Antiquities, Art, Art & Archives, J. Paul Getty Museum, technology

3D Scanning Meets Ancient Art

Some of the oldest objects in Los Angeles are a natural candidate for a 3D scanning pilot at the Getty Museum


The Getty Villa recently had a visit from the future. A team from across the Getty Museum gathered in the basement of the recreated ancient Roman villa to bring some ancient objects into the digital age through 3D scanning.

3D scanning uses light to read the topography of an object and render it digitally. For museums, this kind of scanning has great potential—for displaying works virtually, advancing conservation, creating digital animations, visualizing hard-to-study aspects of artworks, and lots more. The Met and the Smithsonian are already using capture and printing technologies to brilliant effect—look how closely you can explore this life-size sculpture of the Buddha from your computer, thanks to a 3D scan.

Scanning the Ancients

The team’s goal on this day was to try out the technology on objects in the antiquities collection, with a special focus on two ancient Roman silver cups, one from the Museum’s collection and another on loan for the exhibition Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville (November 19, 2014–August 17, 2015), which features a newly conserved hoard of Roman silver from the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The day began in the Getty Villa photography studio, where a technician used a relatively slow-moving scanner to capture a beautiful silver wine cup adorned with images of mythological hero Odysseus. A technician held the scanning unit while the object rotated slowly on a turntable within a lightbox.


Roman silver is a good test subject for a 3D scanner for two reasons. First, it’s extremely detailed yet relatively low in relief, helping us see just how accurate and sensitive a 3D scanner really could be.

Second, it’s shiny. Many of the objects in the antiquities collection are made of reflective material, such as metal or lustrous glazed ceramic, so a silver vessel was a good test case to see if indeed such difficult-to-image objects could be effectively scanned in 3D. By isolating the object in a diffusion box, the team sought to minimize reflections of colors and shapes on the silver’s surface. (We all wore black for the same reason.)


After the studio session, the team headed upstairs to the galleries to see how well the scanner could pick up detail in an object under normal gallery lighting.

The scannee this time was an ancient Cycladic harp player. His curves and stonework were ideal for testing for detail, speed, and clear edges. The figure’s vitrine (clear protective housing) was temporarily removed for the process.




This time the technician tested a different handheld scanner, one that gains in speed what it lacks in detail—though the resulting image (above) is impressive in its precision.

What’s Next?

Here are a few of the ways we geeked out over the potential of 3D scanning at the Getty.

Exploring Art. 3D scanning can help us and our audiences more deeply understand art objects. Scans also allow us to virtually take an object apart, showing how components separate and come together. 3D scans can record fine detail, allowing us to explore all sides of objects (even those not visible in a gallery) in great detail. “3D scanning gives us access to what is hidden,” in the words of Museum senior media producer Erik Bertellotti.

Curator Kenneth Lapatin had tiny, intricate ancient gems on his mind. “We’ve been looking at them under the microscope,” he told me, “but having them in three dimensions would show the cuts made by ancient gem engravers, the tool marks, and the fine cuttings of the gem engravers.”

Conserving Art. 3D scans are getting more accurate at imaging objects, and this may someday be helpful in conservation work. “Much of our work is detective work,” conservator Susan Lansing Maish told me. As 3D scanning improves, it may develop into a useful tool for conservation investigations.

Protecting Art. 3D replicas could help keep art secure, too, enabling mountmakers to make protective mounts (braces to hold art in cases) in advance of a loan object arriving on site. This would especially be a plus for creating earthquake-safe mounts without having to handle the actual object.

As we continue experimenting with this technology, we’ll share our progress—and results—with you here on The Getty Iris.


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