Virtual Worlds as Venues for Public Archaeology

The Past

by Beverly Chiarulli

Since 2007, I have been interested in using virtual reality to recreate archaeological experiences. That year, Scott Moore, of the Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) History Department and I received funding from the University to develop “Archaeology Island” in Second Life. The Island contained four virtual archaeological experiences based on Scott’s investigations in Roman sites in Cyprus and underwater sites and my investigations of Maya sites, like Cerros in Belize and Late Prehistoric sites in Pennsylvania. The site developed on Second Life in a haphazard way until 2009 when one of my students, Marion Smeltzer, became interested in the site, revamped it, and even began to develop additions.

Marion added new components including the Laurel Hill/Brown farm. The farm, established in 1790 and occupied until the 1960s, was the site of an antebellum community of former slaves located on top of a ridge in the Allegheny Mountains in western Pennsylvania. Because of its inaccessibility, the area has been reconstructed virtually to show the landscape, buildings and stone marking the graves of Civil War Colored Troops.  Marion worked with the local community to reconstruct the site in Second Life.

Four years after its start, IUP’s Archaeology Island moved from Linden Lab’s Second Life to the OpenSim VIBE grid, an alternative virtual environment that can be used as a tool for visualization, training, and scientific discovery. Most of the Archaeology Island redesign and move to Vibe has been undertaken by Marion Smeltzer now a Graduate Student in the Anthropology Department MA in Applied Archaeology Program. A short video about Archaeology Island is on YouTube.

The Future

by Marion Smeltzer

Marion Smeltzer and the Leica Scanstation at the Allegheny Portage Skew Arch

A virtual world is an Internet based, simulated environment where motion enabled avatars, graphic images and 3D models represent people, places, and objects.  As online learning becomes an important part of instruction in high schools and university settings, our challenge is to develop curricula that incorporates archaeology into these courses. Our goal as educators and developers is to create virtual learning environments that can be customized to accommodate each teacher’s specific needs.

Digitization of real objects into 3D models is a growing field and includes a range of applications used in the entertainment industry, design, architecture, scientific research, and virtual class rooms. One of the most interesting areas of its application is in the creation of realistic 3D scenes such as virtual reality; however, the creation of reliable and realistic virtual historic landscapes is problematic due to inaccuracies in historic sources, the lack of computerization tools, and poor-defined visualization requirements (Boer 2010). Nonetheless, archaeologists have written on this blog and elsewhere about the use of 3D modeling and scanning for the use of public engagement.

Leica Scan of the Skew Arch at the Allegheny Portage National Historic Site

My MA Thesis at IUP will be to apply 3D modeling tools to historic structures in order to demonstrate the technology’s applications for non-invasive site resource recording. The structures being modeled are located at the Allegheny Portage Railroad in Cambria County, Pennsylvania. This railroad became known as the finishing piece of the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal, marking the first time that there was a direct route between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Hailed as a great achievement in early transportation, its use ended during the 1840s and 1850s as America’s rail network developed.

Today, the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historical Site preserves this early railroading experiment that used ten inclines to pull the canal boats over the Allegany Mountains along the 36-mile long corridor that is on the Allegheny Portage Railroads’ historic route. This research will investigate the historic structures located at the highest point of the Portage which includes the historic Lemon House (an historic tavern), Engine House #6, and the Skew Arch Bridge. The goal of this research is to scan the structures and inline at incline and level 6 to provide detailed maps for the NPS. This data will then be used as the basis for creating 3D virtual landscapes of these structures. This project will be one step in developing digital 3D modeling as a new form of historic property documentation and will illustrate how this technology will assist future archaeologists. The information will also provide the NPS with an additional resource of baseline information to more effectively monitor the environmental factors that could affect these significant resources through time.

An Early Version of the Virtual Lemon House at the Allegheny Portage National Historic Site

The Leica Scan Station C10 will be used to create a highly accurate sub centimeter 3D scan of the structures and features at the Alleghany Portage level and incline 6, and create 3D models of the historic structures in a virtual environment. The Leica Scan Station C10 is a pulsed digital laser scanner which can rapidly produce millions of survey points to produce 3D images. The 3D models created from the scans will show a more detailed view of the structures and their placement on the landscape. In addition to aiding the NPS in monitoring their historic resources, this research will provide a case study of the advantages that 3D scanning provides to the preservation community and general public as a rapid non invasive method of recording important historic resources.

Virtual environments engage students by immersing them in the experience.  They can provide students with the opportunity to role play in some of the same ways that historical re-enactments provide students with alternative learning experiences.  The goal is use the natural curiosity that students have to immerse them in a science or history based lesson. Vibe (Virtual Islands for Better Education), (VIBE) is an OpenSim platform developed by the collaboration of schools and educators to create learning tools within a virtual environment.  More details on the virtual worlds developed for educational programs can be found in a recent article, “Three Virtual Environment Platforms that Inspire Learning” by Ann Cudworth, in the November 24, 2013, issue of Hypergrid Business, the Magazine for Enterprise users of Virtual Worlds.

Toogood, Anna Cox
1973  Historic Resource Study:  Alleghany Portage Railroad National Historic Site Pennsylvania

Zitzler, Paula A.
2001 Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The Archaeology of the Allegheny Portage Railroad. Manuscript on File, Archaeological Services, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Indiana, Pennsylvania.

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?

Friday Links and Photo of the Day!

This week’s photo is of a young visitor to George Washington’s Ferry Farm on July 4, 2012, gazing into the Small Finds Laboratory as lasers play across an historic artifact, recording attributes that will enable a digital three-dimensional (3D) model of the object to be created. The Scanning project is part of the Virtual Curation Laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University, directed by Bernard Means. Using this technology, researchers across the world will be able to manipulate, rotate, and measure the 3D digital model from the safety (and comfort!) of their own labs or offices. The 3D digital model will also be used to enhance web content and will be incorporated into computer tablet tours of Ferry Farm.  More information on the 3D scanning project can be found at: http://vcuarchaeology3d.wordpress.com/.  Details of Ferry Farm and the archaeological investigations at George Washington’s Boyhood Home are available at: http://kenmore.org/ff_home.html. You can also read a post that Dr. Means wrote for the SHA Blog about 3D Digital Curation here.

Some Links

Excavations are underway at William and Mary in search of the Bray School.

A courthouse in Stafford, Virginia has been located.

The Maryland Archaeological Conservation (MAC) Laboratory at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum announces the Gloria S. King Research Fellowship in Archaeology.

A blog post by the Northeast Museum Service Center about Scratch Blue Ceramic decoration.

A blog update from Fort St. Joseph in Niles, Michigan.