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VCU Archaeology

If It’s Friday, It Must Be Jamestown: Two Weeks in the Virtual Curation Laboratory

by Bernard K. Means, Director

On Friday, October 3, I was at Jamestown Island with a NextEngine Desktop 3D scanner and digitally preserving a delft apothecary jar rim base, uncovered during recent excavations by Jamestown Rediscovery’s archaeology team.  The base sherd mends with another sherd that I scanned next, and we will be able to virtually reunite the two fragments—after some editing.

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The other objects I scanned included an iron gauntlet for a right hand, as well as the accompanying thumb guard.  The iron gauntlet was large and challenging to scan because it does not fit on the NextEngine’s rotating platform.  In the past, we have used a Lazy Susan to scan large objects, but this requires quite a bit of post-processing as we have to digitally stitch together multiple digital models, rather than having the NextEngine’s software do this for us.  To avoid this problem, I concluded that affixing a large wooden disk to the rotating platform would work for some large objects and asked VCU student Carolyn Tuttle to make a disk for me out of scrap plywood.  VCU student and VCL intern Athena Beskinis was able to obtain a screw of the right size to secure the wooden platform from her father’s extensive collection. This setup worked quite nicely for recording this large but fragile fragment of armor.

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Two weeks ago, I was also on Jamestown Island scanning artifacts from recent investigations, including an elk antler modified into a hanger though the drilling of two holes.  One of the original iron nails is still evident in the hanger.  This modified elk antler actually proved challenging to scan as it was fragile, so a portion of the surface was digitally extrapolated in the final model.  This is not an ideal situation, but the overall shape of the object is well preserved.

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I also scanned a close helmet with our lower resolution Sense 3D scanner. The close helmet consisted of a visor and bevor with the latter bent back out of position behind the visor.  Physically reorienting the bevor is a major conservation challenge, but, even with the lower resolution scanner, I was able to digitally separate the visor and bevor and then digitally orient them correctly with respect to each other.

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One week ago, on Friday the 26th of September, I was at VCU, but still virtually connected to Jamestown Rediscovery.  I presented to the VCU campus community a lecture entitled Cannibalism, Butchered Bones, and Death on the English Frontier: the Virtual Curation Laboratory and the Archaeology of Jamestown. I discussed the Virtual Curation Laboratory’s efforts to create 3D digital models of interesting and unique items in their collection for research, public outreach, and K-12 and undergraduate education. These artifacts included a butchered dog jaw and horse bones associated with the “Starving Time” of 1609-1610, as well as bird bones and a snail shell from Bermuda brought by shipwreck survivors that helped save the troubled Jamestown colony in 1610.

Replica artifacts.  Image courtesy of Jeff Aronowitz.

Replica artifacts. Image courtesy of Jeff Aronowitz.

I reprised this lecture for Mr. James Triesler’s advanced history class at Clover Hill High School in Midlothian, Virginia, on October 1, and was able to show his students printed replicas of artifacts from Jamestown, as well as from across the world. This lecture was designed in part to prepare the students for a visit to Jamestown on October 3.  Jamestown’s Jeff Aronowitz gave them a tour of the site, Merry Outlaw highlighted elements of Jamestown’s very impressive collection in the “Vault,” and I demonstrated 3D scanning using the NextEngine scanner on the apothecary jar base.

Clover Hill High School students interact with plastic replicas. Picture taken by student Christian Colwell.

Clover Hill High School students interact with plastic replicas. Picture taken by student Christian Colwell.

This is not to say that Jamestown occupied all of our time in the Virtual Curation Laboratory this past fortnight. Monday, September 22, found us at the Virginia War Memorial in Richmond, Virginia.  There we met with the Virginia War Memorial’s curator, Jesse Smith, and VCU student Chelsea Miller, a senior in the history department who is taking my Introduction to Archaeology class.  Chelsea is currently interning with the Virginia War Memorial and made Jesse aware of our virtual curation efforts—something she correctly noted would help the Virginia War Memorial with their plans to make parts of their collection more visible online.  We are scanning toy soldier figurines currently on display, and plan to digitally capture other items from the museum in the future.

Virginia War Memorial curator Jesse Smith (left) talks with Chelsea Miller (center), John Bush, and Molly Ransone.

Virginia War Memorial curator Jesse Smith (left) talks with VCU student Chelsea Miller (center), and Molly Ransone from VCU’s Advanced Learning Technologies Lab.

At the end of that week, on September 26—the same Friday I gave my lecture on Jamestown to the VCU community—I met with neuroscience Ph.D. student Aaron Barbour.  Aaron needed us to scan a clay model he had made so that it could be digitally sent to a manufacturer who would be able to make magnets from the digital model.  Aaron is working with neuroscientist Dr. Ray Colello of VCU to develop magnets that can be placed in helmets as one way of minimizing direct helmet-to-helmet contact through repulsive magnetic power.

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Aaron Barbour watches as the magnet mold is scanned.


The beginning of last week, September 30, was spent at the Fort Lee Regional Archaeological Curation Facility (RACF), where we met with Amy Wood.  RACF is our partner on our current Department of Defense Legacy Program project, and we were returning artifacts that were on loan, as well as replicas of those artifacts to be incorporated into their public outreach efforts.  While there, we scanned elements of their collection, including a 1649 Oliver Cromwell-era clothing clasp—complete with his seal, and a toy blimp made from cast iron with the word Navy embossed on both sides.

John Bush and Becki Bowman scan at Fort Lee.

John Bush and Becki Bowman scan at Fort Lee.


I also took some time to use our Sense 3D scanner at James Madison’s Montpelier on October 1, following my presentation at Clover Hill High School.  At Montpelier, I scanned a unit full of large mammal bones (mostly cow), and a retaining wall that helped define the landscape in front of the mansion.


The end of this week will find staff and interns of the Virtual Curation Laboratory presenting original research papers at the Archeological Society of Virginia annual meeting on Saturday, October 11, in Richmond, Virginia. This will include papers about our work with the Virginia Museum of Natural History on scanning passenger pigeon skeleton elements, as well as papers related to public education and outreach, as well as research, at Jamestown, George Washington’s Ferry Farm, the Virginia Museum of Natural History, and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.



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