws 3D images of smashed artifacts. The two projects, while both aimed at preserving historical artifacts at risk of being destroyed by the Islamic State group, are separate initiatives.