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VCU Archaeology

Material/Virtual/Material: A Digital Pragmata Story

by Bernard K. Means, Director

Tomorrow on Wednesday, December 3, 2014, I will participate as a panelist in the Virginia Commonwealth University’s (VCU) Digital Pragmata panel “Virtual/Material” in the Cabell Library Room 250 at noon.  I was invited by VCU Humanities Research Librarian John Glover to discuss the intersection between the virtual and material worlds, via 3D printing and digital models I will be joined as a panelist  by Courtney Freeman, who is leading the Virginia Museum of Fine Art’s (VMFA) 3D printing project for the VMFA’s exhibit Forbidden City: Imperial Treasures from the Palace Museum, Beijing, and Diane Harnish of Primal Pictures, a leading 3D anatomy company.  Our moderator will be Andrew Illnicki, Director of Academic Technology in the VCU School of the Arts.  More on my fellow panelists can be found here.

I thought I’d share here briefly my perspective on the virtual/material duality, without getting too much ahead of myself.  I know that the free exchange of ideas tomorrow will expand my perspectives, and give me solutions to problems that I might not even know that I have.


I should add that, when I began the Virtual Curation Laboratory three years ago (and counting), I thought I would solely be moving material items into virtual worlds (Means et al. 2013a,b, 2014a,b,c,d).  The basic goal of our nascent laboratory was to make digital diagnostic artifact type collections to help archaeologists more readily identify their findings, with a secondary goal of virtually preserving items that are fragile or otherwise subject to the ravages of time. However, it quickly became readily apparent to myself and the undergraduate VCU students making our virtual project a reality, that digital models of artifacts are not as wholly satisfying as touching something tangible.  While seeing a projected two-story tall rotating image of a 3D scanned and butchered dog mandible from the “Starving Times” at Jamestown is pretty impressive, this is still not quite as satisfying as holding an accurately printed and painted scale model in your hands. Simply put, we should not underestimate the power of touch (Pye 2007).

Mark Summers at Jamestown with printed replica of butchered dog mandible.

Mark Summers at Jamestown with printed replica of butchered dog mandible.

I and my students have explored the need for the tangible elsewhere (McCuistion 2013; Means et al. 2013a,b, 2014a,b,c,d), so I will only add a few words on this issue here. Essentially, I find that almost as fast as I move archaeological findings from sites hundreds if not thousands of years or even hundreds of thousands of years old from a material into a virtual existence that I am moving them back into material forms via the power of 3D printing. Partially this has to do with the nature of archaeology.  Some of our ways of identifying our findings involves comparison to what has been discovered before–no surprise there–and, while digital avatars are useful for exploring the all important attribute of shape, it is sometimes difficult to get at the equally important attribute of shape. Even with the addition of an English/metric scale to a virtual artifact model, the sense of size maybe skewed, especially depending on whether we are viewing the virtual artifact model on a smartphone, tablet, or as a two-story projection.  With a 3D printed artifact model, a “type” can be directly compared to the archaeological finding on hand. The 3D printed type collection is relatively light as well, and can be tossed into an archaeologists dig kit, and modified and expanded relatively inexpensively.  Right now, in the Virtual Curation Laboratory, we are generating diagnostic type collections of diagnostic chipped stone tools and animal remains, the latter of particular interest to zooarchaeologists.

Palmer point from North Carolina.

Palmer point from North Carolina.

Our 3D printing of archaeological findings is not confined to meeting the needs of established researchers or professional archaeologists.  We are also considering the next generations. In my own teaching, 3D printed artifacts are quite useful for exposing students to the diversity of the human past–with replicas that I can pass around, sometimes of items that they see in their readings. I teach an archaeological methods class in the spring, and having multiple sets of identical objects allows me to divide my relatively large class into smaller groups, and ensure that each group has replicas of the same items from which to learn–even if the color might vary depending on what was in the printer on a given day.

2014-11-19 10.52.10

Of course, I can’t say enough about how 3D printed artifacts help with our public outreach efforts and those of our partners in archaeological education and in the cultural heritage community.  We’ve participated two consecutive years in Archaeology in the Community‘s summer Archaeology Festival, with plastic printed artifacts a key aspect of our engagement with the public. And, Jamestown Rediscovery regularly incorporates our plastic models in their interaction with the public, as seen in this video. For a lengthier discussion of the benefits of 3D printing for archaeological education, you can see an interview with me that was broadcast by AntiquityNow just two weeks ago, although the video was filmed in the summer.

Digital bust of Russell Scott

Digital bust of Russell Scott

Printed bust of Russell Scott

Printed bust of Russell Scott

I am never quite sure where I will be on a given day on the material/virtual/material continuum.  Less than two weeks ago, I participated in a public event at the Virginia War Memorial, as I documented here. Just by happenstance, I 3D scanned World War II vet Russell Scott to be recreated as part of an exciting and terrifying event during that war, in which he ended up on the tail of his plane, seated, and from there jumped to relative safety onto the Italian countryside.  And, by relative, I mean he survived, but was imprisoned in a German POW camp for the war.  We now know the scale that we will need to print Russell to the same size of his plane–which I hope to do after tomorrow’s panel on 3D printing.

References Cited

McCuistion, Ashley
2013 Promoting the Past: The Educational Applications of 3D Scanning Technology in Archaeology. Journal of Middle Atlantic Archaeology 29:35-42.

Means, Bernard K.
2014a  Two Years Before the Past: Activities in the Virtual Curation Laboratory @ VCU from August 2011 to December 2013. Quarterly Bulletin of the Archeological Society of Virginia 69 (1):3-16.

2014b  Virtual Curation and Virtual Collaboration. In Blogging Archaeology, edited by Doug Rocks-Macqueen and Chris Webster, pp. 121-144. Landward Research, Ltd. In Association with Succinct Research and DIGTECH LLC.

2014c Current Research in the Virtual Curation Laboratory @ Virginia Commonwealth University: Introduction to the Collected Papers. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 84 (1):1-3.

2014d  Who Benefits From Virtual Curation? Pennsylvania Archaeologist 84 (1):23-26.

Means, Bernard K., Courtney Bowles, Ashley McCuistion, and Clinton King
2013a Virtual Artifact Curation: Three-Dimensional Digital Data Collection for Artifact Analysis and Interpretation. Prepared for the Department of Defense Legacy Resource Management Program, Legacy Project #11-334. Prepared by the Virtual Curation Laboratory, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia.

Means, Bernard K., Ashley McCuistion, and Courtney Bowles
2013b Virtual Artifact Curation of the Historic Past and the NextEngine Desktop 3D Scanner. Technical Briefs in Historical Archaeology 7:1-12. Peer reviewed article available online at: http://www.sha.org/documents/VirtualArtifacts.pdf.

Pye, Elizabeth
2007    Introduction: The Power of Touch. In The Power of Touch: Handling Objects in Museum and Heritage Contexts, edited by Elizabeth Pye, pp. 13-30.  Left Coast Press, Inc., Walnut Creek, California.


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