See the world's first 3D print of a 3000-year-old Chinese oracle bone

The high-res image combines 1.3 million aspects for a view of the bone's entire surface

The inscriptions on this bone refer to the ritual sacrifice of an ox to a royal ancestor. Credit: Professor Dominic Powlesland

The inscriptions on this bone refer to the ritual sacrifice of an ox to a royal ancestor. Credit: Professor Dominic Powlesland

Ancient artifacts offer some of the earliest insight we have into events such as lunar eclipses of the distant past, but for the most part, only experts have access to them. Thanks to 3D printing, that's about to change.

Researchers from the Cambridge University Library this week announced the creation of what they believe is the world's first 3D printed replica of a 3,000-year-old Chinese oracle bone. The high-resolution image of the 9-by-14-centimeter bone, viewable in rotatable form here, combines 1.3 million aspects to allow a seamless view of its entire surface.

Dating from 1339 to 1112 BCE, Chinese inscribed oracle bones are the oldest surviving documents written in the Chinese language. Inscribed on ox shoulder blades and the flat underside of turtle shells, oracle bones record important questions and events of the time. The court of the royal house of Shang, which ruled north central China at the time, sought answers to the questions through divination.

The inscriptions on the bones offer insight into many aspects of early Chinese society, including a record of a lunar eclipse dated to 1192 BCE -- one of the earliest such accounts in any civilization.

Now, the 3D printed version of Oracle Bone CUL.52, as this one is called, makes the bone's engravings and markings even more visible than they are on the original itself while avoiding the risk of damage through handling. The inscriptions on the bone refer to the ritual sacrifice of an ox to a royal ancestor, the researchers said.

Created through a collaboration with the Media Studio of Addenbrooke's Hospital, the print was made with a printer used in the hospital to assist in planning maxillofacial and orthopedic surgery. The print comprises 350 superimposed layers of a fine powdered plaster compound hardened with cyanoacrylate superglue.

The Cambridge University Library said it hopes to create images of more oracle bones from its collection of more than 600 as funding permits.

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