The Sangro Valley Project uses 3D scanning and Geomagic reverse engineering software to recreate ancient plaques that are now smashed into small pieces.

The terracotta plaques that adorned the walls of central Italy’s ancient Samnite sanctuaries were artistically and architecturally impressive – so they say. A person wouldn’t know it by looking at the disjointed, worn-down fragments that survive today.

Since it is impossible to reconstruct the plaques from the remaining fragments, researchers with the Sangro Valley Project did the next best thing: They used Geomagic 3D reverse engineering software to digitally reconstruct a full 3D model of a plaque. The model is being used to create a physical prototype of a plaque, to construct a mold for manufacturing new versions, and to better understand how the ancient artifacts were made.

Picking Up the Pieces

The Sangro Valley Project – headed by Susan Kane of Oberlin College in Ohio and Edward Bispham of Oxford University – has conducted excavations at Monte Pallano in central Italy’s Abruzzo region since 1999. The excavations unearthed a sanctuary area, characterized by a terrace and retaining walls of a building dating back to the middle of the second century B.C. From the terrace fill, researchers found a number of terracotta pieces. Meaning “baked earth” in Italian, terracotta is unglazed fired clay used for architectural ornament and decoration.

To date, more than 300 fragments have been excavated from the site, many of which come from statuary and “high-relief” plaques that adorned the sanctuary buildings. High-relief is a sculptural technique in which the form extends three-dimensionally from the background.

The largest percentage of pieces recovered belong to the Hellenistic plaques made from a mold that depicts a pair of confronting dolphins on either side of a central floral ornament. The image is thought to represent the linking of mountain and sea, or this world to the next – a cultural symbol that is typical of the Hellenistic artistic style; emotional, dramatic, and often characterized by the interaction of sculptural forms with the surrounding space.