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VCU Archaeology

Collaborative Research: the Virtual Curation Laboratory @ the Virginia Museum of Natural History

by Bernard K. Means, project director

Lauren and Ashley stand on either side of the VMNH sign.

Lauren and Ashley stand on either side of the VMNH sign.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013, saw me arrive at the Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH) in Martinsville, Virginia. I was accompanied by Ashley McCuistion, Digital Curation Supervisor, and Lauren Volkers, a new Digital Curation Intern. We soon met with Dr. Elizabeth Moore, Curator of Archaeology at VMNH, to discuss objects in their collection for scanning.  Our trip was partly funded by the Council of Virginia Archaeologists to explore how virtual curation can be integrated with zooarchaeology.

Ashley and Lauren scan while a dinosaur skeleton looks on.

Ashley and Lauren scan while a dinosaur skeleton looks on.

One of the objects we scanned was a fragment of shell recovered from archaeological investigations at the Barton site (18Ag3), a multicomponent site located along the Potomac River in Maryland. Some biologists have argued that this particular species, Lampsilis cardium cohongoranta, was introduced into the Potomac River during the historic period. However, this archaeological example shows that this is not the case.  We also scanned a modern example of this shell species for comparative purposes.  Dr. Moore is preparing an article discussing this instance of archaeology being used to understand the geographic distribution of a biological species. We also scanned the fragment of a loon’s skull.  Loons have the ability to filter salt out of salt water when they are feeding in that environment.

VMNH is an amazing facility, with interactive exhibits and a time range that extends well before the first humans set foot in Virginia. Some of the nice aspects of going to such a facility are the opportunities to meet with other scholars, including those whose main focus is well outside the archaeological realm.

Dr. Dooley, second from the left, discusses the fossil whale skeleton with Dr. Moore, far left, and Lauren and Ashley.

Dr. Dooley, second from the left, discusses the fossil whale skeleton with Dr. Moore, far left, and Lauren and Ashley.

Dr. Alton Dooley, Curator of Paleontology at VMNH, approached our team about seeing how well our scanner would work on whale fossils that are millions of years old. VMNH would like to reconstruct the skeleton of a juvenile whale, but only have a fossil skull of a juvenile.  They do have a more complete fossil skeleton of an adult whale and Dr. Dooley asked whether we could scan elements of the adult skeleton so that we could digitally scale them down to the size of a juvenile.  We scanned the axis and the atlas and, while there were some issues, the scans should be sufficient for Dr. Dooley’s purposes.  If this is the case, we will look at scanning more elements of the fossil whale skeleton in the future.  While not archaeology, we welcome the chance to expand the range of items we scan. Maybe we’ll get to do some giant ground sloth bones in the future!

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I set up a fossil whale vertebra for scanning.

We were fortunate that Dr. Nancy Moncrief, Acting Director of Research & Collections and Curator of Mammalogy at the VMNH, was able to take the time to show Ashley, Lauren, and myself some research that she and Dr. Dooley had just published in Southeastern Archaeology (literally just published, my copy was waiting for me when I got home from Martinsville on August 8).

Dr. Moncrief discusses how to tell Gray squirrels from Eastern Fox squirrels with Lauren and Ashley.

Dr. Moncrief discusses how to tell Grey squirrels from Eastern Fox squirrels with Lauren and Ashley.

Their research shows how fluorescence of bones and teeth could be used to distinguish the morphologically similar remains of Gray Squirrels from Eastern Fox Squirrels.  More on this research and a great color plate highlighting the results of the technique can be found in “Using Fluorescence of Bones and Teeth to Detect Remains of the Eastern Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger) in Archaeological Deposits” by Nancy D. Moncrief and Alton C. Dooley in Southeastern Archaeology 32 (1):46-53.

Ray Vodden opens a mold to show a cast replica.

Ray Vodden opens a mold to show a cast replica.

One of the reasons I like to come to great research facilities like the VMNH is the opportunity to expand the research opportunities for my undergraduate students.  Lauren is interested in presenting research from the Virtual Curation Laboratory at the 2013 Archeological Society of Virginia annual meeting, but had not yet set on a topic–and abstract deadlines are coming up.  Fortunately, we had an opportunity to discuss with Ray Vodden, VMNH Research Technician, the differences between how he creates replicas of objects and how we create printed replicas from digital models in the Virtual Curation Laboratory using a MakerBot Replicator. Basically, Ray creates a mold through a direct contact method on an object, and then can cast this mold  in a wide variety of materials.  As Lauren will detail in a future blog entry, she plans to scan the an actual object, the mold created from the object, and a series of replicas made in different materials. She will test the fidelity of these various replicas with respect to the actual object, and will also test the digital model against the actual object.

Actual artifact (left) and cast replica (right)

Actual artifact (left) and cast replica (right)

I will be returning to the VMNH to present a public lecture on October 10 and plan to include aspects of our collaborative research with the great staff at the VMNH.

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Discussion

2 thoughts on “Collaborative Research: the Virtual Curation Laboratory @ the Virginia Museum of Natural History

  1. Very nice!

    Posted by emooreatvmnh | August 12, 2013, 11:07 am

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