by Bernard K. Means
As I became an archaeologist, I was trained to look at material items–the things created by people in the near and distant past–as imperfect reflections of human behaviors, beliefs, customs, and actions. With careful recovery through excavation and painstaking analysis, I could use stains in the soil and broken pieces of pottery or fragments of chipped stones to reconstruct how my ancestors–or, more likely, other people’s ancestors–once lived. Pieces of the past were important only for how I could use them to reconstruct past cultures. Individual artifacts meant little to me, unless they contributed to whatever interpretive framework I was trying to construct. I eventually learned that this was a simplistic and naive perspective. Many objects and places are imbued by people with meaning and significance, and some are important for remembering and commemorating significant people or events.
I am thinking about this today, because it is Memorial Day–a day where Americans celebrate, commemorate, and remember those who have fought for this country (even if we forget the origins of the day). We create monuments to recall the fallen, and, living just outside of Washington, D.C., I am not far from many of these places–the understated, but powerful Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the grandiose National World War II Memorial, and the quite but evocative Korean War Veterans Memorial. Having once worked for the National Park Service (NPS), I know people leave behind physical mementos–memento mori–at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and these are carefully collected and curated by NPS personnel; the same may be true for the other monuments as well.
Recently, I helped commemorate the story of one man who fought in World War II, was shot down over Italy, and spent time in a German Prisoner of War camp–Russell Scott. Now in his mid-90s, Russell is a very affable man who patiently consented to be 3D scanned, as a way of memorializing his heroism. Today, a miniature 3D-printed Russell sits on a model of the B-25 Mitchell Bomber from which he made his sensational escape in the great hall of the Virginia War Memorial. I am happy to be a small part of helping tell his story not just in words but also in things.