“My principal job on site is to reconstruct fossils, and so I was tasked with putting together the DNH 155 skull. It took around a week to fully remove the skull fragments and all the sediment gluing the pieces together from their original resting place within the Drimolen Main Quarry. As each of the roughly 300 fragments were painstakingly removed, they were digitized with an Artec Space Spider, a professional handheld 3-D scanner. The scanner shoots patterns of light that distort based on the geography of the object it is hitting and bounce back to the scanner—like a bat using sonar, but in this case, light rather than sound is what’s bouncing back and forth. This technology was used to create high-resolution digital records of each piece of the cranium’s location within the sediment in case any pieces unexpectedly dislodged….
The first phase of reconstruction was completed by manually putting the pieces together. But, even after manual reconstruction, there were some elements of the cranium that couldn’t be placed because the contact point was too small, or a tiny part of the edges had been lost. In these cases, the Artec software was used to digitally situate the parts in relation to one another. Specifically, the face of DNH 155 cannot safely be attached to the rest of the cranium. This fusion was achieved digitally. Although it could have been glued, joining the pieces in this fashion would have been risky and would likely have caused permanent damage to the fossil. The published reconstruction of the DNH 155 cranium would not have been possible without 3-D technology, which would have been a huge blow to the ability of other researchers to assess the fossil in the future….
Reconstruction was only one part of the research program designed to reveal the secrets of this rare skull. Many of the researchers who work on fossils from South Africa are unable to travel to Johannesburg to work on the originals. This is especially true for researchers who are not based at wealthy institutions, and for cash-strapped students in general. It is for this reason that the Drimolen team have invested significant capital to digitize the DNH 155 cranium and most of the Drimolen fossil assemblage. As a Ph.D. student myself, I am particularly interested in the potential for high quality 3-D scanners such as the Space Spider to democratize research by allowing free and easy access to research-quality data. While permissions and access to such data are controlled by the University of the Witswatersrand (in the case of the Drimolen fossils) it is our ultimate intention to share our data with researchers, particularly early-career researchers, who are pursuing a topic related to the South African hominin fossils…..”