Feasibility of digital restoration for ancient ceramic artifacts

Author:ZHENG ZELING Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2024-01-16


White pottery He vessel (2070 - 1600 BC) unearthed at Erlintou Site Photo: WENG RONG/CSST

Ancient ceramics are an important part of China’s intangible cultural heritage and the preservation of cultural relics. The restoration of ancient ceramics is an ancient yet modern art that aims to repair damaged relics, restoring them to their original appearance and artistic value.

Over the years, despite the large number of ceramic artifacts unearthed from various regions, the state of ancient ceramic restoration has been suboptimal due to historical and technical limitations, as well as a lack of expertise. With continuous innovation and the application of scientific and technological advancements, digital restoration technology for ancient ceramics is also constantly evolving. Exploring the digital representation of restored ancient ceramics not only promotes the authentic restoration and permanent preservation of ancient ceramic techniques and works, but also holds significant theoretical value and practical significance.

From restoring to extension

Currently, ancient ceramic restoration technology mainly includes traditional manual restoration and digital restoration. Traditional manual restoration is form of craftsmanship that requires skilled artisans with extensive experience to manually restore damaged artifacts step by step. Traditional manual restoration offers the advantage of better preserving the original appearance and historical features of ancient ceramics. However, it also has drawbacks, such as requiring a significant amount of time and effort, and the restoration result being susceptible to the subjective factors of the restorer.

With the introduction of digital technology and the evolving demands for the role and functionality of intangible cultural heritage artifacts, the concept of ancient ceramic restoration has undergone a significant transformation. Scholars, experts, and frontline restorers believe that the integration of digital technology not only improves the efficiency and accuracy of traditional manual restoration, but also provides a richer and more diverse means for research and protection. An increasing number of experts argue that traditional manual restoration, relying on handwork, is prone to subjective factors and requires a substantial amount of time and effort. Digital restoration can leverage advanced technology to scan and model ancient ceramics, while automated algorithms can enhance the accuracy and efficiency of restoration. Through digital reconstruction, the original appearance of ancient ceramics can be restored, facilitating further research into their historical, cultural, and artistic value and providing future generations with more convenient and comprehensive means of study and appreciation.

As a result, an increasing number of cultural institutions and creative companies are focusing on the application and innovation of digital restoration technology for ancient ceramics, creating restored works that possess both cultural and commercial value. In a sense, ancient ceramic restoration has transitioned from the previous emphasis on “restoring the original appearance as much as possible” to a new stage that emphasizes “ensuring the restored ancient ceramics can continue their historical, cultural, and economic value,” moving from “restore as old” to “extend life.”

Correspondingly, there has been a considerable amount of innovation and exploration in restoration techniques, including the emergence of various technological trends such as “AR Technology Digital Restoration Theory,” “Image Restoration Algorithm Digital Restoration Theory,” “Deep Neural Network Digital Restoration Theory,” and “Three-dimensional Scanning Digital Restoration Theory,” as well as content trends like “Material Digital Reproduction,” “Process Digital Reproduction,” and “Work Digital Reproduction.” However, they all converge on a key technology—digital modeling, which utilizes technology to transform the materials, processes, techniques, and displays of ancient ceramic restoration into digital formats, achieving precise modeling and efficient output at each stage. Consequently, research on standards for digital restoration of ancient ceramics has gained prominence on the historical stage.

In-depth research needed

In reality, both domestically and internationally, exploration and research on standards for restoring ancient ceramics began long ago. Some scholars believe that the purpose is to improve the quality of ancient ceramic restoration according to the needs of protecting historical and cultural values, ensuring that the restored artifacts closely resemble their original appearances. As a result, standards such as “Pre-restoration Detection Standards,” “Selection Standards for Restoration Materials and Methods,” and “Evaluation Standards for Restoration Effects” have emerged. These standards are mostly based on traditional manual restoration stages, and research on digital restoration standards is still in its early stages.

In recent years, relevant institutions have begun exploring the establishment of ancient ceramic databases based on digital technology applications to better manage and utilize ancient ceramic data. The goal is to integrate and categorize various information about ancient ceramics, including images, literature, identification, and assessment. These forward-looking efforts have driven the development of digital process standards and database development for ancient ceramics. However, overall, research on the theory and practice of digital restoration of ancient ceramics is still in its infancy domestically. There is an urgent need to seize the strategic initiative of using digital technology for transformation and development across various industries. This includes thoroughly exploring the conceptual content, mechanistic context, basic processes, technical methods, implementation tools, and other aspects of digital restoration of ancient ceramics. These efforts will involve summarizing valuable experiences, promoting the efficient, standardized, and regulated operation of digital restoration work for ancient ceramics, and subsequently developing a set of digital process standards. Additionally, establishing a specialized digital repository for the inheritance and innovation of ancient ceramic techniques and works can further advance the protection, inheritance, and innovative development of ancient ceramics as intangible cultural heritage.

