3D Artifact Scanning @ VCU Archaeology

Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) was awarded Department of Defense (DoD) Legacy funding for a three-dimensional (3D) artifact scanning project in 2011, which was developed in partnership with John Haynes, then archaeologist for Marine Corps Base Quantico (MCBQ).  The DoD Legacy program is designed to foster innovative approaches to the study, preservation, and stewardship of cultural remains—including archaeological objects—recovered on DoD facilities across the globe.

Our project involves 3D scanning of archaeological objects using a NextEngine Desktop 3D scanner in order to test and demonstrate the capabilities of this technology for its potential employment in ensuring DoD compliance with historic preservation laws.  Archaeological collections from DoD installations in Virginia, Maryland, and other regional repositories are the subject of the study. The Virtual Curation Unit for Recording Archaeological Materials Systematically (V.C.U.-R.A.M.S) consists of faculty member Dr. Bernard K. Means and several undergraduate students enrolled at VCU.

Virtual artifact curation has the potential for addressing a number of issues important to archaeologists. One issue is access to collections. The virtual curation project will enable researchers to access digital data files that allow full 3D observation and manipulation of an image and accurate measurement without requiring scholars to travel to a repository. Digital scanning of objects can save time for both researchers and for staff at curation facilities, while maximizing scholars’ access to collections.  Objects and entire collections that are now physically dispersed in more than one repository can be united through 3D digital scanning into a single virtual repository.

Visitors watch as Clinton King scans an artifact in the field at the Huntsberry Farm Civil War site outside Winchester, Virginia.

The NextEngine Desktop 3D scanner is designed to be portable and, as part of the Virtual Artifact Curation project, the potentials and capabilities of the scanner have been tested at several non-lab locations. We can go to places that are culturally and historically important to our country, scan objects at these locations, and make them accessible to a wider audience. We have been fortunate to scan archaeological materials from Virginia institutions such as Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown Rediscovery, George Washington’s Ferry Farm, and Flowerdew Hundred, and at The State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Archaeological materials from these significant locations are certainly too fragile to be passed around among scholars and in classroom settings, but can be shared digitally.

With 3D scanning technology, important cultural items that belong to and must be returned to private landowners could be recorded and made available to scholars through virtual curation.  While owners of archaeological collections in private hands may not be willing to donate the physical objects located on their properties—perhaps identified through a compliance investigation—they may agree to “donate” the information inherent in their collections and make their items virtually accessible to a wider audience of scholars and others who might be interested. Virtual curation may also prove useful for cultural objects that are designated for eventual repatriation, if descendent groups agree to the scans of these items.

Courtney Bowles holds a bone tambour hook prior to scanning at George Washington’s Ferry Farm, Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Virtual curation of artifacts will prove critical for fragile objects by minimizing handling and “preserving” them digitally, especially when conservation funding is limited. Repeated digital scanning sessions can help conservators ascertain whether conservation treatments are working as intended—through highly accurate digital models taken of the same object at set intervals. This will enable the conservator to closely monitor whether there is continuing degradation of an object.

While digital scanning is an important tool for documenting the potential degradation of an object, the initial stages should precede any conservation treatments when possible. If an object is scanned prior to conservation treatments, a pretreatment scan of the object may be the “truest” image of the object that we will ever have. Conservation does not always produce an object, however stable, that represents its original state.

Sharing of data is certainly one of the strong points of the movement toward digital archaeological media. The ability to manipulate and move objects in three dimensions benefits researchers more greatly than static images ever can. Public and scholarly interaction with digital models can certainly foster a more reflexive archaeology. This would allow diverse observers to move virtual objects or travel through virtual worlds, creating a dialectical relationship between past and present—and, open interpretation and reflection up to a wider audience.

The scanning team in the Virtual Curation Laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia. Left to Right: Clinton King, Bernard K. Means, Victoria Valentine, and Courtney Bowles.

Where do we go from here? How will 3D digital images of objects and artifacts alter people’s perceptions of what is “real” and what is “virtual”? This is something we plan to explore in greater detail in the coming months. Our project team maintains our own blog that regularly details and updates our progress with the scanning project: http://vcuarchaeology3d.wordpress.com.  Here, you can find more information about our successes and challenges with the virtual curation of artifacts from historic and prehistoric sites. We welcome your comments as well.