Upcoming DiverseNile Seminar: how to conceptualise narratives of Napatan shabtis figurines using 3D print replicas

I am excited to announce the next DiverseNile Seminar for Tuesday, 5 December. Amanda Ford Spora will talk about her research with replicas of Napatan shabti figurines.

Amanda is currently a PhD candidate at the University College London. She is a community archaeologist with fieldwork experience in Sudan, especially at Mograt Island.

Her exciting research is “about co-creative meaning making using digitally produced replicas, and the process that non-professionals and professionals engage with together, to manifest authentic narratives of the ancient past.” The shabti figurines she is using for this include Napatan shabtis, of which the originals are currently in the UK. Amanda has undertaken research with teenagers in Sudan, Australia and United Kingdom, last but not least also to raise more awareness of the rich and endangered Sudanese heritage.

Her research fits perfectly into the agenda of the ERC DiverseNile project – as Kate Rose outlined in a previous blog post, we are also using the rich potential of 3D printing ancient artifacts. We are in particular interested in the implications these replicas hold for education and outreach, the accessibility of archaeological heritage, and explorations in experimental archaeology.

Speaking about education, I would once more like to advertise the fantastic recent volume “African Archaeology in Support of School Learning” – these contributions and also the splendid introduction are very inspiring and underline the wide-ranging relevance of our research (see also our article on the reconstruction of lived experiences in Sai City during the New Kingdom).

However, we must not forget the current challenges of school education in Sudan after more than 7 months of war. With an estimated 19 million children out of school, the country is facing a major education crisis. In a recent blog post, solutions to revive the education sector were proposed – I heartfully wish that the wonderful and amazingly resilient people of Sudan will achieve the revival of their educational sector by means of collaborative efforts. For this, they should receive as much international support as possible – and maybe also archaeology in Sudan and especially community archaeology can help a little bit to overcome this crisis.

Archaeology for Education: African Archaeological Review vol. 40, issue 3, September 2023 is now published

It’s my great pleasure to announce that the special issue of the African Archaeological Review vol. 40, 3 edited by Ann B. Stahl Allison Balabuch, Kathy Sanford, Amanda Logan, Kate Grillo and Thiaw Ibrahima is now published!

It comprises, in open access format, 15 articles around the general topic of African Archaeology in Support of School Learning, including our piece on A Day Along the Nile. Once again, I am very grateful to Ann for inviting us to be part of this project with is fabulous accomplishment! I am thankful to my co-authors Chloe and Carl. We all hope this special issue of AAR will be much appreciated by a large and diverse community of both scholars and educators.

A day on the Nile – new approaches to reconstruct lived experiences

I am very pleased that an article I prepared together with Chloe Ward and Carl Elkins as part of a forthcoming special volume of the journal African Archaeological Review dedicated to “African Archaeology in Support of School Learning” (see Stahl et al. 2023) is now published. This manuscript was shaped over more than one year and was extreme fun to write.

Back in 2022, Ann Stahl asked me whether I would be willing to join this project preparing an unusual publication as a tool for schoolteachers and students rather than a scientific article. I was immediately excited, especially since I had already some experience teaching at schools in Austria and Germany. But this was different – more hands-on, more research-related and a very collaborative process with wonderful colleagues and a fully motivated working group. It was also a real challenge and new experience.

Since some years, I already had the idea to write a children’s book from the perspective of a dog experiencing life in an Egyptian town in Nubia in the Second Millennium BCE. Within the AcrossBorders project, we found in 2015 this cute dog figurine in the New Kingdom town of Sai Island.

We aimed for a different perspective in our article, focusing on object biographies, narratives and story telling. „Wastl“, the dog figurine from Sai Island, was a key figure here.

Well – this was the starting point and inspired me to propose the blending of a fictional narrative with factual archaeological evidence for our contribution to Ann’s volume. Together, we developed and offered an interpretation of what a typical day may have been like living at Sai. We created a small girl letting us have a look into her life and daily routine. Of course, this girl is a proud dog owner – but check out our story for more!

In our contribution, we also offer explanations for how archaeologists work and interpret some of the evidence we discuss, focusing on a range of methods. These include recent advances in virtual 3D reconstruction which offer a unique perspective on our interpretation of the past. Carl created magical photorealistic and interactive 3D models – these are not only a great outcome themselves, but also allowed us to come up with new interpretations and asking new and different questions. The corresponding figures we included in the article were taken directly from within the interactive virtual reconstruction created in real time.

Virtual reconstruction of a house in Sai city from the southern enclosure wall with a serpentine wall shielding the entrance to a narrow lane. Construction material has been added for a hypothetical renovation, which was known to occur regularly in domestic contexts. As research is ongoing, the geometry and texture of the buildings’ façades are simplified. Image: Carl G. Elkins

Although we focus on the past, many of the aspects we discuss in the article are highly relevant today and can be linked to several of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (in particular 9, 11, and 12). We encourage readers to think about some of the things we discuss in relation to their own lives and experiences and have provided a number of call-out questions in speech bubbles throughout the article to get some of these discussions started.

