The Future of the Past: Using 3D Replicas for Public Archaeology

For over a year now I have been working in the Virtual Curation Laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), and for over a year I have been consistently amazed by the rapidly growing interest in and use of three-dimensional technology in the field of archaeology.  The Virtual Curation Laboratory (VCL), founded in 2011 and led by Dr. Bernard K. Means, began as a partner of the Department of Defense’s Legacy Program, with the goal of creating a virtual database of archaeological materials by recording them with a 3D scanner.  The project has since grown, and we now have a large and diverse collection of digital models that have been created by Dr. Means and the many undergraduate student interns and volunteers who have participated and contributed to the project.

NextEngine 3D Scanner scans an Acheulean Handaxe from South Africa. Courtesy of the Virtual Curation Laboratory.

I began my involvement as an intern last summer, and very quickly began to appreciate the significance of the technology I was becoming familiar with.  VCL employs a NextEngine 3D Desktop Scanner, which uses laser technology to create three-dimensional models of objects.  The user can then process the model and finalize it in STL or OBJ formats, which can be shared via the internet or on a number of electronic devices such as smart phones and tablets.  We also have a MakerBot Replicator 3D Printer, which can print plastic copies of the models we have created.  There are countless ways that this technology could benefit archaeology, but as a student who was still fairly new to the field, I saw its greatest potential in education and public outreach.

My research last fall consisted of creating lesson plans that employed digital models and plastic replicas of artifacts to supplement the material that was being taught.  We then took those lessons to a local high school and presented them to a group of history students there, taking note of how well or poorly they responded to our use of the models.  We also presented a few different lessons to Dr. Means’ archaeological methods class at VCU, including one on basic lithic analysis using plastic replicas of projectile points that we have scanned.  What we found was that the high school students responded especially well to the plastic replicas, as they offered a visible and tangible connection to the topic they were learning about.  On the other hand, the VCU students unanimously agreed that they preferred the accuracy of the digital models.  Those who participated in the lithic analysis lesson, however, were able to correctly identify the types of each point they were given based on the plastic replicas they studied, lending some credibility to the printed models as research tools.  In March of this year I presented this research at my first conference, and it will soon be published in the upcoming issue of the Journal of Middle Atlantic Archaeology!

In addition to being a great tool for students who long for an interactive and readily available form of research material, we have found that 3D scanning and printing of archaeological materials is an incredibly effective tool in public archaeology.  Not only do three-dimensional models and plastic replicas of artifacts help us to promote a better appreciation for archaeology and the materials we recover, but they offer the public a unique and tangible connection with the past that they may otherwise never experience.  VCL does a great deal of public outreach through events and lectures, but my best examples of the value of these models are from this summer, when I was working as a field intern at Ferry Farm, George Washington’s Boyhood Home in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

I pass around plastic artifact replicas and discuss the archaeology being done at Ferry Farm with a group of children. Courtesy of the Virtual Curation Laboratory.

Public Archaeology is a top priority at Ferry Farm, and as such we spend a lot of time discussing the site and its history with the many visitors who travel there.  VCL has scanned and printed a great deal of artifacts from Ferry Farm’s collections, and a series of plastic replicas have been given to the archaeology staff to use for public program in the field.  As I spoke to visitors during my time there, I found it incredibly helpful to use those replicas as examples of the types of artifacts we find at the site, and the visitors (especially the young ones) appreciated the fact that they could touch, feel, hold, and examine the replicas, as they would not have that opportunity with the real object.

The great diversity of artifacts that VCL has in its digital collection makes our efforts in public outreach and education even more effective.  The Virtual Curation Laboratory staff has scanned lithic materials ranging from a one million year old Acheulean Handaxe from South Africa, to projectile points and other stone tools that have been loaned to us from collections across Virginia and Pennsylvania.  We have scanned small finds from the homes of our nation’s greatest historical figures, including George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, and James Madison’s Montpelier.  We have also been working on creating a database of faunal remains to help students, archaeologists, and other researchers identify and understand the skeletal framework of various animals.

VCU student and VCL intern Mariana Zechini discusses 3D printing with a group of VAST members. Courtesy of the Virtual Archaeology Scanning Team.

More and more students have gotten involved with the Virtual Curation Laboratory over the past couple of years, and as a result we have created a student organization at VCU that focuses on the use of 3D technology in archaeology, and allows a greater number of students to pursue research relating to our project.  The Virtual Archaeology Scanning Team (VAST) is now entering its second year as a student organization, and interest and participation have more than doubled since we began last August.

When I first became an intern in the lab last summer, few students – including myself – had any experience or knowledge about 3D technology, nor did we know if it would be an applicable skill in the future.  Now, students from all backgrounds are entering our organization with specific research goals in mind, excited to have the opportunity to learn about and utilize our 3D scanner and printer.  What has led to this sudden boom in interest, and how will this affect the next generation of archaeologists?  Is virtual curation the future of the past?

Public Outreach: anytime, anywhere

There are particular challenges and opportunities involved with public archaeology when the archaeology is under water or on the muddy foreshore. The very nature of such sites limits public access and visibility. Nevertheless, and perhaps because of this, there is an inherent public fascination with underwater heritage, from shipwrecks and crashed aircraft, to submerged historic and pre-historic settlements. For more than 20 years, the Maritime Archaeology Trust, based in Southampton, UK has been overcoming the challenges and realising the opportunities, to bring maritime heritage into the public’s consciousness.

The most recent addition to our toolbox for this work, is a purpose-built maritime archaeology outreach vehicle. For the past three years we have had the benefit of this unique tool to help us reach remote audiences. To our knowledge, this is the only such vehicle in existence. It has been possible due to generous support from the UK’s Heritage Lottery Fund under a project called ‘Engaging New Audiences’ but does being mobile, necessarily mean you’ll reach more people and more diverse audiences?

