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VCU Archaeology

Mirror, Mirror: Reflections on Digitally Mending the Past

by Bernard K. Means, Director, Virtual Curation Laboratory

One advantage of virtually curating artifacts and creating digital models is the ability to use software to mend  often fragmented remains.  This is certainly not a new concept, but virtual curation opens up a number of research possibilities…. and ones that are conservation friendly as well.  Mending a digital artifact model does not require special chemicals, a fume hood to protect the mender from toxic off gassing, or having to deal with the special storage requirements of a mended object. The individual pieces from a complete but fragmented vessel can be 3D scanned and a whole object can be created that exists in cyberspace. The digital curator can also make a whole object from fragments of an incomplete object by digitally duplicating and reflecting those parts of an object that do exist, or more artistically interpolate missing fragments.

Last week, the Virtual Curation Laboratory’s Digital Technology Supervisor Allen Huber applied the freely available MeshMixer software to a groundstone smoking pipe recovered archaeologically from excavations at the Kirshner site, a Monongahela village located near West Newton, Pennsylvania. The original pipe was loaned to the Virtual Curation Laboratory by archaeologist Dr. William C. Johnson, a noted expert on the Monongahela Tradition. The pipe was split almost evenly in half, revealing a complete profile of its interior.

Groundstone pipe half from the Kirshner site.

Groundstone pipe half from the Kirshner site.

Allen took this digital scan, created a mirror image, and then merged the mirrored model with the original model.  The result is a nearly complete digital smoking pipe.

Groundstone pipe, mirrored.

Kirshner groundstone pipe, mirrored.

Of course, we can also print both the original and “mended” smoking pipes.

Printed original (left) and digital reconstruction (right) of Kirshner smoking pipe.

Printed original (left) and digital reconstruction (right) of Kirshner smoking pipe.

One issue with physical mending of broken ceramic vessels, glass containers, or the like is that a structurally stable mended object may not be possible because crucial pieces–or too many pieces–are missing.  These could be filled in with “patches” made from plaster in the original object. Another avenue for mending an artifact is to scan the original broken object, digitally “repair” the object, and then print the repair pieces and use those to mend the physical item. We will work on exploring these possibilities in the future here in the Virtual Curation Laboratory.

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