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?

The Primal Fear: Historical Archaeology and De-Accessioning

In 1996, former SHA Curation Committee Chair Bob Sonderman (Museum Resource Center, National Park Service) argued that archaeologists’ commitment to preserve an astounding volume of artifacts has fostered “an overwhelming sense of primal fear when the thought of deaccessioning archeological material is raised.”  Archaeologists do indeed have an emotionally charged approach to collection and curation of artifacts:  We value every object in an assemblage as an element in a complex historical narrative; we are especially committed to the notion that “small things” matter; and we have faith that future scholars may one day find fresh insights in old things.  Yet preserving everything may be neither a practical strategy nor an especially constructive research method.

Historical archaeologists routinely excavate massive assemblages, and we nearly always consign them to storage awaiting the analysis of future scholars.  As a result, storage spaces are overflowing in many repositories, and dwindling budgets have restricted spaces and in some cases eliminated collections managers if not whole projects.  Many repositories have no especially reliable record of the materials in their possession, others cannot clearly document their ownership of holdings, and some are not remotely close to legal curation standards.  Archaeologists are well-trained in excavation and material analysis, but curation and placing things in collections—much less maintaining them afterward and managing their long-term storage or even de-accession—have not occupied much of our disciplinary attention.

On the list of fascinating archaeological research subjects, curation may not normally jump to many peoples’ minds.  Collections scholars have rigorous curation, acquisition, and de-accession practices and standards, but most archaeologists have not received particularly systematic collections management training and may not comprehend the broad challenges facing archaeological collection managers.  More than 30 years ago William Marquadt, Anta Modet-White, and Sandra C. Sholtz proclaimed that there was a crisis in the curation of American archaeological collections, but the oft-ignored question of archaeological curation remains awkwardly evaded today.

More than a half-century of enormously productive historical archaeology fieldwork has left us with a voluminous material heritage to manage.  Some long-term repositories are literally full, are unable to accommodate more collections, have decided to no longer curate archaeological assemblages, or have had their curatorial staff laid off.  Increasingly more repositories charge archaeologists to store materials, but we rarely if ever include particularly concrete financial curation budgets in our project designs.

The challenges extend throughout the world.  For instance, in 2008 the Europae Archaeologiae Consilium hosted a symposium on archaeological archiving that examined dilemmas familiar to many North American historical archaeologists, including the challenges of a vast range of archaeological recording practices and curatorial standards, the need to establish digital archive standards, and management conditions that fail to satisfy the Valleta Treaty (also known as the European Convention on the Protection of the Archaeological Heritage).  In Britain, the Institute for Archaeologists Council has a Special Interest Group for Archaeological Archives that aspires to develop curatorial best practices and advocate on archaeological archives issues.

On one level, curation dilemmas raise practical financial and methodological challenges.  Narrowly defined, we minimally face a practical resource dilemma in the expense of storage, but this has methodological implications on what we actually collect in the field, de-accessioning risks taking aim disproportionately on historic artifacts, and curation policies certainly will shape the collections we leave available to subsequent scholars.

On another level, de-accession poses a particularly complex philosophical challenge to our stewardship of the archaeological past.  We have implicitly linked our stewardship to saving everything, but this avoids acknowledging the state in which many collections are held, and it ignores the financial and material realities of managing such resources.  Museums have long de-accessioned holdings as a normal part of collections management; that is, museums reassess their collections and permanently remove objects that are redundant, duplicates, deteriorated, or outside their mission.  Library archivists likewise manage their collections by regularly reappraising collections and implementing formal de-accession policies based on factors such as infrequent use.  In contrast, archaeologists have normally assumed that artifact collections are simply placed in permanent storage.  Responsible scholarship demands trained curatorial professionals working in costly facilities, but most of us do not have curatorial training and are faced with less-than-ideal repository conditions.  There is no absolutely objective process to decide what might one day be important to scholars, so de-accession is especially threatening to those of us who feel responsible for passing on organized and rich collections to future researchers.  However, we need to recognize that de-accession is one element in broad management strategies well-developed by museums and archives faced with many of the same challenges archaeologists face.

One final dimension of this curation crisis that remains awkwardly avoided is the lack of research that is being conducted in archaeological repositories.  Esther White and Eleanor Breen’s thoughtful 2012 assessment analysis of Virginia’s archaeological repositories revealed that more than two-thirds of Virginia’s archaeological repositories are never used for research.  If we are going to preserve so many collections then scholars need to use those collections and not simply view them as dead storage.  The lack of more collections research may reflect an archaeological culture that grants professional prestige to scholars who conduct their own field projects.  American academics administering student research, for instance, often encourage graduate students to conduct their own digs, which provides some control over their data and demonstrates their mastery of a breadth of archaeological skills.   Part of the reluctance to do collections research probably also reflects our disciplinary celebration of the field experience itself and a tendency to paint “dirt archaeology” as the heart of archaeological identity.

