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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 June, 2003, 08:32 GMT 09:32 UK
Virtual future for ancient relics
By Michelle Martin
BBC Science

A 3D scanning technique being tested at the British Museum could pave the way for virtual museum displays.

Inscriptions written in cuneiform
Cuneiform is the oldest type of writing known
The museum is making digital copies of fragile clay tablets from ancient Iraq using a new laser scanning method.

"It's a bit like a photocopier but a million times more powerful," explained Dr Irving Finkel, Assistant Keeper in the Department of the Ancient Near East.

After scanning the object, a 3D image is created, which could be published on a website.

The data can also be used to steer robotic machinery to cut out an exact replica of the original.

"You have to imagine that you have a block of cheese. You turn on the machine and the laser cuts out this cheese in three dimensions," Dr Finkel told the BBC programme Go Digital.

No harm

The idea started last year, when museum curators from Iraq requested copies of 1,000 clay tablets to furnish a new exhibition in Mosul. It will be dedicated to King Ashurbanipal, who reigned over the region in the seventh century BC.

The British Museum currently houses thousands of tablets from the king's personal library.

Dr Finkel
Many of the tablets are very delicate. But when you use a laser it doesn't harm the surface at all
Dr Irving Finkel, British Museum
They contain tiny millimetre-deep inscriptions written in cuneiform - the oldest type of writing known.

These ancient pages include dictionaries, fictional stories and lists of farming stock.

Copying this many objects using traditional resin moulds would take several years. But using the new laser scanner, the production time would be cut to weeks.

A Scottish company called Kestrel 3D has been given two tablets to create samples.

This scanning method is already used in medicine and aircraft design.

"I think this is the first time it's been used for lumps of clay that look a bit like broken dog biscuits," said Dr Finkel.

"Many of the tablets are very delicate. But when you use a laser it doesn't harm the surface at all. So from the museum's point of view this is a wonderful possibility."

The museum is expecting to have the results of the experiment soon. If it proves successful, Dr Finkel said large parts of the museum's collection could be made available online.

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