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.

A Very Busy May for Governmental Affairs

May was an eventful month for the Society for Historical Archeology’s Governmental Affairs Committee and SHA’s government affairs counsel, Cultural Heritage Partners. A number of proposals were introduced and discussed in both houses of Congress. While these changes are intended to make aspects of historic preservation easier and more efficient, they fall woefully short in the eyes of the archeological community and can endanger historic preservation.

  • Section 1303 of the “MAP-21 Reauthorization Act,” which is the reauthorization of the current transportation legislation, proposes to use the Section 106 process as a means to fulfill some of the current requirements of Section 4(f) of the transportation act.  The goal is to reduce what is perceived as duplication between Section 106 and Section 4(f).
  • The Military LAND Act (Section 2816 in NDAA, H.R. 4435) would amend the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) by allowing any federal agency that manages property to block or revoke the listing of a historic property on the National Register of Historic Places, as a National Historic Landmark or on the World Heritage List by invoking “reasons of national security.”
  • The FIRST Act (H.R. 4186) would create of a new level of review at the National Science Foundation to determine if research is worthy of federal funding and “in the national interest.” The House also amended the appropriations bill for NSF to include a provision shifting millions of dollars from social sciences to physical sciences.
  • NPS is considering a proposal to amend the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (NHPA) to include “landscapes” as a property type and “landscape architecture” as an area of significance. SHA sent a letter to Stephanie Toothman stating its reasons for opposing the proposal, and will meet with her in June.

SHA has submitted several letters addressing the proposals, explaining why they damage historic preservation, or are ineffective or simply unnecessary. SHA does not stand alone in its opposition. The American Cultural Resources Association joined with SHA against the proposed changes to Section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act. The Department of Defense provided testimony on the Military LAND Act, stating that it is unwanted and unnecessary; the Preservation Partners are also opposing Section 2816 in the NDAA (formerly the Military LAND Act).

SHA and Cultural Heritage Partners are working to avoid these potentially expensive and unnecessary changes. We want to keep Congress from fixing what isn’t broken.

Meet a Member: John Littlefield

Over the coming months, we’ll be bringing you entertaining interviews with a diverse array of your fellow SHA members.  Meet a member for the first time or learn something about a colleague that you never knew before.  This blog series also offers current members an opportunity to share their thoughts on why SHA membership is important (Camaraderie? Professional service? Exchange of ideas in conference rooms and beyond?  You tell us!). If you would like to be an interviewee, please email the Membership Committee Social Media Liaisons Eleanor Breen (ebreen@mountvernon.org) or Kim Pyszka (kpyszka@aum.edu).

An Interview with John Littlefield, PhD student at Texas A&M University (Maritime Archaeology), M.A. from Texas A&M, B.S. from College of Charleston

What is the first site you worked on? What is the last one (or current one)?

The first “site” I worked on was a not a site at all, but a terrestrial survey in central Turkey, if that counts. I followed that with work at a colonial site, Charles Towne Landing, in South Carolina. Completely different environments, but both equally interesting. The last “site” I worked on was also a survey, of the waters around ancient Troy and Çanakkale, Turkey- again, if that counts. The last specific site was a potential pre-Clovis excavation in a Florida river. I was amazed at the ability to be able to cut beautiful walls in the river bed down to about 13 m. We don’t get the type of substrate to allow fine trowel work in a sea or ocean environment.

Fieldwork or labwork?

This presents a very difficult choice. Since most of my current work in done on underwater sites, I live on, and work from, a boat for weeks or even months at a time. Fieldwork has taken me from the freshwater rivers of Florida to the Mediterranean Sea to excavate Bronze Age material, Hellenistic marble, etc. I obviously love what I get to do during fieldwork. However, I also really like artifact photography and analysis, pXRF analysis of metal artifacts, and the very detailed recording ancient ship remains in the lab also.

If you could have lunch with any archaeologist (past or present) who would it be?

Wow, that is an intriguing question. So many people come to mind, past and present. As a maritime archaeologist, George Bass is a bit of a sage for me. He obviously is of great influence to the field of nautical archaeology and I am very fortunate to get to visit with George on a very regular basis. In fact, I had the opportunity to work and even dive with him at the re-visit excavation of the Bronze Age shipwreck at Cape Gelidonya in 2010. I would add that I would love to have an afternoon with to pick Lewis Binford’s brain, to have a mint julep with Basil Gildersleeve, or chat with Paul Bahn about his Bluffers guide to Archaeology.

What did you want to be when you grew up? 

That presumes that I have grown up. As a kid, I wanted to be an Olympian, but as much as I tried, I always seemed to be the second faster distance runner. After high school I moved into a blue collar career, so it took me many years to find my calling as a maritime archaeologist. I left that blue collar job, went back to school, and took a position as a diver at the South Carolina Aquarium. When I stumbled into an anthropology class and discovered archaeology, it did not take long to develop the desire to marry my new found passion with diving to that of archaeology. So if and when I do actually grow up, I would like to continue on this path.

Why are you a member of SHA?

I think it is important to support the institutions in our field. It helps in network development and I like getting up to date archaeological data through the associated journals, websites, and conferences.

At what point in your career did you first join SHA?

I joined pretty early- I was still an undergraduate at College of Charleston when I first joined.

How many years have you been a member (approximately)?

I first joined in 2006 I believe.

Which benefit of belonging to SHA do you find the most beneficial?

Definitely the up-to-date information, particularly about ethics, methods, and practices in the field.