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VCU Archaeology

Fire Up the Lasers! Creating 3D Avatars of Archaeological Objects

By Bernard K. Means, Director

The Alexandria Archaeology Museum.

The Alexandria Archaeology Museum.

Today, October 19, 2013, is International Day of Archaeology, and I spent the day in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, at the Alexandria Archaeology Museum. The City of Alexandria has an archaeology ordinance administered through Alexandria Archaeology, and some of their findings are on display in their museum.  My talk will focus on our work in the Virtual Curation Laboratory, where I lead a team of very dedicated undergraduate students in the Anthropology program at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). We’ve been scanning archaeological objects excavated from across the world, dating from a million-year-old Homo erectus artifact—an Acheulian handaxe—from South Africa, to a 1960s toy army man excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm as part of the 2013 VCU archaeological field school.

Preparing to scan at Alexandria Archaeology.

Preparing to scan at Alexandria Archaeology.

I was met upon my arrival at the Alexandria Archaeology Museum by Paul Nasca, Archaeologist/Collections Manager for the Museum.  I set up our 3D object scanner in their fume hood, which helped shield the scanning area from direct light that can sometimes adversely affect a scan.  Paul had arranged several artifacts from sites located throughout the City of Alexandria for scanning. I began scanning a quartzite Clovis point base, which is the oldest cultural object recovered in Alexandria (over 10,000 years old!), as I prepared to give my lecture entitled “Fire Up the Lasers! Creating 3D Avatars of Archaeological Objects.” I was not surprised that my audience was enthusiastic and asked me a great deal of questions—Alexandria Archaeology has developed a strong community base in its more than 30 years of existence.

Examining plastic replicas.

Examining plastic replicas.

A number of the attendees came up after the lecture to examine printed replicas of several items from sites located throughout Virginia and Pennsylvania. We discussed the basic printing process, as well as the difference between actual objects and replicated items.  The shape and dimensions of printed objects have fairly high fidelity to the original objects relative to shape and scale, but not to color or weight.  It is the weight differential between printed replicas and actual objects that seems most striking to people who handle the replicas.

Scanning a ceramic piggy bank.

Scanning a ceramic piggy bank.

The remainder of my time at the Alexandria Archaeology Museum, I scanned three ceramic artifacts that date to the nineteenth century: an earthenware jar glazed on the interior and used in sugar production; a piggy bank half in the shape of a pig; and, a pipe bowl in the shape of a bearded man’s head.  A nice, diverse set of objects well suited for scanning on the International Day of Archaeology!

Bearded man pipe bowl.

Bearded man pipe bowl.



2 thoughts on “Fire Up the Lasers! Creating 3D Avatars of Archaeological Objects

  1. Greetings, Your email seems cut off, but I did find the folks at MR Ltd. so thanks! We have done some work in the field with our scanner and are using printed models for analytical as well as outreach. This should be becoming more and more common, I expect, as the technology get cheaper

    Posted by vcuarchaeology3d | November 22, 2013, 6:19 pm


  1. Pingback: Digital Media | The Eroding Walls - November 22, 2013

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