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?

Hands-On History

Over the last several years, Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum (JPPM) has enjoyed a productive relationship with Huntingtown High School in Calvert County, Maryland. In previous years, the school’s archaeology classes produced cell phone tours for the park, with the students working on the projects at every level, including conducting oral history interviews, developing tour themes and scripts, recording the tours and writing press releases.

Rockingham hunt pitcher from the privy.

This year, JPPM decided to take on a different type of project, with the newly-formed “Historical Investigations” class. The students are analyzing the contents of a mid-19th century privy from Baltimore’s Federal Reserve site (18BC27). Archaeologists excavated the site in 1980, but since the artifacts were never studied or a final report prepared, the students are working with an assemblage that has never before received any attention.

This particular privy was filled with broken plates, spittoons, chamber pots, medicine bottles, and a torpedo bottle once used to hold carbonated beverages. One spectacular find from the privy was a large Rockingham pitcher depicting a boar and stag hunt, made around 1855 by a Baltimore pottery firm.

Teacher Jeff Cunningham and a student mend a creamware chamberbpot, while another student works on a sponged cup.

The students completed cataloging the artifacts (2,200+), mended the ceramics and glass from the privy and determined minimum ceramic and glass vessel counts. Each student chose a particular artifact to research in depth, creating illustrated essays that were both posted on JPPM’s website and produced as posters for display. In addition to writing a standard archaeological report on the privy, the students also created an exhibit of their findings that are currently on display at a local public library.

Two of the students are justifiably proud of the exhibit on display at the local branch library.

It was exciting to work with students on a project that provides them with real-world experience in a supportive setting, conducting the type of analysis normally done by professional archaeologists. Even better, is watching the students get a thrill from each new artifact and the information it holds.

What types of engaged work are you doing with local high schools? Share your experiences with us in the comment section!

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!