Art & Sculpture

3D printed replicas of 1500 year old Buddhist statues open to public

3D printed reproductions of three ancient Buddhist statues have been put on display to the public in the Chinese city of Qingdao.

Replicas of the three statues from the Yungang Grottoes, measuring six, ten and six meters respectively, were scanned and 3D printed by conservationists from the Yungang Grottoes Research Institute, Qingdao Publishing Group and Zhejiang University after they were determined to be at risk from weathering.

Significance of the Statues of Yungang Grottoes and danger

The Yungang Grottoes are a UNESCO world heritage site located west of Beijing near the city of Datong, with a history stretching as far back as 465 AD. The cave system contains over 50,000 Buddhist statues, chiefly carved into golden sandstone cliffs.

However, the statues’ open-air setting has constantly placed them in danger from weathering caused both naturally and also by high air pollution, a fact confirmed by a 2011 Zhejiang University study. Efforts by the regional government to clear the surrounding area of industrial pollution has had limited effect.

Speaking to Chinese state broadcaster Xinhua, Zhejiang archaeology professor Li Zhirong explained that “even today, scientists are unable to stop the ageing of the grottoes using chemical or physical methods.” He added that “the best way to protect the grottoes is to preserve their information in a scientific, comprehensive and authentic way.”

The replicas in Qingdao. Photo via ChinaNewsDaily.

Salvation through 3D printing and conservation

3D technology has been previously used to conserve the remains of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan and to create replicas of Japanese Buddhist statues.

Here, conservationists from the Yungang Grottoes Research Institute used 3D scanners to record the physical and visual data of the statues and carvings. Three of the grottoes statues were selected to then be replicated in full size with 3D printing.

The scans of these 3D statues were used to generate full 3D models. The replicas were then 3D printed in parts on 20 machines at a workshop in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province. According to Xinhua, in the case of the 10-meter statue, the margin of error between the original work and the replica was less than 5 millimeters.

“The color was first painted automatically by machines. Then artists from Yungang added color in detail,” Zhejiang University’s Diao Changyu explained to Xinhua. The technology will now be used to replicate other at-risk artefacts from Yungang.

Silk Road exhibition in Beijing. It featured 3-D printed replicas of Buddha statues from the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, Gansu province. Photo via Xinhua.

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Featured image shows two of the original Yungang Cave statues that were scanned and 3D printed. Photo by FamilyTravelSecrets.

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