Virtual Worlds as Venues for Public Archaeology

The Past

by Beverly Chiarulli

Since 2007, I have been interested in using virtual reality to recreate archaeological experiences. That year, Scott Moore, of the Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) History Department and I received funding from the University to develop “Archaeology Island” in Second Life. The Island contained four virtual archaeological experiences based on Scott’s investigations in Roman sites in Cyprus and underwater sites and my investigations of Maya sites, like Cerros in Belize and Late Prehistoric sites in Pennsylvania. The site developed on Second Life in a haphazard way until 2009 when one of my students, Marion Smeltzer, became interested in the site, revamped it, and even began to develop additions.

Marion added new components including the Laurel Hill/Brown farm. The farm, established in 1790 and occupied until the 1960s, was the site of an antebellum community of former slaves located on top of a ridge in the Allegheny Mountains in western Pennsylvania. Because of its inaccessibility, the area has been reconstructed virtually to show the landscape, buildings and stone marking the graves of Civil War Colored Troops.  Marion worked with the local community to reconstruct the site in Second Life.

Four years after its start, IUP’s Archaeology Island moved from Linden Lab’s Second Life to the OpenSim VIBE grid, an alternative virtual environment that can be used as a tool for visualization, training, and scientific discovery. Most of the Archaeology Island redesign and move to Vibe has been undertaken by Marion Smeltzer now a Graduate Student in the Anthropology Department MA in Applied Archaeology Program. A short video about Archaeology Island is on YouTube.

The Future

by Marion Smeltzer

Marion Smeltzer and the Leica Scanstation at the Allegheny Portage Skew Arch

A virtual world is an Internet based, simulated environment where motion enabled avatars, graphic images and 3D models represent people, places, and objects.  As online learning becomes an important part of instruction in high schools and university settings, our challenge is to develop curricula that incorporates archaeology into these courses. Our goal as educators and developers is to create virtual learning environments that can be customized to accommodate each teacher’s specific needs.

Digitization of real objects into 3D models is a growing field and includes a range of applications used in the entertainment industry, design, architecture, scientific research, and virtual class rooms. One of the most interesting areas of its application is in the creation of realistic 3D scenes such as virtual reality; however, the creation of reliable and realistic virtual historic landscapes is problematic due to inaccuracies in historic sources, the lack of computerization tools, and poor-defined visualization requirements (Boer 2010). Nonetheless, archaeologists have written on this blog and elsewhere about the use of 3D modeling and scanning for the use of public engagement.

Leica Scan of the Skew Arch at the Allegheny Portage National Historic Site

My MA Thesis at IUP will be to apply 3D modeling tools to historic structures in order to demonstrate the technology’s applications for non-invasive site resource recording. The structures being modeled are located at the Allegheny Portage Railroad in Cambria County, Pennsylvania. This railroad became known as the finishing piece of the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal, marking the first time that there was a direct route between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Hailed as a great achievement in early transportation, its use ended during the 1840s and 1850s as America’s rail network developed.

Today, the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historical Site preserves this early railroading experiment that used ten inclines to pull the canal boats over the Allegany Mountains along the 36-mile long corridor that is on the Allegheny Portage Railroads’ historic route. This research will investigate the historic structures located at the highest point of the Portage which includes the historic Lemon House (an historic tavern), Engine House #6, and the Skew Arch Bridge. The goal of this research is to scan the structures and inline at incline and level 6 to provide detailed maps for the NPS. This data will then be used as the basis for creating 3D virtual landscapes of these structures. This project will be one step in developing digital 3D modeling as a new form of historic property documentation and will illustrate how this technology will assist future archaeologists. The information will also provide the NPS with an additional resource of baseline information to more effectively monitor the environmental factors that could affect these significant resources through time.

An Early Version of the Virtual Lemon House at the Allegheny Portage National Historic Site

The Leica Scan Station C10 will be used to create a highly accurate sub centimeter 3D scan of the structures and features at the Alleghany Portage level and incline 6, and create 3D models of the historic structures in a virtual environment. The Leica Scan Station C10 is a pulsed digital laser scanner which can rapidly produce millions of survey points to produce 3D images. The 3D models created from the scans will show a more detailed view of the structures and their placement on the landscape. In addition to aiding the NPS in monitoring their historic resources, this research will provide a case study of the advantages that 3D scanning provides to the preservation community and general public as a rapid non invasive method of recording important historic resources.

Virtual environments engage students by immersing them in the experience.  They can provide students with the opportunity to role play in some of the same ways that historical re-enactments provide students with alternative learning experiences.  The goal is use the natural curiosity that students have to immerse them in a science or history based lesson. Vibe (Virtual Islands for Better Education), (VIBE) is an OpenSim platform developed by the collaboration of schools and educators to create learning tools within a virtual environment.  More details on the virtual worlds developed for educational programs can be found in a recent article, “Three Virtual Environment Platforms that Inspire Learning” by Ann Cudworth, in the November 24, 2013, issue of Hypergrid Business, the Magazine for Enterprise users of Virtual Worlds.

