Skip to main content

Visualizing and Materializing Objects: 3D Printed Coins Assignment

Published onJun 14, 2022
Visualizing and Materializing Objects: 3D Printed Coins Assignment
On left is a picture of an ancient Athenian coin showing an owl, while on the right is a 3D print of a similar coin

Athenian Tetradrachm (Cleveland Museum of Art, inv. 1941.296) and 3D Print (model by pinotoon)

Author & Project Role

Christine L. Johnston, Instructor

Alan Wheeler, Graduate Student Teaching Assistant

Alexis Nunn, Graduate Student Teaching Assistant

Erin Escobar, Graduate Student Teaching Assistant

Assignment Files

Learning Objectives

What did you want students to be able to do by completing this assignment?

The Learning Objectives for this module and assignment include cognitive and affective goals organized according to L.D. Fink’s Taxonomy for Significant Learning (Fink 2003):

Foundational Knowledge: Understand and remember the basic history of coinage in the ancient Mediterranean, including its introduction and use in the past;

Application: Know how to evaluate digital images and 3D models as tools for visualization and analysis, including potential benefits and limitations of each. Learn how to study ancient coins through the worksheet exercise, including the types of information and iconography commonly found, the challenge in identifying images and text accurately on small objects, and the value of coins as an important information source for social and economic history;

Integration: Identify and critically evaluate institutional power and ideology as reflected in both monumental and quotidian objects (like coins and their iconography) in the past and present;

Human Dimension: Develop a better awareness of object histories in museum collections through discussions of the provenance of the coins, who has traditionally had access to such objects, whose interests have been served by past collecting practices, and how 3D printing can make museum objects more accessible;

Caring: Become interested in cultural heritage and the ethics of museum and private collecting;

Learning How to Learn: Consider the ways that hands-on active learning and digital tools can help in both memory retention and in understanding the past, and contemplate the ways that you can best integrate these approaches in your future learning.

Technology-Dependent Learning Outcomes

Was there anything this assignment taught students that you felt they wouldn't have been able to learn through other types of class assignments?

3D print in reddish brown of the bust of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti

3D Printed Bust of Nefertiti (model by Scan the World)

The incorporation of model visualizations and material replicas facilitates the active and authentic learning experiences of this assignment (see assignment description below). By interacting with printed models and digital visualizations—including high-resolution imaging and 3D models, students can better engage in class discussions about the use of digital methods in object recording and analysis. Handling and closely viewing ancient coins provides an authentic learning experience with numismatics and highlights the opportunities and challenges of studying small everyday objects from the past. Importantly, these resources help illustrate the potential benefits of digital tools in cultural heritage protection and repatriation (i.e., the use of replicas in museum displays), creating a grounding for further discussions of the ethics of museum and private collections. Students can also consider the benefits of replica and 3D printed objects in enhancing museum accessibility, such as providing interactive pieces for patrons with visual impairments.

Skill Level

What is the course title and level?

This assignment is designed for use in introductory undergraduate courses on ancient Mediterranean history. This assignment could also be used in upper-level undergraduate courses or in high school history classes. It could also be adapted for courses on other ancient or post-antique cultures that used coins.

What kinds of prior knowledge is necessary to complete this assignment? How do students gain this knowledge?

This assignment is incorporated late in the quarter, after students have been introduced to the cultures and histories of Western Asia, Greece, and Rome. This includes discussion of 5th c. BCE Athens and their expansionist state, Alexander the Great and his expedition through Western Asia, and the rise of Rome through the Republic and the establishment of the Roman Empire. This background knowledge is necessary for the interpretation of the symbols and ideology reflected in the specific coins selected for this assignment. Learning resources for this background knowledge are included in the assignment description. Before beginning the assignment, students are provided with a short mini-lecture on numismatics (the study of ancient coins), including the history of coinage, the ways in which coins were produced and circulated, and what coins can tell us about ancient societies and economies.

Image of three coins. The one on the left, from Athens, shows an owl. In the center is a coin of Alexander the Great that shows a seated Zeus. On the right is a Roman imperial coin showing the twins Romulus and Remus being nursed by a wolf.

Ancient Mediterranean Coins Used in This Assignment

Assignment Description

This assignment was developed as part of a broader research and open education resource project (The Ancient World in 3D Project) that incorporates 3D printed and replica objects into introductory survey courses on the history and cultures of the ancient Mediterranean (additional teaching modules can be found here). Objects are incorporated into multi-modal learning modules and assignments that encourage significant student learning with both cognitive and affective learning objectives (Fink 2003).

This assignment incorporates active learning through the direct analysis of the study of coins, and collaborative learning through group work; group work has been demonstrated to be an effective method to elevate the deep learning experiences of students (Brown et al. 1988). By scaffolding the study of ancient coins onto student knowledge of coinage in circulation today, this assignment employs a constructivist and student-centered approach (Stein et al. 2006, 240; Michael 2006).

Printed models of ancient objects provide unique opportunities to discuss aspects of scale, object functionality, crafting techniques, and materiality. Viewing high-resolution photographs and the digital 3D models alongside the prints provides opportunities to discuss the benefits and limitations of different digital recording and analysis methods. Handling and studying the model coins creates an authentic learning experience in which students can apply historical and archaeological methods in the classroom.


