After spending time this fall working my way through material collected from the Dart Archives (thanks to Wits University), I've had fossil casts on my brain. Casts of fossils, particularly in the first part of the twentieth-century, had huge ramifications for how experts, non-experts, and museums could engage with fossils that extended beyond the actual, tangible, fossil itself. When Raymond Dart sent the Taung Child to R.F. Damon & Company (in London) to create a cast of fossil skull and mandible in 1925, casts were sent to the British Exhibition at Wembley as well as other museums and researchers around the world -- the cast became an ambassador of the fossil and its research paradigm. According to R.F. Damon & Company's correspondence with Dart, "anyone" could order a copy of the cast for a mere £15 (or approximately $1300 today.)
Projects today, like African Fossils, offer an interesting parallel to those early casts of paleoanthropological fossils. The dissemination of 3D scans of fossils serve a similar sociological purpose -- experts, non-experts, museums, etc. can become engaged with and invested in the paleo process. After seeing a tweet for new scans of fossil hominids pass through my Twitter feed today, I was curious to see if it was possible to print out one of the scans from the African Fossils project.
Thanks to the local TechShop here in Austin, we spent the evening printing out a copy of KNMER 406's crania, much to the delight of myself and other TechShop enthusiasts. ("What is that?" "Why does the skull look like that?" "Is that a famous fossil?" "Where is it from?") It was an incredible "material ambassador" for talking about paleoanthropology. (The laser cutter was tied up this evening, but a run of the laser cut model for the crania should be coming soon.)
For those interested in the technical details: The model was processed with MakerWare and printed on a MakerBot Replicator 1 with the soft, soothing, blue hue of ABS plastic. (Sadly, the Replicator 2 had had a hard week and was down for the evening...) In the interest of time, the model was printed at the lowest resolution setting. And in an interesting twist of historical irony, the printer is only slightly more than the cost of one of Dart's original casts.
African Fossils deserves major kudos for their efforts!