Nevertheless, perhaps the most ambitious comparative research projects can only be conducted in museum collections.  Beyond the scholarly rigor such work can provide, leaving so many collections to languish means many assemblages will only be reported in technical reports.  Collections research has not always been especially well-funded by granting agencies, but the cost of collections projects is often much more modest than a single field season excavation.  I personally traveled to do collections research in the UK in London and York based on a relatively modest grant from my University, and that provided me the chance to work with an especially rich sample of materials  I could never have hoped to find in any single excavation anywhere.

The SHA’s goal has not been to impose codes of conduct on archaeologists and managers; rather, we simply hope to encourage responsible and informed practice and frank acknowledgement of curation challenges as part of all field archaeological research.  We need to think responsibly about the final curation of the materials we excavate, and a realistic management plan should be in every research proposal.  The SHA has strongly discouraged collections de-accessioning, but we may need to develop more concrete processes to confront the challenges many repositories face, and obviously many archaeologists and collections managers are wrestling with comparable issues.  All of our research proposals have some statement on the collection methods and long-term storage of artifacts, but some are a bit ambiguous, and even the best-planned curation plan can be derailed by new policies.  We share a common belief that every artifact has some research potential, but we need to soberly weigh the economic and practical realities of storing every object we recover into perpetuity, and we need to acknowledge that a new generation of archaeologists will eventually inherit scores of assemblages gathering dust.  We face many common challenges, and we stand the best chance of developing responsible strategies if field archaeologists and collections managers share our experiences, challenges, and real and proposed solutions.

All images appear courtesy Terry Brock’s flickr page

Links

Compare the materials on the January 2011 SHA Forum on Collections Management, which included a preliminary working statement on collections management.

There are numerous state and federal guidelines for Archaeological Curation Standards, which of course include the SHA Standards and Guidelines for the Curation of Archaeological Collections.  The Society for American Archaeology includes links to a wide range of Archaeological Ethics Codes, Charters, and Principles.

The National Park Service inventories some standards and research on archaeological curation on their Sources of Archaeological Curation Information page.

British scholarship on these issues can be found at the Institute for Archaeologists Archaeological Archives Group and their Archaeological Archives Special Interest Group facebook page.  They hold Regional Archives Workshops to promote best practices in archaeological archives management.

European standards for archaeological archives can be found at ARCHES (Archaeological Resources in Cultural Heritage: a European Standard) and on the ARCHES web page.

 

References

Bustard, Wendy

2000 Archaeological Curation in the 21st Century, or, making Sure the Roof Doesn’t Blow Off.  CRM 5:10-15.

 

Childs, S. Terry

1999 Contemplating the Future: Deaccessioning Federal Archaeological Collections.  Museum Anthropology 23(2):38-45.

 

Childs, S. Terry and Karolyn Kinsey

2003 Costs of Curating Archaeological Collections: A Study of Repository Fees in 2002 and 1997/98Studies in Archeology and Ethnography, National Park Service.

 

Doylen, Michael

2001 Experiments in Deaccessioning: Archives and On-Line AuctionsThe American Archivist 64(2):350-362.  (subscription access)

 

Greene, Mark A.

2006 I’ve Deaccessioned and Lived to Tell about It: Confessions of an Unrepentant Reappraiser Archival Issues 30(1):7-22.

 

Patrick D. Lyons, E. Charles Adams, Jeffrey H. Altschul, C. Michael Barton, and Chris M. Roll

2006 The Archaeological Curation Crisis in Arizona: Analysis and Possible Solutions.  Unpublished report prepared by the Curation Subcommittee of the Governor’s Archaeology Advisory Commission.

 

Marquardt, William H., Anta Montet-White and Sandra C. Scholtz

1982 Resolving the Crisis in Archaeological Collections CurationAmerican Antiquity 47(2):409-418.  (subscription access)

 

Sonderman, Robert C.

1996 Primal Fear: Deaccessioning CollectionsCommon Ground 1(2) Special issue Collections and Curation.

 

Sullivan, Lynne P., and S. Terry Child

2003 Curating Archaeological Collections: From the Field to the Repository.  Altamira Press, Walnut Creek, California.

 

Trimble, Michael K. and Eugene A. Marino

2003 Archaeological Curation: An Ethical Imperative for the Twenty-First Century.  In Ethical Issues in Archaeology, edited by Larry J. Zimmerman, Karen D. Vitelli, and Julie Hollowell-Zimmer, pp.99-114.  Altamira Press, Walnut Creek, California.

 

Weil, Stephen E., ed.

1997 A Deaccession Reader.  University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

 

White, Esther C. and Eleanor Breen

2012 A Survey of Archaeological Repositories in Virginia.  Council of Virginia Archaeologists Curation Committee.

 

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.