Webinars: A New Frontier in Archaeological Training

The SHA’s Academic and Professional Training Committee (APTC), working with the Conference Committee, offers a range of training and professional development opportunities at the annual conference. We have workshops, roundtables, and fora covering many topics, most developed in response to member interest and needs. To augment these, the APTC plans to try year-round training (not during the conference). You have the opportunity to be part of this on July 17.

This past winter, members of the APTC started kicking around the idea of putting together a set of webinars to offer training and instructional opportunities for the SHA during the year between the conferences. These would supplement the annual conference workshops, which will remain unchanged.

Image courtesy of David Roethler

Webinars (a portmanteau of “web” and “seminars”) are on-line sessions where attendees can interact (audio at least, also video if people have cameras in their computers) and, depending on the software involved, view the moderator’s desktop together. Webinars are increasingly common in business and other fields, and they allow  people scattered across the globe to meet to discuss business, undergo training, or just catch up, all at minimal cost.

The APTC would like to see members of the SHA interested in hosting or attending such web-based training sessions step forward with ideas for webinars. These could range from technical material like database management, curation techniques, or remote sensing applications to theoretical, topical, or regional topics. Professional development topics such as job hunting or transforming your dissertation into a book (thanks, Myriam Arcangeli [@Terrailles]) would also work. The field is very wide open.

Some Things to Consider

One of the benefits of this medium is the low cost. In its initial stages, we would run the webinars through systems such as Google Hangout (with up to 10 seats) or Blackboard Collaborate (for more). With no room to rent, no travel to subsidize, and only the host’s fees (if there are any) to defray, we envision these to be among the most cost-effective development tools available.

There are, of course, a few obstacles. Depending on your preferred method of content delivery (audio only, audio and video, chat), you place different data and computing demands on participants. If an attendee is on a dial-up connection, they may not be able to stream video. Also, some of the webinar delivery systems require downloaded content that, while not usually excessively resource-hungry, may require some lead time for users to get approved and installed (I’m looking at you, Department of Defense archaeologists).

Webinars and the Student Member

As webinars let people log in from wherever they can get internet coverage, they do not require the travel funding that can be a big impediment to attendance. This is particularly true for college students. We are particularly interested to get feedback from students about what kinds of webinars they would be interested in attending.

The scheduling flexibilities of webinars will allow us to focus on applying for graduate schools, preparing for conferences, and other topics that would be more useful earlier in the year than the conference allows. The APTC will be working with the Student Subcommittee of the APTC to develop student-oriented opportunities.

Getting the Ball Rolling

If you have an idea about a topic, you can e-mail me at cdrexler@uark.edu, tweet me (@cgdrexler), or stick an idea in the comments section.

If you’d like to host a webinar at some point in the future, send me a note and I’ll get you an invite to our first webinar on July 17, from 2-3 pm (Eastern). This inaugural webinar will focus on… webinars! We’ll focus on topic ideas, get some background on content development, and discuss the use of the technology. Drop me a line if you want to participate!


Amber Graft-Weiss and Terry Brock contributed to a lively Twitter discussion on this topic that helped develop and refine where we would like the webinars to focus. Shelley Keith, of Southern Arkansas University, advised on materials related to webinar content development.

Toward a Dynamic—and Virtual—Public Archaeology

In my mind, public archaeology involves reaching out and interacting with different audiences, ranging from those with little knowledge of what archaeology actually is (no, I don’t dig up dinosaurs—yes, I think dinosaurs are cool) to individuals whose passion and skills for archaeology rival or exceed my own. Until recently, my interaction with the public has largely been face to face, via public lectures, working with volunteers in the field and laboratory, and conducting hands-on workshops.

Public lectures are a great way to reach an interested audience—and students who want extra-credit—but I find that the level of interactivity is usually not very high.  Sure, people can ask questions, or come up and speak directly with me afterwards, but they may still be formulating their thoughts on what I just presented to them—or thinking about the long ride home in heavy traffic.  Field and laboratory volunteers—especially those who return regularly and for extended periods of time—can get that thrill of discovery and also know that they are contributing meaningfully to interpreting an historic site. Hands-on workshops are much more regulated affairs—but can provide members of the public with an insight into how we approach analysis of the past, and, perhaps, give them something tangible to take home and further reflect on what archaeology can tell them about the past.

