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VCU Archaeology

Why I Put a Venus of Willendorf on a Bicycle and Other Adventures in 3D Scanning

by Bernard K. Means, Director

For the second year in a row, the DDIG (Digital Data Interest Group) of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) sponsored a series of “Lightning Talks,” where more than a dozen presenters each had three minutes–and NO more–to get across their research into the digital humanities.  Last year I participated in the first “Lightning Talks” with a presentation about the Virtual Curation Laboratory’s  (VCL) efforts to create digital type collections of diagnostic chipped stone tools and zooarchaeological remains, especially bones.  Not wishing to repeat myself, I decided to give what turned out to be a spirited discussion of our contributions to public interpretations at Jamestown and two current initiatives in the VCL that I could not have anticipated a year ago.  I was limited to three slides, and I decided that the inclusion of animations and videos would be integral to my presentation.  Because the slides were going to be displayed on a Mac laptop, I anticipated that this would be problematic–as turned out to be the case–so used a screen capture program to make a movie of each slide, effectively capturing each slide’s dynamic element.  For this blog entry, I have separated the movie into three separate components that represent each individual “slide.”


In the first “slide,” I provided a very brief overview of the VCL, emphasizing the important role that Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) students play in the successful operation of the lab. I also discussed the muntually beneficial partnerships the VCL maintains with different cultural heritage locations, notably our very active contribution of printed and painted 3D scanned replicas of Jamestown artifacts to their educational outreach programs.

bkm__2015-04-13 10.46.19

Following that, I moved on to the “slide” that held the title of my presentation, “Why I put the Venus of Willendorf on a Bicycle and Other Adventures in Scanning.” Telling the winding path that led to a 3D printed Venus of Willendorf sitting on a red bicycle was challenging in the one minute–of my three!!!–that I allocated for this purpose.  Our tale begins with the fact the the City of Richmond, Virginia, will host an international bike race beginning the week of September 21, 2015 that will lead to numerous road closures and considerable disruption to all activities across the city.  With this in mind, VCU has cancelled all normally scheduled classes; VCU has a large number of students, not to mention faculty, who commute. However, VCU has decided to offer one-credit topics courses–at a reduced tuition rate–as long as the courses do not involved use of on-campus resources. I proposed a one-credit course that would create an online exhibit highlighting artifacts 3D scanned from countries with representatives in the bike race using Google Docs as a way of virtually communicating.  I was asked by Molly Ransone of VCU’s ALT (Academic Learning Transformation) Lab to bring in a bicycle-related artifact for use in a promotional video about the courses. Not having one, I decided that I could create something that featured a 3D scanned artifact from the VCL.

venus on bridge

After some consideration, I selected our scanned Venus of Willendorf. Now, I should add that our Venus of Willendorf is not from Germany–as is the case for the original–but rather was sculpted out of chocolate by then VCU undergraduate student Beth Reid for a student research poster presentation. Beth chose chocolate for her medium because of its claimed aphrodisiac properties and the fact that Venus figurines are thought by some to represent fertility.  However, Beth mixed birth control pills into the chocolate, making our Venus an anti-fertility figurine.  We had to keep the figurine in the refrigerator prior to scanning and prior to its later display as part of the poster conference to ensure that no melting occurred–Beth helpfully put a note on the Venus while it was in the refrigerator that read “Please Do Not East.”  With the scanned object in hand, so to speak, I found a suitable bicycle on Thingiverse,and merged the Venus with the bicycle using the freely available MeshMixer program.  I then printed the Venus and placed it in our painting area for VCL intern Zoe Rahsman with a helpful note that I needed the combined print painted so that the Venus was brown and the bicycle would be red with black wheels. Just days after I created Venus on a Bicycle with Zoe’s help, I was in the ALTLab being filmed “discovering” this  artifiction from a box filled with sand for the purpose. Naturally, knowing that sound would not be used as part of the final video, I affected an English accent and narrated my own “excavations.”

slide 2

Two down, one to go!

For my third “slide,” I considered our work with the Virginia War Memorial (VWM), which took us a bit outside the realm of what is normally considered archaeology.  At the suggestion last fall from VCU undergraduate student Chelsea Miller, when she interned at VWM, the VCL was invited to 3D scan a number of miniatures from a display of Napolean’s various military campaigns in Europe and elsewhere for use in an interactive display.  Later in the fall, I was invited along with Chelsea to participate in a miniature’s show by VWM curator Jesse Smith.  Here, I 3D scanned this Arab miniature representing Napolean’s military adventures in Egypt. While 3D scanning the Arab miniature, Jesse lamented that we could not use our NextEngine 3D scanner to scan World War II veteran and POW camp surviver Russell Scott, now a 94-year-old veteran who volunteers at the VWM.  When his bomber was shot down by the German’s over Italy, Russell ended up seated on the plane’s tail as it spiraled to the ground, before he was able to jump to safety–well, relatively safety as he  was captured by the Germans.  The reason why Jesse wanted Russell scanned was that the VWM was mounting a large model of Russell’s bomber in the great hall of the VWM, and Jesse thought it would be a nice touch to have a replica of Russell seated on the tail of the plane.  Fortunately, I had my Sense 3D scanner on hand, and Russell was very amenable to being scanned in a seated positon.  Once Jesse and Chelse figured out how tall the printed Russell figurine needed to be–approximately 6 inches from the top of his head to the bottom of his feet–I 3D printed a seated Russell and Chelsea painted him to emulate the uniform he would have worn on that ill-fated bombing mission.  Within the next few weeks, the giant model of the bomber will be mounted with a seated Russell on the tail.  But, we’ll save that tale of the tail for another time.


2 minutes, 56 seconds. 4 seconds to spare!

Note: this was typed Sunday, April 19, 2015 on Virgin America at an altitude of approximately 35,000 feet, at a ground speed of ca. 550 miles per hour, and at a temperature that hovered around -60 degrees Fahrenheit (well, outside the plane, one presumes)

bkm__2015-04-19 15.32.38


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