Art Bytes

Play with Ancient Artifacts (and Avoid Arrest) With the Google Art Project’s 3-D Scans

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Play with Ancient Artifacts (and Avoid Arrest) With the Google Art Project’s 3-D Scans
Hippopotamus figure from Middle Kingdom Egypt (c. 2000 BCE), from the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

While galleries and museums around the world scramble to document and digitize their collections, employing divergent tactics of retaining or releasing ownership of the images, Google has quietly revolutionized the web-based art experience through its Google Art Project, launched in 2011. Notable for bringing for bringing Street View capabilities to museums including MoMA and Tate Modern as well as world heritage sites like the Pyramids of Giza, the Project’s latest addition is a collection of 303 3-D digital models from the collections of six international museums. 

Head of AugustusEmperor Augustus (c. 1-25 CE), from the collection of Kunsthistoriches Museum Wein

Made using state-of-the art 3-D scanning technology, each model is fully mapped to be viewable from all sides, with notes from archeologists and curators still visible. The collection, which comes from institutions including LACMA and the Museo d’Arte Orientale in Rome, features mainly ancient and antique artifacts, the most recent being Itzhak Danziger’s Nimrod (1939) from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and pictured below.

NimrodDetail of Nimrod (1939) by Itzhak Danziger, from the collection of the Israel Museum

Other remarkable pieces include a 4,000 year old hippopotamus figure from Egypt’s Middle Kingdom (from the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien in Vienna; see above for image), a Moche stirrup-spout ceramic vessel with deer hunting scenes from around 500 CE (from the Dallas Museum of Art), and the terrifying Ṣaḍbhuja Jñāna Mahākāla, an 18th century Tibetan sculpture in bronze, pigments, and vitreous pearls (from the Museo d’rte Orientale). 

Moche VaseStirrup-Spout Vessel with Deer Hunting Scenes (c. 450-550 CE), from the collection of the Dallas Museum of Art

Tibetan statuteSadbhuja Jnana Mahakala (18th century CE), from the collection of the Museo d'Arte Orientale

By far the biggest contributor to the collection is the California Academy of Sciences, whose various vertebrate skulls account for 242 of the 303 digital models. Covering everything from eels to elephants, the skulls are just as fascinating as the man-made artifacts, and in some cases equally indicative of our effort to shape the world around us in service of aesthetic ideals—compare the skull of an English bulldog to that of a labrador retriever to see just how far our reach extends.

Bulldog skullTwo breeds of Canis familiaris or domestic dog (English bulldog below, Labrador retriever above); both from the collection of the California Academy of Sciences

Labrador skull

Other notable mentions in the skull category include the pig-like babirusa (that set of “horns” on its snout are actually teeth that grow up through the roof of its mouth) and the helmeted hornbill, whose distinctive headgear is made of solid keratin and is used in aerial head-butting matches for dominance. 

Babirusa skullBabyrousa babyrussa (buru babirusa), from the collection of the California Academy of Sciences

Helmeted hornbillRhinoplax vigil (helmeted hornbill), from the collection of the California Academy of Sciences

Unlike many other attempts to digitize art objects using 3-D modeling, the Google Art Project has produced detailed, high-definition textures and a silky-smooth interface. Though currently unavailable for download, this is closer than most of us will (legally) get to being able to handle and explore these precious pieces of human and natural history. Keep scrolling to see more examples from the collection, and click here to see them all in full 3-D.

Stirrup-Spout Vessel: Seated FigureStirrup-Spout Vessel: Seated Figure (c. 350-550 CE), from the collection of the Dallas Museum of Art

Pharaoh Close UpUshabti of Sen-nedjem (c. 1320-1250 BCE), from the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wein

Green sea turtleChelonia mydas (green sea turtle), from the collection of the California Academy of Sciences

Etrog (citron) boxEtrog (citron) box, (1908-1929), from the collection of the Israel Museum 

Seated figure with horseHorse and horseman (2nd Century BCE), from the collection of the Museo d'Arte Orientale

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