3D-scanning Napoleon’s battlefield at Borodino

The company Artec 3D recently reported on work they did for the Russian academy of sciences in scanning the battlefield of Borodino. This is the site of the major battle in Napoleon’s 1812 campaign in Russia, and probably one of the biggest battles in the nineteenth century. There were 250 000 troops involved, with about 70 000 casualties.

Even though Napoleon technically won, it was far from being a decisive victory. Napoleon afterwards went on to occupy Moskou, but eventually had to retreat. This “strategic withdrawal“, as David Markam and Cameron Reilly called it in their Napoleon Bonaparte podcast, was in fact a complete disaster, resulting in the “Grande Armee” being decimated. On his way back, the troops had to pass the battlefield they had left only a few weeks earlier, and hardly any corpses had been buried. You can imagine the effect this had on the moral of the French troops and their allies.

The battlefield, including its landscape, has been kept more or less intact, and there are several archeological investigations ongoing. However, as the battlefield is enormous, it’s clear that there is a lot of work to do. The Artec 3D company states that they were asked to try out one of their scanners on a small part of the battlefield. Archeological digs had already found there the remains of 11 soldiers and 38 horses, and had them uncovered. Normally archeologists then go ahead with pencil and paper and photographs to record every detail of these remains for posterity, a painstaking and long work.

Image (c) Artec 3D

Image (c) Artec 3D

Artec claims they completed the work in two hours, one for the scanning itself and one for post-processing. The results, according to the Russian archeologists, were impressive and of high quality. During the analysis after the “dig” (the longest and boring part of archeology), the results were used for detailed measurements and analysis.

Image (c) Artec 3D

Image (c) Artec 3D

And indeed, I’m impressed too. I’m all in favour of using modern technology and science to advance archeology (I wrote about such a case with rescue dogs here). The handheld scanner is used for scanning human persons (for use in plastic surgery and movies), and applying them to get real science done is a very nice thing. However the costs of these things are still above the average budget of an archeology department. As one blog (in German) reported it, the scanner that does 3D and also colour registration, goes for almost 16 000 euros, with an additional 500 for the software. Artec 3D provided these free of charge, and included some technicians to operate them (one of them nearly fainted during the work). I’m assuming they considered this a nice public relations opportunity.

Which is not a bad thing, of course. Otherwise I wouldn’t be reporting on it, and I’m happy to give credit to the company for supporting science. As for the price, I’m sure it will come down in the years to come. In any case, the cost of the scanner will pay for itself as it might help in rescue archeology, and allow for a quicker survey. As interesting finds are often found during construction, it might shorten the interruption that is often required by an archeological investigation. In all, that is not a bad evolution, and thanks to this company for playing a small part in this technological development.

About Bruno Van de Casteele

Philosopher by education, IT'er by trade. Allround Armchair Skeptic, History Enthusiast, Father of Three. Twitter @brunovdc Personal website: www.puam.be
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5 Responses to 3D-scanning Napoleon’s battlefield at Borodino

  1. Jon Richfield says:

    Ouch! I am no archaeologist, but as a photographically active biologist I covet some of those devices. Unfortunately I bought a car for about that price a couple of years ago and still am saving for the next one in a decade or so. The results really look good.

  2. Very cool! I suspect we’re just getting started in regards to 3D scanning and printing technology, and it’ll get much better and cheaper as we go.

  3. Gustav says:

    Fascinating. Thank you for sharing this remarkable advancement.

  4. Ryan Placchetti says:

    This is really interesting that it comes in a handheld device. Though they don’t specify what is going on under the hood, it looks to be a photogrammetric process and they’re getting good results.

    They talk about this a bit more on their site…

    And I think the image of the scanned horse with its areas of occlusion is probably a bit more telling of its field application potential. The price tag is less than ideal when you consider other systems on the topic. That said, 3D modeling is not too expensive for archaeological digs, there have been a lot of changes on that front over the past several years.

    This is an article I collaborated on for an epublication on 3D modeling applications in archaeology. I think right now there are five articles total, all worth checking out if you’re interested in how this scanner fits in with modern field archaeology practices.


  5. Anonymous says:

    OK, so there were 70,000 casualties at the Battle of Borodino. They have found 11 human and 38 horse skeletons. Only 69,989 more to find…

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