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VCU Archaeology

What We Scan: Research and Outreach Goals of the Virtual Curation Laboratory

By Dr. Bernard K. Means, director

I’ve been asked on a number of occasions how and why we chose the types of objects that we have scanned—or might scan—through the Virtual Curation Laboratory. I thought about this issue while I was on another scanning trip to The State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg (July 29 to July 31, 2013), and a return to the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville (August 6 to 8, 2013).  The latter trip saw us dramatically expanding the range of objects we scan from those associated with archaeological sites (artifacts and ecofacts) to items of considerable antiquity and non-cultural in origin (notably Miocene whale vertebra). Our motivations for scanning particular items do overlap considerably, but I’ll try to roughly categorize the different reasons here.

Miocene whale bones at the Virginia Museum of Natural History.

Miocene whale bones at the Virginia Museum of Natural History.

Reasons 1:       The Virtual Curation Laboratory was established through funding from the Department of Defense (DoD)’s Legacy Program (Project #11-334) at Virginia Commonwealth University with the primary goal of testing the efficacy of the NextEngine Desktop 3D scanner for its suitability in helping DoD meet its requirements to archaeology under various federal environmental regulations and laws. Our secondary goal, at the behest of John Haynes—our partner on this Legacy project—was to see whether 3D scanning would enable large-scale, accurate measuring of diagnostic chipped stone tools.  While the digital models created during scanning can be accurately measured, 3D scanning technology—at least on the low-budget end—is too time consuming to permit recording of a large number of diagnostic tools in a reasonable time.  You’d be better off with good digital calipers and a good camera to meet these goals.

Fact sheet for DoD Legacy Project 11-334.

Fact sheet for DoD Legacy Project 11-334. Click image for a higher resolution copy.

Reasons 2:       To meet our goals of testing the NextEngine scanner on a wide variety of materials, I drew on contacts I developed over the years from heritage locations or repositories located throughout the Middle Atlantic area. At each location, we explained the needs of our project, and simply asked individuals which artifacts they would like to see scanned.  Particular emphasis was placed on objects that researchers or visitors most liked to see—creating digital models would help minimize handling that could damage an artifact.  We also scanned those objects that people at heritage locations/repositories found particularly evocative, e.g. things that are “cool.”

Scanning a lead figurine representing a World War I doughboy recovered at Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest.

Scanning a lead figurine representing a World War I doughboy recovered at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest.

Reasons 3:       The third category of objects that we scan, particularly after the end of our original Legacy project, is related to my own research interests.  While I am actually interested in EVERYTHING!!!!, my main foci are the Monongahela Tradition and New Deal archaeology.  Not coincidentally, these two main interests overlap, as New Deal excavations of village sites in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, were used to define the Monongahela Tradition.

Scanning a Monongahela rim sherd recovered during New Deal excavations in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.

Scanning a Monongahela rim sherd recovered during New Deal excavations in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.

Reasons 4:       The Virtual Curation Laboratory is staffed by a great bunch of undergraduate students pursuing majors in Anthropology, and they all have their own research interests.  I am certainly more than happy to accommodate their interests as it meets our broadest goal—preserving and making the past more accessible—and am pleased with the number of students who have presented their research at local and international conferences.  Even as I write, six students (Aaron Ellrich, Allen Huber, Rachael Hulvey, Ashley McCuistion, Lauren Volkers, and Mariana Zechini) are preparing presentations for the 2013 annual meeting of the Archeological Society of Virginia, and three of these students are further using their research in the Virtual Curation Laboratory to pursue honors in anthropology (Aaron Ellrich, Ashley McCuistion, and Mariana Zechini).

Ashley McCuistion (foreground) and Lauren Volkers work to scan an artifact at the Virginia Museum of Natural History.

Ashley McCuistion (foreground) and Lauren Volkers work to scan an artifact at the Virginia Museum of Natural History.

Reasons 5:       We have found that digital models of artifacts are very effective for educational endeavors on the high school and undergraduate levels, and in public outreach efforts, especially if they have been translated into tangible forms with our MakerBot Replicator. We expect to widen our educational and outreach efforts in the coming year.

Laura Weiner, who recently completed the Montpelier field school, stopped by our booth at the Archaeology in the Community event in Washington, D.C.

Laura Weiner, who recently completed the Montpelier field school, stopped by our booth at the Archaeology in the Community event in Washington, D.C.

Last week, we celebrated our second year in the Virtual Curation Laboratory.  Our third year, among other endeavors, will see the beginning of a new project for the DoD’s Legacy Program (Project #13-334).  I’ll talk about that project in a future post, once details have been ironed out.

I’d like to close with this quote from Greg Downey (greg.downey@mq.edu.au), an Associate Professor in Anthropology at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.  Greg and I have been communicating over the summer months on the potential that virtual curation has for expanding scholarship across the globe:

The long-term vision is that some smart kid, with nothing but an internet  connection, living in a favela in Brazil or a rural part of the Ukraine  or  in a slum outside Paris, will still have access to great science and  perhaps grow up to go to university. I’d love for some of these kids to say that they learned about human evolution from leading researchers all over  the world who came together to share.

Further details can be found in this brochure presented below that was created for DoD Legacy Project #11-334.

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