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How 3D Printed Artifact Replicas Help Teach

by Jason Kramer, Intern

1When I first started my journey to become an archaeologist at the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), I thought of archaeology as 2-D. If you dig the artifacts, someone will display them. As my college career continued I quickly realized that there is a lot more to the field of archaeology than I originally thought: such as finding funding, making information gathered accessible, and most importantly public outreach. With the many opportunities provided to me, I turned to Dr. Bernard Means’s Virtual Curation Lab (VCL) at VCU to make this new perspective … 3-D.


Even though the lab is located in the smallest rooms throughout all of campus, you are always in good company. Over the semester I had the pleasure of getting close (literally) with some of the best anthropology students that VCU has to offer. When working in the lab there would usually be another intern to help you with either lab-related projects, college advice, or the occasional lab tour for curious strangers. These visitors were either blown away by how much technology has advanced in the past few years, or found themselves wondering, “why bother making 3-D prints if you have the actual artifact?” Granted, I probably would have asked the same question a year ago. As my internship comes to a close, I now see why the VCL work is so important to the future of archaeology.


Probably the most important aspect of archaeology is public outreach; if no one knows why you are digging or that there is even an excavation to begin with, then why dig? So at the VCL we make 3-D replicas of artifacts to display to the public. Our hope is that the public will learn more about the original artifact, museums, or excavations around them. With such a memorable experience from showing up to one of our booths at a public outreach event, the information presented will be passed on to friends and family members helping museums and excavations alike prosper.

4Another useful application of the VCL 3-D prints is in a school setting. As we all know, it can be difficult to keep the attention of students in the classroom, and the 3-D replicas are a quick attention grabber that prepare the students for the lesson to come. By allowing the children to get hands on with replicas of the artifacts, a teacher can create a much more interactive lesson, sparking an interest in history. This is something that would not be possible with only the actual artifact.

While on the subject of actual artifacts, suppose there is only one of a rare artifact in existence, who gets to have the artifact? By 3-D scanning the artifact and sharing it online, the special artifact can be accessed by museums and people all over the world at anytime. The artifact can often be printed for use by teachers and museums to make a wonderful experience for all to enjoy, including those who are visually impaired. 


Virtual curation and 3-D printing artifacts is an excellent way of preserving and presenting artifacts. With proper funding and a bigger lab space, the Virtual Curation Lab is the future of public archaeology and museum displays.