Researchers at the University of Exeter’s Digital Humanities Lab are using 3D scanning and printing technologies to preserve, and bring new life, to lost artefacts.

In April 1942, Exeter was one of the first cities to be bombed during the Baedeker Blitz – German air raids targeting places of historical significance. During these raids, the Cathedral’s southside was hit, and repair work soon began. Here, construction workers discovered 1058 beeswax figures dating back to the 1400s hidden behind a stone canopy.

Most of these pieces were fragments of larger models – hands, feet and hooves – but a figure of a woman praying was found intact. These would have been used as votive offerings to the tomb of Bishop Edmund Lacy. Due to their fragile build and the delicate beeswax, the pieces were stored in the Cathedral Archive where they remained for the next 75 years.

Today, these artefacts have been brought back into the limelight thanks to the dedicated workers at the University of Exeter’s Digital Humanities Lab. Graham Fereday, the department’s research IT officer, is interested in 2D and 3D scanning and has been closely involved with the digitisation of these figures. He says: “one key aspect to the scanning project is preservation. The original is preserved, and we can produce an accurate record of an object’s condition at a given point in time – any future degradation can be monitored.”

The intention was to create a digital collection of these pieces which could be accessed by anyone through the lab’s SketchFab uploads. “3D scanning and web-based dissemination platforms like SketchFab give more people access to view objects that would otherwise not be available,” Graham notes.

“This is much more engaging than just viewing static photographs”

“A 3D scan is not the same as handling the actual object, but that is generally not possible anyway, because the objects we work with are often too fragile or valuable. This is much more engaging than just viewing static photographs.” There’s nothing quite like these figures elsewhere in the UK. Because of this, researchers at the university have already started to use these resources in their research, for example, to identify how we interact with history through artefacts. The 3D scans allow for easy and frequent access.

The beeswax pieces were digitised using photogrammetry techniques. The team used a Canon EOS 5D Mk3, attaching a 100mm lens for smaller pieces, and a 50mm lens for the larger objects, lining the fragments against rulers to provide scale. The digital models were put together using the software package Agisoft Photoscan. Through this method, the team were able to capture the finer details of the pieces, like the praying woman’s buttons or the folds in her dress.

The scan of the praying woman was the basis for the 1:1 scale plastic model, printed using a MakerBot Z18 3D printer. But this is the only model from these votive scans they’ve printed so far. Generally, the digital scans are enough, Graham clarifies. “For projects where the main output is web-based, 3D scans embedded into a project website are all that’s required. 3D-printed models that can be handled may be of interest in a museum setting where actual objects are available to view. The figure of the praying woman that we’ve printed is the most complete of the Cathedral’s collection – it was the obvious candidate to be printed.”


New Life: Makerbot-printed votive model

Graham was keen to highlight the potential this process allows for: “At the moment the plastic model is just an experiment in what we can do with the output from the scanning process. It may just be the first step in the process of producing a replica that is a lot closer to the original.”

He refers to the Blue Boy, a cast iron statue found on Exeter’s High Street, to demonstrate its implementation: “the potential is well illustrated by the work we did with Exeter School on the Blue Boy. We scanned the statue, which they printed in plastic. They used the plastic model to produce a silicon mould, and then cast pewter replicas. They use these for end-of-term awards. A similar process could potentially be used to produce beeswax replicas of the votive figures.”

The project is an exciting one. Students will be encouraged to get involved with the city’s rich history, and it could spark an interest in the future of digitisation and south-west tech, and that’s always something to encourage.

You can check out the 3D model of the votive figure online here.

James Hacker