JANUARY 27, 2015

3-D printed skull

52 hrs of printing later, Sophia emerges for the first time in almost 4000 years.

Out of the blue, Suzanne Matlock received a phone call last summer from her professor of scientific illustration at Arcadia.  He had been contacted by an archaeology professor, Davide Tanasi, from one of Arcadia’s programs in Italy.  Tanasi had unearthed nine individuals at an archaeological dig in Italy, and he was interested in finding out what these people looked like.

Matlock had completed a B.A. in scientific illustration at Arcadia in 2006, but her thesis was on forensic facial reconstruction.  While writing her thesis, she traveled to the University of Oklahoma in Norman to learn the process of forensic facial reconstruction through a two-week program led by Betty Pat Gatliff, an octogenarian forensic artist who originally pioneered the Gatliff/Snow American Tissue Depth Marker Method with Dr. Clyde Snow to identify plane crash victims in the 1960s.

Facial reconstruction projects like this don’t come along very often, so Matlock says that when she’s contacted about about something like this, she finds the time to take it on outside of her work in the pharmaceutical industry.

Because the skulls were too fragile, Tanasi couldn’t send the original artifacts to Matlock.  She assumed that, instead, he would send 3-D reproductions of the skulls, but what he ended up sending were simply files containing 3-D scans of the skulls.  Matlock was at an impasse—she had no way to open the files or turn them into a physical object.

Luckily, through a mutual friend, Matlock met Mike Darfler, DM+D’s Program Manager.  He was able to open the files and produce a skull for Matlock to work from using DM+D’s Ultimaker2 3-D printer.

Skull during 3-D printing

First attempt at recreating a male skull. Axial distortion prevented this skull from being reconstructed.

Matlock thought the printing process would take a couple hours, so she had intended to stay at DM+D and observe the entire process.  But when Darfler reviewed the files, he discovered that printing would take a whopping 52 hours.  So Matlock came to DM+D to watch the printing begin, but ultimately Darfler shepherded the process through completion, adding plastic filament midway through the operation so that it wouldn’t stop printing.  (The resulting skull is partially black and partially orange due to the plastic being two different colors.)

Matlock originally received files for two skulls, but only one of them, nicknamed Sofia, ended up being useful for reconstruction.  After being buried for thousands of years, the other skull was crushed to the point where there wasn’t enough information to begin to reconstruct it.  Matlock says it wasn’t even something about which she could guess.

Sofia appeared a little distorted, but Matlock explains that could have been the distortion she had in life.  Matlock assumed a small amount of crushing and has made the reconstruction slightly more symmetrical than the skull indicated.  Neither skull had a jaw, but Sofia had enough landmarks that Matlock could use the canons of proportion developed by physical anthropologists to reconstruct it.

Mandible reconstruction on skull

Recreation of the missing mandible with depth markers, eyes and flesh.

Matlock recreated a mandible, and then she reconstructed the tissue.  The tissue is reconstructed using modeling clay, and the depth and contours of the clay are determined by connecting markers made from erasers of varying lengths that Matlock attaches to the skull.  The size and location of the markers are dictated by specific guidelines based on generally accepted ultrasound tissue depth measurements for a Caucasian female with the age and body mass index identified for the specimen.

Matlock is now at the phase of the project where she’s trying to make it look more lifelike.  The work is really a mixture of art and science.  In fact, Matlock says, when she attended the two-week long program in Oklahoma, there was a technical phase and an artistic phase.  She estimates that she is about 90% finished with the project.

When the project is completed, the work will be shown at a museum in Italy.  The finished reconstruction will be presented alongside the original skull and a second the 3-D printed skull, which will also be created at DM+D in white plastic.

Matlock is astounded by the level of collaboration that has taken place on this project, enabled by DM+D.  She notes that part of the reason she’s had the opportunity to work on this project is that it’s been more cost effective for the archaeologist to send the files from Italy, have the reconstruction happen here with the help of DM+D and send the finished product back.

“Mike [Darfler] saved the day,” says Matlock, “Without Mike, this whole thing wouldn’t have happened.”