Washington, May 30 : An Italian team of researchers is using a technology, normally used in reconstructive surgery, to create 3D (three dimensional) reproductions of Iraq's precious and fragile cuneiform clay tablets.
Thousands and thousands of artifacts were stolen and broken at Baghdad's museums following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, in what has been called the most catastrophic theft of antiquities since World War II.
According to a report in Discovery News, among the lost items are the fragile tablets, which are some of the earliest known written documents.
The tablets document how people lived for millennia in ancient Mesopotamia. They describe codes of law, treatises and economic transactions, from the beginning of writing, around 3350 B.C., until the end of the pre-Christian era.
The tablets were invented as early as 5,000 years ago by the Sumerians who impressed the writings in clay. The clay then hardened quickly in the hot and dry climate of Mesopotamia, an area near modern Iraq.
Now scientists want to help preserve what is left of the vulnerable Iraqi cultural heritage.
Sponsored by the Italian ministry of Foreign Affairs, the innovative project to digitally recreate the tablets was conceived by Pisa University's Assyriology Department and the Italian Agency for New Technologies, Energy and the Environment (ENEA).
Called "Duplication and Rebirth," the project consist of an electronic catalogue with bibliographical references, photographs, and when possible, 3D images of the tablets. These three-dimensional models can then produce exact replicas of the original relics.
"So far, we have recorded almost 20,000 artifacts scattered throughout the world," said Paola Negri, ENEA assyriologist.
While scholars estimate that roughly five million of the tablets are still buried in the mounds of Iraq, some 500,000 are kept in museum and private collections worldwide.
To obtain 3D images and subsequent perfect replicas of the tablets, the researchers used sophisticated laser scanners and a technology called rapid prototyping.
After a laser ray scans the surface of the tablet to obtain the necessary data to build a 3D image, a software builds the three-dimensional model.
"This data is the key to rapid prototyping, but can be also used to recreate virtual copies of the clay blocks, which can be viewed on a computer or over the Internet," said ENEA engineer Sergio Petronilli. "Our goal is to build a 3D virtual museum accessible to scholars everywhere," he added.
The last part of the process involves rapid prototyping.
Using the previously built 3D model, the technology builds up layers of thermoplastic material and creates a perfect replica of the original.