The Maritime Bus on the road

Many years of delivering public talks, internal and external school workshops, public events and outreach activities from the back of cars helped identify the need for a mobile outreach unit. On the road the vehicle is an eye-catching Luton-style lorry. But within 30 minutes of arrival, it transforms into an interactive discovery centre, with artefacts (real and replica), models, a digital microscope, HD DVDs, posters and audio. Of course the outreach staff are still the lynchpin to engaging and enthusing the public but this bespoke mobile resource makes the task much easier. We call it the Maritime Bus and visitors are invited on board to make the most of a strict ‘Look AND Touch’ policy.

The Maritime Bus in ‘exhibition mode’ set up on site.

Content for a typical public outreach event might include Palaeolithic hand axes and a mammoth tooth, parts of a Second World War crashed military aircraft, artefacts from a First World War shipwreck, assorted faunal remains, models and underwater video footage from wreck sites or prehistoric landscapes and examples of materials with different states of preservation. The public are often amazed to hear that all this material has come from underwater sites.

Associated hands-on activities include trying on SCUBA equipment, excavating with a miniature air-lift, exploring with a miniature Remotely Operated Vehicle or viewing super-magnified microscopic environmental evidence with 3D glasses.

The mobile nature of the Maritime Bus enables us to address potential barriers to access. Taking this exhibition come research laboratory into the heart of communities, overcomes not only travel and transportation issues but also anxieties about visiting more traditional heritage venues. As a recent visitor to the Bus said:

Stepping into this van is like stepping into a museum. I didn’t realise the Solent hides so much history beneath the waves. It’s quite unique to have this kind of information out here for the public and I think it is really cool that we get to see it and hear about it without going into a museum. 

visitors ‘playing’ with the Bus’s contents

The entire content of the Bus can be very easily changed to suit a particular theme or to create a site-specific exhibit. By choosing an appropriate geographical ‘pitch’, it can therefore help highlight and explain the existence of nearby sites not otherwise visible to the public.

As well as public events, the Maritime Bus is popular with schools where pupils and teachers particularly value its ability to offer practical, hands-on sessions, creating a stimulating, unfamiliar venue without having to leave the school grounds. Schools and communities geographically located inland, value the Bus’s ability to bring the coast and underwater environment to their doorstep.

School students trying to identify a mystery shipwreck.

The reach of the Maritime Bus is not confined to UK’s shores. In 2009 the Maritime Archaeology Trust took the Maritime Bus on a mainland European Road trip. Working with partners in France and Belgium, the Bus visited schools and public events in France, Belgium and the Netherlands where it was well received by an international audience.

A mobile until like the Maritime Bus enables us to reach more people, not least because of the efficiencies achieved by having everything ready to go (no more loading and unloading cars). It also enables us to take resources to more remote places, where local access to cultural heritage is limited. The fact that it constitutes an exhibition and activity space all rolled into one, means we can reach more people at a time and offer them a variety of formats and media. This helps with engaging more diverse audiences. The Bus enables us to offer visitors a variety of media to choose from, including video, audio, models, books, posters, equipment, artefacts, games and computers. Everybody usually finds something that piques their interest and suits their abilities. Recent visits to schools for young people with Special Educational Needs have been particularly successful as the Bus provides a new aesthetically attractive and safe venue on the school site and both teachers and pupils have found the ‘Look AND Touch’ approach particularly beneficial. When the environment allows, we will have brightly coloured bean bag seats outside the front of the Bus with a variety of relevant books. The informal nature of this approach is very popular, particularly with young families, but also with teenage visitors who have been heard to say: “This is the first time I’ve read a book out for school for years!”.

So this is our experience with a mobile public outreach unit. We’re more than happy to share our experiences further, so if you have an interest in this area, please do get in touch. We’d be particularly interested to hear about any other experiences with mobile units. What other mobile outreach projects are out there? Do you have similar or contrary experiences?

Hands-On History

Over the last several years, Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum (JPPM) has enjoyed a productive relationship with Huntingtown High School in Calvert County, Maryland. In previous years, the school’s archaeology classes produced cell phone tours for the park, with the students working on the projects at every level, including conducting oral history interviews, developing tour themes and scripts, recording the tours and writing press releases.

Rockingham hunt pitcher from the privy.

This year, JPPM decided to take on a different type of project, with the newly-formed “Historical Investigations” class. The students are analyzing the contents of a mid-19th century privy from Baltimore’s Federal Reserve site (18BC27). Archaeologists excavated the site in 1980, but since the artifacts were never studied or a final report prepared, the students are working with an assemblage that has never before received any attention.

This particular privy was filled with broken plates, spittoons, chamber pots, medicine bottles, and a torpedo bottle once used to hold carbonated beverages. One spectacular find from the privy was a large Rockingham pitcher depicting a boar and stag hunt, made around 1855 by a Baltimore pottery firm.

Teacher Jeff Cunningham and a student mend a creamware chamberbpot, while another student works on a sponged cup.

The students completed cataloging the artifacts (2,200+), mended the ceramics and glass from the privy and determined minimum ceramic and glass vessel counts. Each student chose a particular artifact to research in depth, creating illustrated essays that were both posted on JPPM’s website and produced as posters for display. In addition to writing a standard archaeological report on the privy, the students also created an exhibit of their findings that are currently on display at a local public library.

Two of the students are justifiably proud of the exhibit on display at the local branch library.

It was exciting to work with students on a project that provides them with real-world experience in a supportive setting, conducting the type of analysis normally done by professional archaeologists. Even better, is watching the students get a thrill from each new artifact and the information it holds.

What types of engaged work are you doing with local high schools? Share your experiences with us in the comment section!