Digital comparison of 19th century plaster casts and original classical sculptures

Emma Payne (UCL)

Digital Classicist London & Institute of Classical Studies seminar 2015

Friday June 19th at 16:30, in Room G21A, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU

Livecast at Digital Classicist London YouTube channel.

Historical casts of original classical sculptures can now function as important archaeological records: we know that they may contain valuable archaeological information subsequently lost from original sculptures. However, it was not unknown for the 19th century plaster craftsmen (formatori) to doctor the casts, crafting their moulds such that when cast, a damaged sculpture would appear more complete. In this sense, plaster casts may be considered artefacts in their own right—rather than straightforward copies—representing 19th century craft techniques and approaches to classical reception.

In order to investigate these potential historical and archaeological significances, 3D scans are being produced of both casts and original objects for comparison. Scanning of casts is taking place at the British Museum, which houses an early collection of casts of classical sculptures. Case studies have been selected by identifying those sculptures for which there are early casts of originals that remained in an outdoor context for many years after they were moulded; these casts are most likely to contain small surface details lost/changed from the originals by processes such as weathering. Sections of casts of the Parthenon sculptures are to be scanned at the British Museum, and the corresponding sections of the originals at the Acropolis Museum, Athens.

The 3D images will record fine topographical details to facilitate study of the current surface appearance and condition of the casts and originals. The two sets of images will then be visually compared and mapped onto each other to indicate any differences. The comparative 3D scans will be used to facilitate interpretation of the complex nature of the plaster surfaces by attempting to distinguish between differences caused by reductive processes on the originals (such as weathering) and additive processes on the casts (made up by the formatori). Results are to be analysed in conjunction with detailed digital photographs and/or reflectance transformation imaging (RTI), together with consideration of the historical context of both casts and originals, craft techniques used to produce the casts, and limitations of the scanning process when dealing with objects of two different materials (marble and plaster). The results should enhance our understanding both of the original sculptures and of the significances of the casts.

The 3D scanner for this project is being supplied as part of the Bernd Breuckmann Award. The project is a component of my PhD (The Place of Plaster: Investigating the historical and archaeological significances of plaster casts of classical sculpture and how these may be recorded and preserved) funded by the AHRC.


The seminar will be followed by wine and refreshments.