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VUIIS, Fine Arts Gallery team to replicate ancient artifacts

May. 9, 2019, 9:08 AM

Anna Fisher, CNMT, scans an ancient stamp using the PET/CT scanner.

by Kelsey Herbers

When the Vanderbilt University Institute of Imaging Science (VUIIS) installed a new, state-of-the-art PET/CT scanner in early 2018, the team imagined a wide range of research opportunities — but none of them involved imaging artifacts for an art exhibition.

Fast-forward to 2019, and VUIIS has partnered with the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery to scan and create replicas of ancient Mesoamerican artifacts for a hands-on experience in the gallery’s upcoming exhibition, “Refuting ‘Noble Savages’: Reflections of Nature Through Ancient Mesoamerican Artifacts.”

Using the scanner, the imaging team captured detailed pictures of each item’s surface and openings and sent the data to a 3D printer to print polymer replicas. Some of the replicas were then painted by a class of undergraduate students from various departments within Vanderbilt University’s College of Arts and Science, who curated the exhibition, to look like the original objects.

The Imaging Institute scanned this ancient flute, top, and created a 3D-printed replica, below, which was then painted by a class of undergraduate students.
The Imaging Institute scanned this ancient flute, top, and created a 3D-printed replica, below, which was then painted by a class of undergraduate students.

Three replicas were created for the exhibition: an ancient flute and two ink stamps with varying designs.

“The Fine Arts Gallery has to secure its artifacts behind glass, so 3D replicas help us make these objects accessible to visitors,” said Markus Eberl, PhD, associate professor of Anthropology at Vanderbilt University, who led the undergraduate class. “They can pick up the flute and play it. They can ink stamp replicas to reproduce the patterns engraved on the original stamps.”

“It’s a way for visitors to get closer to not just the objects, but to the psychology and experiences of the people who originally used them,” added Emily Weiner, assistant curator for the Fine Arts Gallery.

According to Seth Smith, PhD, associate professor of Radiology and Radiological Sciences and associate director of VUIIS, the collaboration demonstrates how imaging technology extends beyond clinical research, allowing the institute to be a resource for the greater Vanderbilt community.

“It was exciting for us to partner with the Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery to do something completely out of the box. We were excited to develop a new relationship brought about because of the existence of a new imaging device within VUIIS. This is a bridge we don’t often get to see, and personally, I find it to be fascinating and encouraging,” said Smith.

“It is exciting that our imaging technology can contribute not only to human health and the study of biological systems, but also to the humanities and our appreciation of ancient cultures,” said Todd Peterson, PhD, director of Nuclear Imaging. “While it may seem like a small detail, combining our tomographic imaging capabilities with 3D printing provides a true reproduction of these objects in a way that simply tracing the outer contours couldn’t.”

The partnership also allowed the team to learn more about the device’s capabilities.

“This project was especially valuable as it provided the opportunity to test different aspects of our scanner’s imaging and reconstruction software which had not been previously explored,” said Anna Fisher, CNMT, nuclear medicine PET technologist II. “We were able to acquire high-resolution CT images of each piece and successfully convert the data into 3D-printable formats all from the scanner itself. Discovering these unique capabilities has opened the door to new services we can provide here at VUIIS.”

The exhibition is on display May 9-Sept. 13 in the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery. Admission is free.

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