Not everyone has the time or means to journey to our public events or venues, and the question must be asked: how do we reach these individuals? Many of us maintain our own project blogs or websites, Facebook pages, or Twitter accounts—and these certainly are a useful way of reaching out to a wider public.  Some web sites are sophisticated virtual extensions of established museums, exist as museums with no physical brick-and-mortar component, or represent places that no longer exist in the real world. Even with these virtual media, the level of meaningful interactivity between the user and the site can vary.

VCU students scanning an historic artifact at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest. Courtesy of the Virtual Curation Laboratory.

For over a year now, I’ve been working with undergraduate students at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in our Virtual Curation Laboratory (details can be found at: http://vcuarchaeology3d.wordpress.com/).  We’ve been using a NextEngine Desktop 3D scanner to create digital models of historic artifacts from a wide variety of heritage locations in Virginia and Pennsylvania, and, in some cases, using the digital models to generate plastic replicas using a MakerBot Replicator. The Virtual Curation Laboratory was initially funded by the Department of Defense’s Legacy Program (Legacy Project #11-334) to test how well the NextEngine Desktop 3D scanner could be used to virtually curate fragile artifacts, “preserve” them digitally, and make them more widely available to researchers to ease determinations of National Register of Historic Places (NHRP) for sites on military lands.  A secondary goal was to help raise awareness of military personnel and their civilian neighbors about significant cultural resources under the care and protection of the Department of Defense.

Digital model of a tin toy soldier from Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest. Created by the Virtual Curation Laboratory and used with permission of Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest.

Because the NextEngine scanner is portable, and because we wanted to scan a wide variety of historic artifacts, my students and I travelled to a wide variety of heritage locations and collections repositories to create scans of both common and unique objects—mostly “small finds” that help tell the story of the nation’s historic past.  VCU students have created 3D digital artifact models of historic objects from archaeological collections at George Washington’s Ferry Farm, Mount Vernon, Jamestown Rediscovery, Colonial Williamsburg, Montpelier, Poplar Forest, The State Museum of Pennsylvania, among other locations.

Digital model of a tea pot lid finial in the shape of a satyr’s head from James Madison’s Montpelier. Created by the Virtual Curation Laboratory and used with permission of James Madison’s Montpelier.

Many of these items are rare and the general public would have little opportunity to touch the actual object, or even see it in some cases due to limited exhibit space. The process of creating a digital model, particularly the NextEngine’s lasers playing across an object in a darkened room as it scans an object, certainly grabs the attention of even casual visitors to an historic site.

Illustration of visitors to George Washington’s Ferry Farm watching scanning of historic artifacts in progress. Illustration by Jamie Pham and courtesy of the Virtual Curation Laboratory.

Virtual curation—the creation of intangible digital models from tangible artifacts—has clear benefits to opening up America’s historic past in ways never before possible. We can combine virtual curation with social media as part of a dedicated strategy to promote and build a truly participatory culture that changes how we experience and think about heritage. Public and scholarly interaction with digital artifact models can certainly foster a more reflexive archaeology. Diverse observers can move virtual objects or travel through virtual worlds, creating a dialectical relationship between past and present–and expand interpretation and reflection beyond a narrow group of scholars. Resulting images from 3D scans can be processed and sent out to scholars, researchers, or the lay public as they are generated, opening up windows for countless interpretations and reinterpretations of artifacts by people who might otherwise never have access to these unique small finds. Virtual models, especially of fragile artifacts, create a closer connection between ourselves and events, or even individuals, from the past.

Colonoware vessel from George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estates and Gardens. Created by the Virtual Curation Laboratory and used with permission of George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estates and Gardens.

3D technology creates an “active” role for the consumer of archaeological depictions in a way that is not possible if we rely on more traditional, static graphical techniques, such as pen-and-ink illustrations or black-and-white or color photographs.  Viewing an object in motion gives us a greater sense of the purpose for which it was created.  Archaeological materials are best understood when they can be revisited time and time again, and subjected to new theoretical insights and radically different perspectives by all of us interested and invested in the historic past.

