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VCU Archaeology

Playing with the Past: A “NAVY” Blimp Pull Toy

by Bernard K. Means, Director

VCL interns Ivana Adzic and Rebecca Bowman look on as the toy blimp is being scanned.

VCL interns Ivana Adzic and Rebecca Bowman look on as the toy blimp is being scanned.

Last September, I traveled down to the Fort Lee Regional Archaeological Collections Facility (RACF) with a group of students interning in the Virtual Curation Laboratory (VCL) to return some collections that were on loan, borrow some material for additional scanning efforts, and also to scan a few artifacts in their small, but well appointed museum.  These artifacts are not viewed by as many individuals as would be ideal, as their location on a restricted military base hampers their access. For this reason, whenever the VCL has occasion to travel to the RACF, we take some time to 3D scan part of the items that are on display.  Our purpose is two-fold: make people aware of the museum’s existence; and, make the displayed objects more widely available in either 3D digital or 3D printed form.

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Scanning the blimp


One of the objects that attracted our attention was a rusty blimp in a small display of toys. This blimp was found during archaeological excavations at A.P. Hill and dates between 1920 and 1940.  This cast iron pull toy was made by the Hubley company and has the word “NAVY” on either side. Extensive rust covered the wheels and the archaeologically recovered toy is not functional.

Scanning of blimp in progress.

Scanning of blimp in progress.

Last week, as we work to catch up on editing our digital models, VCL Digital Curation Supervisor Lauren Volkers finalized the digital model and created this animation.


With the digital model virtually in hand, I printed a number of copies, including a version that could be hung from a mobile by adding an attachment using the free program MeshMixer.

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Scaled-down blimp hanging from VCL mobile


I also used this program to make a miniature version attached to a Lego-compatible piece in anticipation of a visit from members of the Junior First Lego League on Monday.

Lego-compatible blimp hanging in inverted position.

Lego-compatible blimp hanging in inverted position.

While teaching current intern Zoë Rahsman about editing of digital models, she wondered whether we could make the toy blimp functional.  Together, we successfully separated the wheels of the blimp, from the blimp itself, and printed each component separately.  With a handy nail for an axle, and a string from an old conference badge, the toy model worked, as demonstrated here.


Creating toys from archaeological items is one way to reach young people about the past, but this is particularly the case if we work with objects that started as toys. And, of course, these appeal to children of all ages!


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