As soon as the complete special issue of AAR 40, 3 will be published, there will be the link to some supplementary material which will allow to explore the reconstruction of Sai city in an interactive mode. We are very much looking forward to any responses – from our fellow academics as well as of course schoolteachers, students and other people interested in archaeology and the relevance of the field for us nowadays (and in the future). In the meantime, we will be busy exploring more scientific questions that arose from the photorealistic virtual reconstructions – and there is quite a number of exciting ones.

Our new article:

Julia Budka, Chloe Ward & Carl G. Elkins, A Day on the Nile: Living in a Town in Nubia. African Archaeological Review (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10437-023-09547-4


Stahl, A.B., Balabuch, A., Sanford, K. et al. African Archaeology in Support of School Learning: an Introduction. African Archaeological Review (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10437-023-09539-4

DiverseNile’s Explorations in 3D Printing Ancient Nubian Objects

Digital technologies continue to inundate archaeology as a means of bridging scientific and humanistic approaches. More than merely an exercise in playing with flashy machines and fancy toys, 3D printing has wide-ranging implications for fostering education and outreach, the accessibility of archaeological heritage, and explorations in experimental archaeology.

In my first month as a postdoc with the DiverseNile project, I began looking into different strategies and methodologies for making 3D models and prints of small objects. First up, we looked into printing a seal impression from the AcrossBorders project’s excavations at Sai Island. This mid-18th dynasty mud seal impression bears the name of Nehi and the title “Overseer of the Gateway” and is intact apart from a finger smudge in the lower left corner.

We also decided to experiment with printing an inscribed stone heart scarab also from the AcrossBorders project at Sai Island (figure 1). This object was excavated from the 18th dynasty burial of Khnum-mes and is inscribed on the bottom with Chapter 30 from the Book of the Dead (Budka 2021). Check out a blog post from 2017 about this find here.

Figure 1: The large stone heart scarab from the burial of Khnum-mes

To create models, we use photogrammetric methods to align photos of the object in Agisoft’s Metashape to create a textured mesh (figure 2). The photos of this object were taken during a study season in Khartoum in 2017 by Cajetan Geiger.

Figure 2: The 3D model of the seal impression in the Metashape interface

For this project, we needed a printed object quickly for a television appearance (keep reading to find out more!) so I looked into commercial printing options. I came across Xometry, a Germany-based company offering on-demand manufacturing of industrial parts. I like to think that they were both confused and delighted when they saw the small, inscribed objects on their platform!

Pros of this service: Xometry has a well-designed, functional, and easy to use website. With their instant quoting engine, you can upload 3D models (.stl, .obj, and many other formats) and immediately receive a cost and shopping estimate. Also, if there are issues with your model the engine will detect them. You can also choose the specific color, material, weight, and finish of your print.

Cons: While the website has extensive options for types of printing materials, most of the options are obviously very light-weight industrial plastics, polycarbonates, silica glasses, and nylons. If you are aiming for realism in your 3D print, you will not come across colors or materials on this site that can replicate those of many archaeological objects. Also, it should be noted that for this company, the minimum order is €50. If you just want one or two prototypes of small objects, you will have to order A LOT of copies just to come close to this high of a minimum!

Given the drawbacks of working with large 3D printing companies like Xometry, I began to look into the possibility of collaborating with institutes on campus that may offer printers. After a bit of digging, I contacted the Medieninformatik Lab at LMU. Luckily, they have, not one, not two, but three (!) high quality, professional 3D printers; a Prusa Mini+ (PLA-3D printer), a Prusa i3 MK3S+ (PLA-3D printer), and the pièce de resistance, a Formlabs Form 3 (SLA-3D printer). The Prusa Mini+ and Prusa i3 models are some of the most ubiquitous printers (figure 3). They are extrusion-based printers which operate by heating a plastic material through a tube (filament) and distributing the heated material on a platform layer by layer, until it takes the full form of the object. The material is Polylactic acid (PLA) and can be heated at a low temperature. It is a robust, low-cost, and biodegradable material. Xometry prints using this method.

Figure 3: The Prusa Mini+ in action printing the heart scarab.

The Formlabs 3 printer operates with an entirely different method (figure 4). It uses stereolithography (SLA), which is a type of additive manufactory technology employing resin 3D printing. A light source like a laser or projector heats and cures liquid resin at a high temperature into hardened plastic in the shape of a 3D model. SLA printers have the ability to capture the highest resolution and most accurate details of objects, along with smoother surfaces and more complex geometries (size and shape of the print).

Figure 4: The Formlabs 3 printer preparing to cure resin for the print in the large orange vat.

Preliminary Results Printing with Xometry and the Medieninformatik Lab:

As apparent in figure 5, three different printing methods yielded three vastly different results. On the far left of the image is a print of the seal impression using a Prusa Mini+. As is evident, the fine details of the inscription of Nehi were too high resolution for the printer to capture with accuracy. The inscription is not legible and overall, the surface and geometry of the object are not clean. The middle print is of the seal impression from Xometry. Even though Xometry used a PLA printer (like the Prusa) the print is of a higher resolution, and the geometry of the object is more accurate. The surface is smoother and the inscription, while not perfect, is legible. Lastly, the far-right print is from the Formlabs 3 printer. This by far, is the highest quality and highest resolution print! The inscription is very legible, and the geometry of the object is extremely accurate. The surface is also smooth, extremely detailed, and shows no signs of lumps or imperfections in the raw material. While the Formlabs 3 printer is a more time-intensive and expensive process, the cured resin clearly is the superior material to capture intricate and complex details of smaller objects (figure 6).

