Cincinnati Museum Center and Xavier University prepare artifacts for Big Bone Lick

3D printers create replicas for new display at state historic site

CINCINNATI – Cincinnati Museum Center and Xavier University are pairing paleontology and technology to create elements for a new display at Big Bone Lick State Historic Site . Using 3D scanning and printing technology, Xavier University will create replicas of fossils and molds from the collections at Cincinnati Museum Center as part of the Big Bone Lick Visitor Center revitalization project being done by Cincinnati Museum Center.

Three artifacts from Cincinnati Museum Center’s collections will be scanned and printed as part of a new display at Big Bone Lick: a mastodon molar, an ancient bison tooth and a jaw fragment from Harlan’s Ground Sloth. Previously, similar projects involved making molds of specimens then casting replica copies. With 3D printing technology at the Xavier University Center for Innovation, replicas can be made as accurately and with less risk to the artifacts.

“The opportunity to work with Cincinnati Museum Center really showcases why 3D printing is so incredible. You can create something quickly, efficiently and inexpensively, without damaging the integrity of the artifact,” says Shawn Nason, Chief Innovation Officer at Xavier University and the Director of the Xavier Center of Innovation. “While we never imagined fossils of ancient bison or mastodons being created in our MakerBot printers, it just goes to show you anything is possible with innovation.”

One of the objects being scanned is a plaster copy of a mastodon molar that was the first fossil collected from the lick, discovered at the site in 1739 by a French military party. Along with teeth, the French party also collected tusks and bones that they brought back to the Paris Museum of Natural History, where they remain today. Mastodon discoveries at Big Bone Lick in the 18th century led to the scientific description of the mastodon.

An ancient bison tooth will also be scanned. This extinct species of bison became known to the scientific community on the basis of skull fragments unearthed at Big Bone Lick in 1807 by William Clark, who had been sent to the site to gather fossils by President Thomas Jefferson. Clark’s expedition to Big Bone Lick took place just one year after he had returned from his expedition to the Pacific Ocean with Meriwether Lewis.

The third object that Xavier University will scan is a copy of a six-inch jaw fragment belonging to a Harlan’s Ground Sloth. The original jaw fragment of the nearly ten-foot tall extinct sloth was collected at Big Bone Lick in 1830 and was the first identified bone of the species. The original fragment was lost in a fire at a New York museum.

The artifacts not only tell the history of Big Bone Lick but also of American paleontology.

“Big Bone Lick is the birthplace of American vertebrate paleontology and as such represents an important milestone in the history of science,” says Glenn Storrs, PhD, Assistant Vice President for Collections & Research and the Withrow Farny Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at Cincinnati Museum Center. “The collections of Cincinnati Museum Center document the long history of discovery at the site and highlight our region’s significant contribution to scientists’ understanding of the Earth’s past.”

Once the replicas are produced using 3D printers at the Xavier University Center for Innovation, they will be sanded and painted in preparation for use in the revitalized Visitor Center at Big Bone Lick State Historic Site. Big Bone Lick, and the non-profit Friends of Big Bone, selected Cincinnati Museum Center to complete the upgrade project in an effort to shift the building’s focus from visitation to interpretation.

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