If the course is being offered at an institution that houses study or legacy collections, archaeological objects could be used instead of models. The discussion about ethics and collecting practices could then incorporate discussions of the ethics of legacy collections (see, for example, Johnston 2016). With additional class time, students can also be introduced to the process of 3D model creation through photogrammetry using phone images and apps (an introduction to photogrammetry can be found in The Open Digital Archaeology Textbook).

Module Introduction:

Initial class discussion should introduce students to numismatics (the study of ancient coins), giving an overview of the types of information researchers can get from coins that survive from antiquity. This may include methods of manufacture, materials used, systems of circulation, and common iconography. In preparation for this class, students are assigned the following material:


Students are broken into groups of approximately 3–4. Groups are given approximately 5 minutes to describe and draw one American coin from memory. Each group is then provided with a collection of 3 coins from different periods of antiquity (more coins may be included if desired). The accompanying assignment handout includes images of both sides of each coin, as well as a guide to the Greek alphabet. Students are then tasked with analyzing the imagery and text on the different coins in their collection. This part of the activity takes approximately 20 minutes. The class then comes together to discuss the results of the analysis. We spend approximately 15 minutes reviewing group assignment results and reflecting on the activity and the challenges and opportunities for historians in studying ancient coins. We conclude the activity with a 10-minute discussion of digital methods for studying ancient objects, comparing the photographs, 3D models, and printed replicas of the assignment coins. During this part of the discussion, high-resolution photographs and the digital 3D models can be shown and manipulated.

Image of the Athenian coin as a photograph on the left, as a 3D digital model in the center, and as a 3D print on the right

Athenian Tetradrachm, Digital Model, and 3D Print (model by pinotoon)

Time Needed

How much time did you allot to this project?

This module and assignment take approximately one hour to complete (not including the pre-assigned video and podcast).

Support and Training

What kinds of support or training did you provide to help students learn to use new techniques or specialized tools?

An introduction to the study of ancient coins is provided at the start of the module. No technical skills are required for this assignment.


Did you need any specialized equipment, tools, or human resources to make this assignment feasible? If so, please describe.

This activity requires the instructor to have access to a computer and projector in the classroom, as well as a 3D printer. Objects printed by the authors were made from 3D models produced by third parties and were printed primarily using a Monoprice MP Select Mini V2 printer and Hatchbox, Silk, and SpiderMaker 3D Premium Plus PLA filaments. The 3D models were manipulated and prepared with Ultimaker Cura version 3.6 software.

Commercial printers can be used to order 3D prints, however the cost may be prohibitive. Though the assignment can be undertaken without 3D printed or replica coins, it does limit the experiential component of the learning activity, as well as the student perspective generated through this assignment on the potential use of replicas in museums and institutions of learning.


How did you assess or grade this project?

The in-class group activity is a low-stakes assignment graded on a complete / did-not-complete basis. If desired, the module reflection included above in the assignment description as an in-class discussion could be assigned as a written reflection assignment targeting:

  • Foundational knowledge and Application – centering on the study of coins or on digital methods of object analysis and interpretation;

  • Integration and Caring – critical evaluation of museum collection ethics and the opportunities afforded by replicas for cultural heritage repatriation;

  • Human Dimension and Learning How to Learn – metacognitive discussion of their learning achieved through the module and assignment.

Challenges and Opportunities

If you assigned this project again, would you change anything? If so, what?

This assignment has been revised following initial in-class use during the 2019–2020 academic year; it was also amended for online group work during virtual learning through the 2020-2021 year. Revision was based on student feedback provided by in-class surveys conducted as part of the broader Ancient World in 3D research project (initial results were presented at the 2021 Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America; the poster is available here). Following the initial testing of this assignment, it was revised to include additional time during the replica analysis. In future iterations, expanded explicit discussion of the learning goals of the activity will be included, allowing students to connect their experience more easily to the assignment objectives. The final discussion here on digital methods for artifact scanning and replication is part of a broader discussion that extends over multiple classes through the course.

Describe any trouble spots or complications someone else might want to be aware of before trying a similar assignment in a course of their own.

Depending on the quality of the 3D printing, the coins may be hard for students to read. This provides an opportunity to discuss the challenges experienced by historians working on ancient artifacts like coins, as they are rarely in pristine condition. In upper-level courses, or in courses centering on digital or historical methods, the instructor may elect to supplement the activity with discussion of different imagining or analytical techniques.

Presentations & Publications

Johnston, C.L., A. Wheeler, A. Nunn, and E. Escobar. 2021. “Teaching the Ancient World with Replicas: Integrating 3D Printed Objects to Facilitate Authentic Active Learning and Foster Classroom Inclusivity.” Poster presented at the Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America.

Works Cited

Bonnet, N.J. 2015, November 23. “Please Touch the Art: 3D Printed Masterworks for the Blind.” Vice.

Brown, J. S., A. Collins, and P. Duguid 1988. “Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning.” Educational Researcher 18(1): 32–42.

Fink, L.D. 2003. Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Johnston, C.L. 2016. “Diamonds in the Dust: The Underlying Pedagogical Value of Old Material Collections.” Near Eastern Archaeology 79(2): 108–116.

Michael, J. 2006. “Where’s the Evidence. That Active Learning Works?” Adv Physiol Educ 30: 159–167.

Stein, S.T., G. Isaacs, and T. Andrews. 2006. “Incorporating Authentic Learning Experiences within a University Course.” Studies in Higher Education 29(2): 239–258.

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?