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 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!

Enhancing our space with a sense of place

Over the last decade public archaeology in the UK has witnessed a growing profile. This is in part due to a steady stream of documentaries on the television and opportunities for the public to get involved. Public membership based organizations such as the Council for British Archaeology (CBA), have played a valuable role in providing opportunities for communal engagement. Meanwhile regional commercial archaeological units and not for profit Trusts have been developing educational resources to engage with school children and community groups. These kinds of projects have sought funding through the UK’s national Heritage Lottery Fund, National Heritage Agencies or organisations like the CBA.

My role as Director of the Maritime Archaeology Trust (also known as the Hampshire and Wight Trust for Maritime Archaeology but forthwith referred to as the Trust) has been to precipitate a growth in public archaeology within the organisation and within the maritime archaeological sector. The Trust was inaugurated in 1991 with the objective of promoting archaeology in the region and Great Britain by research, training and education. It was set up by the civic authorities in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight at a time when there was a legislative void regarding holistic management of the submerged archaeological resource. Shipwrecks were being discovered and several were being excavated or even protected but collective management was yet to be considered. The Trust was formed to fill this vacuum in the region and it was set up with the belief that comparable organisations would be established across the country.

Throughout the 1990s core funding from the local authorities and central government enabled the listing of local wrecks, survey, excavation, the setting up of diver trails, the publication of booklets, and support for a local exhibition. Public involvement was strong but I realised there was a much larger audience that needed to have access to the world of underwater archaeology if broader public interest was to be sustained and with it, public support. This was becoming particularly pertinent as our core funding was being reduced each year.

The opportunity to increase awareness by developing a more sophisticated education and outreach programme came following 2002 when the UK’s National Heritage Act extended the powers of the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission to encompass underwater archaeology within UK territorial waters for the first time. This coincided with a levy on aggregate extraction in territorial waters that provided funds for maritime research. In turn, this provided a source of funding for extended education and outreach programmes. A successful application by the HWTMA resulted in a range of teaching resources, activities and educational books aimed at young children aged between 7 and 11. The educational resources were taken to schools where interactive teaching aids were framed around the stories of shipwrecks and drowned lands. The courses included global issues including pollution, rising sea level and geography. Science and survey was interwoven into projects that linked directly to the teaching curriculum while the subject matter was constructed around familiar events to provide context within which the children could identify.

The education and outreach programme was supported by detailed research and complemented by academic publications that ensured the source material was at the forefront of current thinking. This was exemplified in a European project where international teams joined to investigate submerged archaeological sites. The results were translated into three languages and taught in schools from each nation who interacted through the internet with web based education tools. In the UK, a travelling maritime bus has been created to access schools and more remote environments. Here it has been used to provide a tangible teaching resource. The vivid display and dynamic teaching methods used have proved particularly effective at engaging with more challenging pupils and groups.

I would argue that an understanding of ones historical background gives people a connection with the past. It takes time for society to form, and while doing so, the story of its evolution is archived in its history and material remains. Reference to this resource can embellish lives by providing a longer term link with the historic environment and engendering a sense of place in a community. This breeds collective self confidence and a civic pride that is the bedrock of any stable society. In the current times of uncertainty the need for secure social cohesion is becoming ever more important and strong anchors to the past can provide a grounding that binds people together. These are the foundations that need to be laid if we hope to get common respect for our place and each other. All too frequently we see that people are more ready to do harm to those from whom they feel excluded and distant rather than members of their own community. I would advocate that public historical and archaeological education is a tool that can make the past accessible to a wide audience of people who would otherwise not be reached. Yet, if we do not read that record we cannot learn from it and understand the present – not to mention that we would be less able to learn from our mistakes.

As the current economic climate worsens, available funding from public sector sources is focusing more and more on statutory requirements. In the UK, support for public archaeology is not statutory and as such does not qualify for mandatory funding. However, as it is education, it is taken for granted by the public in the UK who expect the state to pay for it. As it is not mandatory, civic authorities do not cover the costs. So despite the improved profile we have seen over the last decade, public archaeology is now facing its greatest challenges.

Many excellent tools and delivery methods have been developed on both sides of the Atlantic since the turn of the centaury. Public enthusiasm exists but it remains somewhere in the ‘not quite ready to pay’ zone on the fringes of popular culture. The same applies to civic leaders who like to be affiliated when they can afford it but seldom recognise the deeper social benefits that underlie the subject. The issue now is one of sustainability. Should we look to communities at ground level to help fund activities they will be involved in? Should we pursue support from the public purse? Should we persuade commerce and industry that they would benefit from supporting the sector?

I fear we will not achieve long term sustainability unless high level decision makers can fully appreciate the value of history and archaeology. So, SHA members, how are we going to achieve that?