Plastic for the People: Printing the Past and Engaging the Public

By Bernard K. Means, Director, Virtual Curation Laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University

In the Virtual Curation Laboratory, we are continuing our work to create digital models of artifacts and ecofacts from historic and prehistoric sites for research, teaching, and, increasingly, outreach efforts by myself and the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) undergraduate students who work, intern, and volunteer in my lab.  Many of the items that we scan either are on loan to us from established museums or heritage locations, such as George Washington’s Ferry Farm or the Virginia Museum of Natural History, and avocationals with a passion for archaeology, notably the Westmoreland (Pennsylvania) Archaeological Society.  We also take our portable setup to culture heritage locations, and have developed particularly close relationships with Historic Jamestowne (Preservation Virginia) and George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Animation of 3D digital model of a mummified opossum. Image courtesy of the Virtual Curation Laboratory.

The digital models we create can capture the attention of scholars and lay people alike, particularly if animated in the full glory of their natural colors (virtualcurationmuseum.wordpress.com).  In my presentation in a co-creation session at the Society for American Archaeology annual meeting in Austin this past April, the strongest reaction I got from the audience was when I showed an animated mummified opossum (Figure 1). How we obtained a mummified opossum demonstrates itself the power of outreach efforts.  Basically, a young boy’s parents followed our main blog and approached us about touring the lab with their son—and asked for help identifying what type of animal the boy’s grandfather had sent him (it was found in its desiccated state in the back of the grandfather’s garage).  We were able to quickly identify this as a juvenile opossum using our reference collection, and offered to scan the mummy for him. Within a week, we were able to return to young Lowell Nugent a printed, plastic replica of his opossum mummy—something he could safely bring in for show-and-share, as opposed to the odiferous (slightly) and fragile actual item.

Butchered horse tibia being scanned in the Jamestown Rediscovery laboratory. Image courtesy of the Virtual Curation Laboratory.

Plastic replicas of actual artifacts have allowed us and our partners at culture heritage locations to engage the public in ways that would otherwise not be possible—or at least not prudent.  Particularly over the last few months, we have scanned a number of artifacts in the Jamestown Rediscovery laboratory and collections facility (Figure 2). These artifacts were selected not only for their research and educational value, but also for how the printed replicas could be incorporated into site tours and other public programs.  Among the items selected by Historic Jamestowne’s Merry Outlaw, Curator of Archaeology, and Jeff Aronowitz, Assistant Manager of Public and Educational Programs, were butchered animal bones from the Starving Time and an ivory compass used to tell time and determine direction. One of the animal bones is a butchered dog mandible, and painted replicas are regularly incorporated into site tours for members of the public to illustrate the perils faced by the fledgling colonists who established James Fort, particularly during the Starving Time of 1609-1610—when colonists ate everything on hand, including not only their dogs, but also their horses, and eventually resorted to cannibalism (Figure 3).  The ivory compass, manufactured in Germany, helps illustrate a tale told by Captain John Smith, where he used his own compass to astonish American Indians who had captured him and thus save his own life. The detailed painting of these plastic replicas by undergraduate students, notably Becki Bowman, Vivian Hite, and Mariana Zechini, and the 3d animations really bring these objects to life—as documented in this video produced by Historic Jamestowne’s Danny Schmidt (Figures 4).

Animation of 3D digital model of butchered dog mandible from Jamestown. Image courtesy of the Virtual Curation Laboratory.


Vivian Hite used printed plastic replicas while talking to a school group at Geroge Washington’s Ferry Farm. Image courtesy of Laura J. Galke.

Painted and unpainted plastic replicas figure regularly into Vivian Hite’s role this summer as the designated Public Archaeology Intern at George Washington’s Ferry Farm in Fredericksburg, Virginia (Figure 5).  Here, George Washington grew up, from the age of 6 to his early 20s, and archaeologists are laboring to uncover traces of the lives of George and his family, as well as those who came before (including an American Indian occupation dating back thousands of years) and those who came after (notably Union encampments during the Civil War).  The excavations at Ferry Farm attract visitors regularly throughout the day, as well as organized school groups and summer campers.  Vivian and others at Ferry Farm use the plastic replicas to tell the many layered stories infused into this historic landscape. People really enjoy touching an artifact from the past—even if it is twice removed from the actual thing, first as a digital model and then as a printed and (usually) painted replica.

One advantage of digital artifact models is that they allow pieces of the past to be re-contextualized and re-envisioned in forms that might be more familiar to those who are otherwise unfamiliar with archaeology. The simple addition of a digital disk to an artifact model can transform a “Frozen Charlotte” doll or butchered horse tibia into a chess piece, for example.

4th graders play chess with pieces inspired by archaeological items. Image courtesy of the Virtual Curation Laboratory.

In the Virtual Curation Laboratory, we have created a number of chess sets with pieces transformed from a wide range of artifacts recovered archaeologically at Jamestown, Poplar Forest, Ferry Farm, and Mount Vernon. A recent visit to a fourth-grade class at the Richmond Waldorf school demonstrated how the classes interest in chess could translate to an understanding of the historic past, as they uncovered the stories for each piece as revealed by archaeologists (Figure 6; Read more: http://ideastations.org/radio/news/vcu-lab-prints-3d-chess-pieces-historic-significance; https://www.richmondmagazine.com/articles/vcu-virtual-curation-lab.html).

The wide range of historic artifacts that we have scanned in the Virtual Curation Laboratory, dating from the founding of Jamestown in 1607 to pieces of the Space Shuttle Discovery, have allowed numerous opportunities for co-creation by my students.  They have presented papers or posters at research venues on campus or at regional conferences—and published papers in the Journal of Middle Atlantic Archaeology, Pennsylvania Archaeologist, and the Quarterly Bulletin of the Archeological Society of Virginia. Printed plastic models have featured prominently in many presentations, particularly as painted replicas adhered in a detachable fashion with Velcro to the most recent posters.  Lauren Volker’s poster on Jamestown 1607-1610, created for an on VCU campus undergraduate student research poster symposium, now hangs proudly in the Jamestown Rediscovery lab (Figure 7).

Vivian Hite returns an artifact to the Virtually Curated Jamestown, 1607-1610, now hanging in the Jamestown Rediscovery laboratory. Image courtesy of the Virtual Curation Laboratory.

In the coming months, I will be working with my students on a number of new endeavors designed to encourage more interactive public engagement.  VCU student Lauren Hogg, who has a strong interested in K-12 education, is working with me to create a “Make-Your-Own-Exhibit” activity using our plastic replicas—but more on that in a future post.