Susquehannock zoomorphic effigy pipe in the collections of The State Museum of Pennsylvania. Created by the Virtual Curation Laboratory and used with permission of the Pennsylvania

A recent presentation by a student really brought home to me the power of these 3D digital artifact models for creating meaningful interaction between the student and a member of the audience. VCU student Rachael Hulvey was showing a model of a Susquehannock effigy pipe that was identified by the discoverer as representing a bear.  We in the Virtual Curation Laboratory all agreed that the animal was clearly not a bear, given its long tail.  In the static photograph published this pipe, the elongated tail is not visible.  However, the animated digital model showed the tail and all other salient features, and a member of the audience was able to identify the animal as representing a fisher (Martes pennant)—a member of the weasel family with a penchant for eating porcupines.

Plastic replica (left) of an 18th century bone brush (right) recovered at George Washington’s Ferry Farm that is incorporated into their “touch box” for visitors requiring a more tactile than visual experience. Courtesy of the Virtual Curation Laboratory.

Physical plastic replicas can also be produced from the digital models as needed for educational and study purposes. Educational institutions or researchers could readily access these digital models from secure internet sites, and print copies on their own 3D printers. In our outreach efforts here at the Virtual Curation Laboratory, we find that the general public and non-archaeology students prefer the plastic models to digital models that they can manipulated on a computer screen.  These plastic models can be reintroduced into field contexts. At George Washington’s Ferry Farm, plastic replicas produced from scanned objects can be safely incorporated into public lessons for people of all ages, while the actual objects are safely and securely stored within a laboratory context.  The plastic replicas have also been incorporated into a “touch box” at George Washington’s Ferry Farm for visitors who have impaired vision.

VCU student Ashley McCuistion holds plastic replicas of scanned artifacts used at public programs in the field at George Washington’s Ferry Farm. Courtesy of the Virtual Curation Laboratory.

With the increased use of and accessibility to 3D images and data, one question can be posed: how might historical archaeology be transformed when archaeologists and members of the general have equal access to studying intangible virtual models instead of tangible artifacts?

Have you submitted your presentation? Four weeks left…

Abstract submission for the 2014 conference closes in four weeks. The clock is now ticking if you haven’t yet done so. What is your paper? Are you in a symposium? Do you prefer participating in a forum panel discussion, a three-minute forum or an electronic symposium? Do you prefer presenting a poster rather than a paper this year? If so, you should get a place of choice in the Convention Centre as we encourage this type of participation. Oh, by the way, did you know that the Québec City Convention Center is the only one in Canada offering free hi-speed wifi to conference attendees?

We have revamped the submission process to make it more transparent and user friendly for you. You can go straight there from the conference home page: http://www.sha2014.com/index.html. Have a look and let us know if this move from traditional practice suits your needs.

This year, presentations are being grouped into several themes. It will thus be easier for you to fit your paper into a slot corresponding to your interests if you aren’t already participating in a organized session. This is what you will see: Archaeological Methods; Diaspora Archaeology; Environmental and Landscape Archaeology; First Nations Archaeology; Identity and Community Archaeology; Information Technology; Legislation and Archaeological Practice; Material Culture Studies; Military Archaeology; Other; Regional Studies; Theory; Underwater and Maritime Archaeologies; Urban Archaeology.

Once into the category that interests you, you can explore sessions that have been entered into the system or that the conference committee proposes for you. Are you interested in organizing a session on one of the following subjects: The Ethics of Archaeological Practice; Historical Archaeology and the Media; Commercial and Governmental Archaeology: New laws, new practices; Archaeology and UNESCO World Heritage Sites; New Research in Material culture studies: Ceramics; Historical Archaeology as Anthropology; globalization and environmental archaeology; The Historical archaeology of Central America and the Caribbean; Who owns the past: sacred sites, battlefield archaeology, sites of pain, difficult heritage. Should none of these sessions tickle your fancy, you can propose a new one.

We hope this new process and a simplified interface will make the submission process easier for you and that it will result in a strong and interesting conference for all. Contact the Conference Committee through our web site at www.sha2014.com should you have any comments on the submission process. There will be regular updates and contextual information on the SHA Facebook page. Don’t forget to follow the progression of the conference on Twitter as well at #sha2014. Both the Facebook page and the Twitter feed give you lots of opportunities to interact with conference organizers and other colleagues. We are looking forward to reading you there. And of course, we are particularly looking forward to seeing you in Québec City next January!

Submitting a session is now as easy as riding a bike! Come and see the Québec Seminary courtyard while your riding with us!