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?

Why historical archaeology should pay attention to the Occupy movement

Occupy and its offspring have brought issues that are of intrinsic interest to our discipline into the public consciousness in profound ways. I suggest that historical archaeologists have much to learn through a careful study of how Occupy has framed these issues, and much we could do to further advance them in the public mind.

History and issues

Occupy began with a series of meetings between small working groups and veteran political organizers in late summer 2011, culminating in a planned march and gathering in New York’s Zuccotti Park on September 17. After a series of increasingly public actions drew (generally negative) media attention, the movement spread organically to other large (and eventually, small) cities across the United States. By late October, groups that took the Occupy label had spread around the globe–the German “Blockupy,” for instance. Following both evictions and intentional withdrawal from public spaces in most cities during the winter, small actions resumed in Spring 2012, but more significantly, a number of issue-oriented movements in the spirit of Occupy have replaced long-term, place-based encampments. These include such diverse things as “Occupy the Police,” “Occupy Anthropology,” “Occupy Sandy” (a reference to the hurricane that struck the Northeastern U.S. in October 2012), and the “Rolling Jubilee” anti-debt movement. (For brief histories of Occupy, see the Al Jazeera English-produced Fault Lines documentary History of an Occupation, and A History of Occupy (Earle 2012), from which I have drawn most of the above summary.)

Occupy has always been a big-tent movement, both in terms of its membership and of the issues its activists raise (Earle 2012). This is a hallmark of consensus-based groups. Two themes stand out to me as fundamental to most of those who continue to organize under the Occupy banner: A focus on community formation and reproduction, especially in the interstices of the state; and an accessible, critical analysis of the social implications of global capitalism. In other words, “How do we validate intentional, interest-based social ties between people?” and “How do we demonstrate the ill effects of profit and exploitative labor on the daily lives of people in our communities?” Community-formation and reproduction, and the effects of capitalism, are significant parts of the research agendas of many of us working in this field (Matthews 2010), and Occupy has helped prime the public to be receptive to capitalism-centered theory and praxis (McGuire 2008) in ways that we have rarely seen.

Implications

The interests of Occupy and historical archaeology align in ways that go beyond our shared intellectual concern with daily lives and global forces. We are part of what Occupy has constructed as “the 99 percent,” whether we work in academic settings that are increasingly under neoliberal assault (Agger 2004), in the public sector that is being squeezed under the weight of flawed austerity policies, or in cultural resource management with its rigid profit motive and accompanying class structure (McGuire 2008). Occupy’s concerns are our concerns, writ both large and small, in the communities in which we live and work.

Moreover, both Occupy and historical archaeology attempt to make manifest (sensu González-Ruibal 2008) that which is hidden. For the former, it is how such things as the machinations of global political economy impact communities struggling with, say, disaster recovery. For us, making manifest is our stock in trade, encompassing everything from excavation and documentary research to publications and talks aimed at, as the saying goes, “giving voice to the voiceless.” Occupy and its offspring challenge us to go beyond simply revealing what is hidden, to the realm of praxis. Occupy Sandy, for instance, continues to organize help and build community through mutual aid work in New York and New Jersey neighborhoods where state and federal aid have not met the need. As of this writing, the Rolling Jubilee has bought and forgiven over $11 million in medical debt. Both of these examples demonstrate action that arose after careful study of a specific social problem, one that has its genesis in largely hidden forces but directly impacts real lives in real communities. That action in turn works to critique the system that nurtures and sustains the problem itself.

In short, Occupy demonstrates praxis–a dialectic of analysis, critique, and action. Our field excels at summoning new knowledge from its hiding places, but knowledge and critique without action is of questionable utility. An Occupy-inspired historical archaeology would rest on all three legs of praxis. So what might some examples look like in practice?

Occupying historical archaeology

In short, it would be an archaeology that seeks out the hidden lives disrupted by capitalism, by non-local politics, by market relations (Matthews 2010: 14), by government policies that prioritize austerity over people’s well-being (Buchli and Lucas 2001).

These disrupted lives are all around us, in our own communities. They’re being lived by perhaps thousands of homeless in the storm sewers beneath Las Vegas, as well as in a network of self-dug (and quickly demolished by police) tunnels in Kansas City. They’re being lived by people being sent to jail for unpaid debts. They’re being lived by people forced into tent cities in some of the wealthiest regions of the United States.

This would be an archaeology that is multidisciplinary, multi-sited, and politically engaged. It would be one that begins in the present but does not necessarily end there.

There are examples. These themes run through much work on the so-called “contemporary past.” They hum throughout Jason De León’s work on the Undocumented Migrant Project. And they are brought out vividly in the work of Rachael Kiddey and her team on homelessness in Bristol, which enlists the homeless in a reflexive archaeology aimed at understanding the material and social causes and experiences of living on the streets (Kiddey and Schofield 2011).