Technical exploration

Digital restoration is an emerging set of techniques that utilize computer technology and digital methods to scan and model ancient ceramics in three dimensions, automating the restoration process through algorithms. Unlike traditional manual restoration, digital restoration offers significantly improved efficiency and accuracy, while also restoring the original appearance and historical value of ancient ceramics. Operationally, digital restoration requires a clear understanding of its basic process, technical methods, and implementation tools.

Basic digital restoration process: Drawing on both domestic and international best practices, the basic process of digital restoration for ancient ceramics comprises four stages—data acquisition, data processing, restoration analysis, and restoration output. The first stage, data acquisition, involves utilizing technologies such as three-dimensional scanning to obtain the raw data, including shape, color, texture, and other physical properties. Commonly used three-dimensional scanning technologies include laser scanning, structured light scanning, optical scanning, and other methods. The second stage, data processing, involves processing and optimizing the original raw data, which includes operations such as data cleaning, alignment, smoothing and reconstruction, to facilitate subsequent restoration analysis and output. In the third stage, restoration analysis, the digitally-restored ceramic artifacts are analyzing, and damaged parts such as cracks, missing pieces, and fractures are identified. Plans for restoring damaged areas are also generated at this stage, which includes s selecting restoration materials, determining restoration methods, etc. The fourth stage is restoration output, involving rendering and displaying the restoration results for observation and comparison, evaluating and testing the restoration results to ensure accuracy and reliability, and saving and disseminating the restoration results for subsequent research and application.

Technological restoration methods: Examining the current trends in technological development, the core technologies employed in the digital restoration of ancient ceramics include 3D modeling, virtual reality, computer graphics, machine learning, and various other technical means. 3D modeling involves the three-dimensional scanning of an object to capture its shape, color, and texture data. The main advantage of 3D modeling technology is its ability to accurately restore the original appearance and historical value of ancient ceramics while providing foundational data support for subsequent restoration analysis and output.

Virtual reality is another important technology employed in digital restoration, involving the use of computer graphics and interactive design techniques to transform digital models into three-dimensional scenes in a virtual world so users can observe and interact with them more intuitively. Its main advantage lies in providing a more intuitive and immersive restoration experience, as well as convenient and efficient tools for designing and optimizing restoration solutions. Computer graphics primarily uses computer algorithms and mathematical models to analyze and optimize digital models for more realistic and accurate rendering. Its main advantage lies in improving restoration efficiency and accuracy, providing more advanced and complex tools for subsequent restoration analysis and output. Machine learning is an emerging technology for digital restoration, utilizing AI and data mining techniques to analyze and learn from digital models, facilitating automated restoration. Its main advantage lies in improving restoration efficiency and accuracy, as well as providing more intelligent and flexible tools for designing and optimizing restoration solutions.

Restoration implementation tools: The tools for implementing digital restoration of ancient ceramics include various software applications and hardware devices such as 3D scanners, virtual reality devices, computer graphics software, machine learning platforms, and more. 3D scanners are among the core devices for digital restoration, using lasers, structured light, or and optical scanning to scan and model objects. Virtual reality devices, such as head-mounted displays, controllers, and sensors, are provide users with a more intuitive and immersive restoration experience. Computer graphics software is another important tool for digital restoration, used for analyzing, optimizing, rendering, and performing other operations on digital models. Machine learning platforms are a new tool for digital restoration, utilizing AI and data mining techniques for the analysis and learning of digital models.

The development of digital restoration technology offers new perspectives and practical approaches for the protection and cultural innovation of ancient ceramic heritage, creating greater opportunities for the innovative development of art and culture. As research and application continues to deepen, digital restoration of ancient ceramics will undoubtedly demonstrate its immense vitality in areas such as heritage protection, historical research, public promotion, and commercial applications. It will continue to play a significant role fostering the prosperity and growth of the creative industries in art and culture.


Zheng Zeling is an associate professor from the School of Art and Design at Fuzhou University of International Studies and Trade.


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