Pilot project Scanning for Syria

O. Nieuwenhuijse, Dominique Ngan-Tillard, Jouke Verlinden

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstractScientific


The relentless civil war in Syria is having disastrous effects on the people of Syria and their rich cultural heritage. Initiatives are taken across the world to preserve the archaeological materials or at least the scientific information they contain. Our project focuses on casts of Assyrian clay tablets (ca. 1200 BC) with cuneiform script from the site of Tell Sabi Abyad (northern Syria) excavated by archaeologists from the National Museum of Antiquities and Leiden University between 1996 and 2006. After the excavations, the archaeologists made silicone rubber casts of the objects for detailed studies in Europe. Cuneiform, i.e., wedge-shaped writing was invented in the later fourth millennium BCE and remained in use in the Middle East until the 2nd century CE. Dated to the 12th century BCE, the Tell Sabi Abyad texts are an important historical source on the organization of the Middle Assyrian Empire. They provide unique insights in the daily scores of Assyrian officials managing a rural settlement on the western outskirts of their empire, levying taxes, and pacifying local tribes. In 2012 the original tablets were stolen from the archaeological museum of Raqqa when Raqqa became the capital of ISIS. The original objects gone, the moulds are the closest we can get to the originals. Assyriologists stress the importance of continued access to the objects to facilitate ongoing interpretation and re-translation. The short life expectancy (30 years) of the moulds necessitates measures for long-term preservation. We are developing a new method for safeguarding information from the lost artefacts: making high-resolution three-dimensional scans of the plastic moulds and subsequently physical replicas of the original objects by 3D printing. Leiden Assyriologists have confirmed the validity of a pilot reproduction. Nevertheless, several issues have aroused during this trial. First, the moulds are not free of imperfections and irregularities. For example, they contain air bubbles that have to be filtered out from the digital model of the surface of the clay tablet, especially when bubbles are lodged inside wedges. Second, the surface mesh size has to be optimized to preserve all information contained in the tablets without rendering the 3D printing too time consuming. Third, attention has to be paid to the colour, lustre and illumination of the 3D prints to facilitate deciphering. Preliminary results aiming to render the digital models and physical replicas even more real than the first reproduction are exposed. The use of the replicas by multiple stake holders (field archaeologists, assyriologists, museums, game industry) is envisaged.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages1
Publication statusPublished - 2017
EventCentre for Digital Heritage Annual Meeting 2017 - Leiden, Netherlands
Duration: 15 Jun 201716 Jun 2017


ConferenceCentre for Digital Heritage Annual Meeting 2017
Abbreviated titleCDH annual meeting 2017


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