Skepticism

Germany Finally Releases Scan of Stolen Egyptian Sculpture

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Transcript:

I must be getting nostalgic because this is, like, the tenth update video I’ve done in the past few months, and this is a fun one. Waaaay back in 2016 I made a video about the bust of Nefertiti — I know, not my usual subject matter, but there was a really interesting technological angle. I’ll summarize, because I would never ask you to watch two entire YouTube videos in a row to get the jist.

The 3,000-year-old bust of Nefertiti was discovered in Egypt by German archaeologists in the early 20th century, and ever since then Germany has kept the piece in their own Egyptian Museum of Berlin. Egypt would very much like it back but Germany, hilariously, considers it an important part of their cultural heritage. Hitler loved the thing.

The Egyptian Museum of Berlin created a high resolution detailed 3D scan of the bust, but they refused to release it to the general public for any reason. I suppose maybe they were worried that no one would want to go look at a great, historic work of art in person when they can just print one up out of cheap plastic using their janky-ass low-res MakerBot. Makes sense. I was going to go the Lourve once but then I realized I can just use my laserjet printer to pop out a Mona Lisa in 20 seconds. Those idiots.

In 2016, two artists named Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles said they had made their own scan of the bust, by hacking a Kinect and putting in a backpack that they then wore to the museum. They gave the equipment to a mysterious third party who they say converted the data, which they then released to the world, sparking a greater conversation about art, freedom of information, and colonialism.

But there’s a twist: experts who examined their scan pointed out that it would be nearly impossible to get the level of detail they got using a hacked Kinect. Cosmo Wenman is a 3D printing expert who noticed it and suggested that perhaps the artists were just being used by the mysterious third party to release the official museum scan without being busted for stealing it. 

Wenman has spent the past three years on a mission to get the Egyptian Museum of Berlin to release their scan, which brings up to today’s video. Whew, what a journey. But there’s so much more!

Here’s the big news: Wenman succeeded, and the museum gave him the 3D scan of the Bust of Nefertiti, which he has released to the public for free. You can download it on Thingiverse and do whatever you want with it. Print yourself a teeny Nefertititi. Turn her into a puppet. Nefertiti soap on a rope. Nefertiti vase? Why not.

It wasn’t an easy get for Wenman. He has been fighting the Museum this entire time, with them admitting that legally he had the right to get that data from them, but claiming they couldn’t give it to him because it would negatively impact sales of Nefertiti merchandise in their gift shop, the profits from which they implied went to more digital scanning. When Wenman requested data on their income, it turns out they make hardly anything from that stuff and none of the money went to digital scanning.

After he didn’t back down, they eventually caved and sent him the data. They had added a copyright claim into the bottom of it, which is rich considering they stole the artwork from Egypt in the first place so I’m pretty sure the original artist didn’t give them the copyright. I honestly keep thinking about this aspect of the entire thing and I’m blown away at what a bunch of assholes they are. Like, imagine I recorded Lizzo’s “Juice” of the radio, put it online, and then added a copyright notice to the file that said it was mine. What the fuck.

Wenman wrote up his adventure over on Reason and I highly recommend you check it out, and maybe start following him on Twitter because he’s only just getting started. He’s going on to fight other museums to release their scans, and he’s currently in the midst of a huge fight with the Rodin Museum in France. As a state museum, they are required to release their scans to the public, so he’s about to take them to court to make sure they do it. Which…they probably won’t. So grab your popcorn.

All of this is vitally important work for freedom of information and the celebration of the arts in our society, and I’m so glad that Wenman is fighting that fight. But…I have to say, after this update I was left wondering…was the “hacked Kinect” scan of Nefertiti actually the official museum scan that someone stole and tried to cover up? Now that we have the official scan, I asked Wenman if he could look at it and compare it to the hacked version. Here’s what he said:

“Like most 3D models, the surfaces of both the “hack” scan and the museum’s scan are each defined by a mesh that is made of lots of triangles. The “hack” scan has 2 million triangles. The museum’s scan has 6.4 million — more than three times as many. The two scans’ surfaces are nearly identical, except the extra triangles in the museum scan define features at a finer resolution than the hack scan. Also, the hack scan has no color data, but the museum’s scan has full color info.”

He points out that the hacked scan is about 2% smaller than the real one, which would suggest that the data are different scans. But! He says that there “are very tiny quirks in how the museum’s scan was triangulated that are also present in the hack scan. They’re artifacts of how the digital model was constructed, and not details in the original sculpture. To me, that is pretty conclusive that the hack scan is derived from the museum’s scan.”

Boom. Wenman points out that if someone did steal the original scan but wanted to make it look like it was a lower quality scan, they could ditch the color data, lower the resolution, and then shrink it a little to make it look like maybe it came from a replica.

It’s not a slam dunk, but it’s pretty convincing. Unfortunately, we’ll probably never know for sure, since the museum continues to be cagey by not releasing absolutely all the data they have, and the artists and hacker are remaining tight-lipped about their big heist.

For those who want more info, please check out Wenman’s article and all the released data he’s managed to round up. Big thanks to Wenman for pursuing this and for helping to satisfy three years of intense curiosity!

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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3 Comments

  1. Geographical displacement isn’t exactly great archaeology. But how much can the piece be sent ‘back to Egypt?’
    Which Egypt? Mubarak’s–Nasser’s–Farouk’s– the British protectorate–the Ottoman province–the Arab fiefdom–Alexander the Great’s conquest?
    And even those are starting more than 1,000 years after Nefertiti.
    Yeah, the Germans were probably guilty of a glorified ‘pot dig’ to stock the museum back home. And we’re damn’ lucky the piece wasn’t lost or wrecked during the War. But we can’t expect every portable piece of history to be re-interred for the sake of ‘return.
    No really comfortable solution here. It ain’t right for it to be in Berlin, but its hard to explain just why it feels that way to me.’

    1. Trying to tie it to a specific Egyptian politician is spurious. The claim is not that it should belong to a specific Egyptian government regime (though the state would likely be responsible for handling it, in practice). The claim is that it belongs to the wider Egyptian people, to their cultural and geographical heritage. Pharaohs’ tombs are naturally culturally associated with their history, and not with Germany’s. The current German pretense that it’s a natural part of their heritage is clearly silly, a post hoc rationalisation of what was obviously theft. Not theft from an identifiable individual, but from a people at large.

      1. But then…do Native American artifacts belong to the European Americans who live on the same territory now? The Egyptian people of today aren’t a sealed-off Shangri-la-ish population. People do move around a lot in 3,000 years.
        Its nitpicking, since they’re a damn’ sight closer than the Germans.

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