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3D Printing Ancient Artifacts Lets Us Figure Out What They Were Actually For

The case of the mislabeled spearbutt.

3D Printing Ancient Artifacts Lets Us Figure Out What They Were Actually For

You are aware, of course, of that legendary ancient Irish artifact, the Conical Spearbutt of Navan, yes? No? You’re not? Well, it doesn’t matter, because thanks to to the work of PhD student Billy Ó Foghlú, it’s no longer a conical spearbutt at all.

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Ó Foghlú was recently wondering why there were no ancient bronze horn mouthpieces in Ireland, even though horns have been found there, and mouthpieces have been found all over Europe. Then he took another look at the spearbutt and realized that it was a mouthpiece masquerading as a spearbutt this whole time.

With no way to get permission to take the original ancient piece and put it in his mouth, Ó Foghlú obtained its measurements and 3-D printed his own copy. When he fitted it, “Suddenly the instrument came to life,” he said. Played with the 3-D-printed mouthpiece, the “Irish horn had a richer, more velvety tone,” says the Australian National University (ANU) Newsroom.

A mouthpiece makes a horn easier to play, and these horns were, according to Ó Foghlú played a lot. “These horns were not just hunting horns or noisemakers,” he says. “They were very carefully constructed and repaired, they were played for hours. Music clearly had a very significant role in the culture.”

So significant that musicians were buried with their instruments, which may explain why so few mouthpieces have been found, despite widespread use.

How many other mis-labeled artifacts are laying in museums, boring visitors from their flatly-lit, moribund shelves? One great way to find out what an object is for is to use it for the guessed purpose, and test if it actually works. Or you might just use an item until it gives up its secrets. That will never happen with priceless artifacts imprisoned in museums, but it could totally happen with 3-D printed copies, giving researchers a much better idea of how tools were used in the past.

Maybe museum shops could even sell copies, ending the decades-long reign of picture postcards.

About the author

Previously found writing at Wired.com, Cult of Mac and Straight No filter.

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