None of the above, to my knowledge, position themselves as aligned with Occupy–nor do I suggest that they, or anyone else, must. But they’re generating knowledge and critique and action that fall directly in line with the key themes that Occupy and its offspring are raising. A sense of nearness and solidarity with the people being studied is key (“we are the 99 percent”). Action that flows from praxis must be collective action involving the people who live under the weight of the social problem in question, otherwise it could be co-opted to reinforce alienation.

I suggest that our field has the ability to bring unique knowledge, analysis, and methods to bear on revealing present-day lives and experiences of people pushed to the margins. This would be useful knowledge and critique to activists who cross-cut social lines, united by class interests, and experienced in organizing community-based aid and consciousness-raising. Occupy is pointing us toward an object, and it welcomes new sources of willing bodies and minds. Are we willing to listen, study, and act?

References

Buchli, Victor, and Gavin Lucas
2001  The Archaeology of Alienation: A Late Twentieth-Century British Council House. In Archaeologies of the Contemporary Past, Victor Buchli and Gavin Lucas, editors, pp. 158-168. Routledge, London.

Earle, Ethan
2012  A Brief History of Occupy Wall Street. Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, New York.

González-Ruibal, Alfredo
2008  Time To Destroy: An Archaeology of Supermodernity. Current Anthropology 49(2): 247-279.

Kiddey, Rachael, and John Schofield
2011  Embrace the Margins: Adventures in Archaeology and Homelessness. Public Archaeology 10(1): 4-22.

Matthews, Christopher N.
2010  The Archaeology of American Capitalism. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

McGuire, Randall H.
2008  Archaeology as Political Action. University of California Press, Berkeley.

All Images are by Jessica Lehrman from the Occupy Wall Street Flickr Archive and are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial.

Why YOU should come to Québec in 2014

There are many reasons why YOU should come to Québec City in January 2014: you’ll not want to miss a fantastic conference; don’t let a great occasion to see old, new or soon-to-be-made friends go by; take advantage of this fantastic opportunity to discover or rediscover a world-class city!

You already know about the first reason as the organizing committee has written about the conference on several occasions: have a look at previous blogs, the SHA Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/SocietyforHistoricalArchaeology) or type #sha2014 into Twitter to see what’s being said about the event. We think the theme – Questions that Count, a critical evaluation of historical archaeology in the 21st century – is of interest to the archaeological community at large. Several suggestions have been made for sessions and we’re waiting for you to submit your own. Try to surprise us!

Don’t take the second reason for granted. Just like you won’t take old friends for granted! If you are a long-standing SHA or ACUA member, the conference is always a great way to see friends. If you are a new member, or thinking of becoming one, it’s a great place to make friends and to meet colleagues. You can count on years of pleasure to come with long-term friendships and professional relations that grow out of your participation in this gregarious professional community.

Photo: Office de tourisme de Québec

Thirdly, and not the least, we hope – even expect – that you will develop a special relationship with our part of the world as you discover Québec City, the province of Québec or even Canada. Each has much to offer. Especially in the heart of winter! The conference web site (www.sha2014.com) has abundant links to national museums in the city, to numerous and affordable fine cuisine restaurants, to outdoor activities ranging from ice-skating, downhill skiing, snowmobiling or even dogsledding to ice-climbing and more. Experience the city as you have NEVER experienced it before: http://vimeo.com/58983130!

The Chateau Frontenac and Place-Royale in the Old Town. Photo: Office de tourisme de Québec.

We hope you will appreciate Québec’s historical richness, its depth and durée, as seen through the archaeology of the city. Get to know more about it, and of some of the sites you can see when you’re here, by downloading the introduction to the recent Post-Medieval Archaeology thematic issue, “The archaeology of a North American city and the early modern period in Québec” (Volume 43, Number 1, 2009) http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/maney/pma/2009/00000043/00000001/art00001. Discover France’s first attempt to settle in the New World from 1541 to 1543 at the Cartier-Roberval Site; you can visit an exhibition on this site at the Musée de l’Amérique francophone http://www.mcq.org/colonie/. Come to place Royale, where the city was founded in 1608; visit the Musée de la place Royale, (http://www.mcq.org/en/cipr/index.html) and see the extraordinary archaeological collections, a Cultural Property listed by the Cultural Properties Act. Explore the Saint-Louis Forts and Châteaux National Historic Site of Canada  http://www.pc.gc.ca/lhn-nhs/qc/saintlouisforts/index.aspx. Learn about the Intendant’s Palace – heart of a trade network extending throughout most of North America during the French Regime – as revealed by Laval University’s Field School on this site over the past years: http://www.cfqlmc.org/bulletin-memoires-vives/derniere-parution/867.

In short, come to Québec for a host of reasons!

Why are you coming to Québec? Let us know in the comments!