Toogood, Anna Cox
1973  Historic Resource Study:  Alleghany Portage Railroad National Historic Site Pennsylvania

Zitzler, Paula A.
2001 Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The Archaeology of the Allegheny Portage Railroad. Manuscript on File, Archaeological Services, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Indiana, Pennsylvania.

What the Tech…?!

A recent SHA Academic and Professional Training Student Sub-committee survey asked student members what technologies are necessary in archaeology and as professionals. In continuing support of the identification, discussion, and application of relevant technologies, student member, Tim Goddard, agreed to (re)introduce the concept behind the Technology Room – a great space for students and professionals to engage in one-on-one conversations about current technologies in historical archaeology.

Thank you for the opportunity to blog about the Technology room from/for a student’s perspective. I gladly serve on the SHA’s Technology committee. I am also a Graduate student finalizing my PhD. Several years ago, when I first joined the committee, one of my first conversations with fellow members explored the challenges of presenting the use of technology to SHA members who were not already a part of the “technology crowd”. For many previous years, the same group of colleagues presented the latest technologies they were playing with and composed the small number of technology sessions at annual meetings. Despite the fun of this, rarely did we see new faces – especially people wanting to learn about technology.

The Technology Committee was created to serve the SHA’s needs as they relate to technology. This can include almost anything, which has been the case thus far. Only the Website has remained outside the purview of the technology committee. We serve to advise the SHA board and any interested members on almost any technology-related application, either for the Society, or for use in the field of archaeology. As you can imagine, this is an extensive scope. The diverse technical needs of archaeologists require that the committee have a number of members from a wide variety of technological backgrounds. We cover topics including: social media, geophysics, remote sensing, data collection, data management, GIS, LIDAR, 3D, virtual worlds, network management, etc.

pXRF Technology Leicester 2013. PxRF technology allows us to identify the chemical composition of soils and/or artifacts. The committee regularly offers workshops at the SHA to learn how to use this technology. The following link is an example of one use by one of our committee members David Morgan (http://ncptt.nps.gov/blog/pxrf-presentation-at-lasmaa/).

With some of my own work in WebGIS, I was frustrated that it was not possible to demonstrate my research in a virtual poster session allowing people to view and interact with my presentation via a computer terminal. To do so would have meant me renting a table space, electricity and Wi-Fi, in the exhibition room. Something that is not really feasible for most students! I also know firsthand from teaching that there are a large number of archaeologists that have technology phobias. This fear can be found in young students as well as established emeritus colleagues around the world. So I wanted to know how we could better serve those members at the conferences. We developed the idea of the Technology Room.

Our first experiment with a dedicated technology demonstration space was at the 2011 meeting in Austin, Texas. We decided to focus on three to four key technologies that we felt every archaeologist should know about. We found a handful of our colleagues working with these technologies and invited them to bring the actual technology to our room and to sit down for a block of time to answer questions and provide demonstrations, and hands on experience were possible, for interested colleagues. We strove to recruit archaeologists using technologies in their research projects rather than sales representatives. The idea was great and we got positive feedback, but our execution that first year needed some help.

LIDAR technology Leicester 2013. LIDAR typically comes in aerial or terrestrial applications. This is a terrestrial style scanner being demonstrated in the Technology Room. A good link to see LIDAR uses in heritage is http://archive.cyark.org/?gclid=CPX7m8a13boCFQLl7AodR0oAXw.

In the following years we continued to showcase various technologies by having practicing archaeologists demonstrate the technology in the exhibition room, which was always problematic and also made communicating difficult with all the noise. Last year, in Leicester, was the first year that we had our own dedicated room, making communicating much easier. We saw a drop in traffic indicating that we still need to get the word out there about the Technology Room. An undergraduate student who I supported at Leicester found the Room worth noting in a blog he posted about his first conference experience. There is something for everyone in the Technology Room.

UAV Technology Leicester 2013. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are popping up everywhere in archaeology. From a simpler Quadcopter to multiple thousand dollar units with multiple sensor platforms are finding many uses every year in archaeology.

What are the purposes of the Technology Room?

  1. Present the latest and greatest technologies being used in archaeology.
  2. Have a practicing archaeologist familiar with the technology to educate others about what did and didn’t work.
  3. Learn what pitfalls to avoid.
  4. The real costs involved.
  5. Share technology driven research that can’t always be demonstrated in a traditional symposium.
  6. Network with various technology minded colleagues

What is the benefit to Students? Students:

  1. learn about technologies that you might not know about through your own institution;
  2. are often our best presenters as they grew up in a technology age and can help others with technology phobias in a professional context;
  3. can learn and see technology in a low pressure environment;
  4. and can network to find projects using a technology they might be interested in working with.

So I challenge you:

What Technology are you interested in? What role do you feel technology should play in archaeology? What are the problems we face with technology? How can we (SHA) or your institution better train you for technology-related applications?

Comment below as well as stop by the Technology Room this January.

Tim Goddard

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?