Figure 5: Three prints of the seal impression from left to right: Prusa Mini+, Xometry print, and the Formlabs 3 print.
Figure 6: Detail of the Formlabs 3 print

In terms of the heart scarab, the differences between prints are less stark but still significant. As evident in figure 7, the Xometry print (on the left) and the Prusa Mini+ print (on the right) are similar in shape and detail. The Prusa print has a smoother and cleaner surface, and slightly more legible details near the top of the scarab.

Figure 7: The Xometry print of the heart scarab (top) on the left and the Prusa Mini+ print on the right.
Figure 8: The Xometry print of the heart scarab (bottom) on the left and the Prusa Mini+ print on the right.

The bottom of the scarab demonstrates the biggest difference between the two prints (figure 8). The inscription was not captured at all on the Xometry print (left), due to the direction in which the print was oriented. If the print is rendered layer by layer with the bottom of the object flat on the printing platform, then any detail on the bottom of the object will not be captured. However, with the Prusa Mini+ print (right) the object was printed at an angle, and the result is a legible inscription (figure 9).

Figure 9: A detailed image of the inscription on the heart scarab in natural light

From these preliminary printing exercises, it was fascinating to see just how different prints of the same object can turn out given the variety of available printers, raw materials, and approaches. Clearly the various methods explored here have their pros and cons. 3D printing methods must be tailored to the specific goals of the project and qualities of the object/3D model. Trial and error, if you have the available resources and time, is a terrific way to start!

The Significance and Broader Impact of 3D Modeling and Printing

As an archaeologist who is interested in digital technologies, I am asked all the time (by fellow archaeologists and non-specialists alike), what is the purpose of making 3D models of artifacts that already exist? What keeps us from creating glorified toys that just sit and gather dust on shelves?

The truth is….3D modeling applications in archaeology is a means of addressing several unique problems of studying the ancient past. Firstly, 3D prints of archaeological objects that can be handled and shared without any risk of damage to the original artifact is invaluable. For objects that are restricted to museum collections or excavation archives, 3D models increase the accessibility of the archaeological record, not only to scholars in different regions, but also to members of the public. High quality 3D models that capture valuable information such as inscriptions and technological means of production can be used as tools in public outreach and education. In fact, our PI Julia Budka just demonstrated this during her recent appearance on the wildly popular children’s show, “1, 2, oder 3?” On a show dedicated to ancient Egypt, she brought our Xometry print of the seal impression to teach children that even objects made of seemingly quotidian materials like mud can be extremely important to archaeologists. 3D models expand and diversify the types of environments in which objects can be used in teaching.

Here is a link to the full episode if you would like to check it out!

Lastly, 3D printing can be used alongside other experimental archaeological approaches. For example, our graduate student Sofia Patrevita is studying goldsmithing techniques in Nubian jewelry making, including the lost wax technique. See her recent blog post here. The 3D printing lab at LMU has the ability to print objects in wax (among other materials), which could allow us to experiment with recreating jewelry in various stages of production, giving us insight into the chaîne opératoire of Nubian goldsmithing. Sofia and I are looking forward to exploring this possibility in future collaborations!

A huge thanks to the Medieninformatik Lab at LMU for access to their printers and resources, and especially to Boris Kegels for providing the access and printer training. Thanks also too Christine Mayer and Prof. Dr. Nicola Lercari of the Institute for Digital Cultural Heritage Studies at LMU for helping facilitate this collaboration!

Stay tuned for an update on our most ambitious 3D printing project yet, a to-scale reproduction of Khnum-mes’s shabti from Sai Island!


Budka, Julia. 2021. Tomb 26 on Sai Island: a New Kingdom Elite Tomb and Its Relevance for Sai and Beyond. Leiden: Sidestone Press.

Call for papers: Sudan Studies Research Conference Munich Edition 2022

In these difficult times, when all of our thoughts are with the Sudanese people, we are pleased to announce the upcoming Sudan Studies Research Conference 2022 to be held at LMU in Munich on June 25 2022. The event is co-organised by Sam Tipper, the Conference Director of this format of meetings first held in 2017 at Durham University, and a group of Postdocs of my DiverseNile project, Rennan Lemos, Giulia D’Ercole and Veronica Hinterhuber.

We invite paper proposals and posters from postgraduates, postdoctoral and other researchers working on subjects with a focus on Sudan (ancient and modern). The deadline for submitting abstracts (with c. 200 words) is 31 January 2022.

We are very much looking forward welcoming an international group of primarily young researchers working on Sudan here in Munich next year – the conference is organised as a hybrid event and online participation will also be possible.