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VCU Archaeology

Fire and Ice: Scanning Historic-Era Leather, Wood, and Bone Artifacts at The State Museum of Pennsylvania

Preparing to scan a man’s boot.

In mid-July, I spent two days at The State Museum of Pennsylvania dedicated to scanning Historic-era organic artifacts.  All artifacts have some conservation needs to ensure that they will be around well into the future for study and aesthetic appreciation by scholars and the general public (see http://www.conservation-us.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=Page.viewPage&pageId=472 for conservation resources and information).  Conservation needs are especially acute for organic objects.  The fragile nature of organic objects ensures that they are comparatively rare in the archaeological record, preserved in unique conditions—usually unusually hot and dry or very cold and wet settings.  Even if found and then carefully recovered from the archaeological record, organic objects commonly require specialized—and sometimes costly—attention from archaeological conservators. Ideally, but infrequently, this attention should start in the field, but often is not initiated until the objects are brought into a laboratory setting.  Because conservation funding is limited, the conservator and the curator of a collection must prioritize objects for treatment.  For archaeological remains, conservation priorities do not just take into consideration the specific needs of an individual object, but also its research potential.  There will always be artifacts that fall low on the priority list, meaning that it will be sometime when, or if, they receive individual attention.

My basic goal for this July excursion to The State Museum was to see how well the NextEngine Desktop 3D scanner would work as a relatively quick and inexpensive tool to capture at least some details of organic objects where conservation funding is limited or non-existent.  For my first day, I focused on organic artifacts recovered from excavations at the Sugar House Casino, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (see http://www.phillyarchaeology.org/reports/sugarhouse.htm).  These leather and wood artifacts—some dating to the second half of the 18th century—were recovered from a moist environment, meaning that they had excellent preservation, but also that they would degrade quickly without at least minimal care.  All of these objects were quickly placed in a freezer by archaeologists at A.D. Marble, Inc. to retard decay, and they were eventually transferred to a freezer at The State Museum.

The artifacts I selected from the Sugar House Casino site for scanning included a wooden dowel and man’s boot.  The wooden dowel had been reshaped and made into a doll—a unique and very personal object that scanned without a problem.  The boot, on the other hand, had some ice crystals that had formed on it.  Scanning with the ice crystals present would have caused problems for the NextEngine’s laser, so I had to brush these carefully off the boot—without damaging the frozen leather.  For both objects, but especially the boot, I had to work quickly and cautiously to avoid damaging the objects and to make sure that they did not overly thaw.

Fragment of a Susquehannock bone comb recovered from a midden.

I also worked on scanning bone and ceramic artifacts recovered from Susquehannock sites in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  These artifacts are relatively stable, but the bone has not yet been conserved.  My morning was interrupted when the fire alarm went off.  With the rest of the folks in the Keystone Building, I left the building—leaving the NextEngine scanner to valiantly continue imaging a Susquehannock vessel fragment.  Fortunately, the fire alarm was a result of a faulty indicator and we were soon allowed back into the building.

The trip was clearly a success.  3D imaging of artifacts is definitely a useful tool for conserving artifacts—especially in the absence of dedicated conservation funding.

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One thought on “Fire and Ice: Scanning Historic-Era Leather, Wood, and Bone Artifacts at The State Museum of Pennsylvania

  1. Sounds like an exciting, yet moderately stressful scanning experience!

    Posted by Ashley McCuistion | September 2, 2012, 12:46 pm

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