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VCU Archaeology

I Explained 3D Scanning and 3D Printing to Weird Al at Jamestown, and Other Tales of the Virtual Curation Laboratory

by Bernard K. Means, Director

So, yes, I explained 3D scanning and 3D printing at Jamestown to Weird Al Yankovic and his family at Jamestown.  But, more on that below!

Weird Al looks on as Jamestown's Jeff Aronowitz scans a family member in the new Ed Shed.

Weird Al looks on as Jamestown’s Jeff Aronowitz scans one of his family members in Jamestown’s new Ed Shed.

It may be summer, and most of the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) students who intern with me during the academic year in the Virtual Curation Laboratory (VCL) are off doing field schools, traveling, or earning money for the next academic year.  I do have two summer interns, Shonalika Mondal and Michelle Taylor, and they are critical to the continued operation of the lab, as is Digital Curation Supervisor Lauren Volker, an alumna of VCU. Which is good, because summer does not slow down the VCL.

Current intern Shonalika Mondal helps wash artifacts in the Jamestown lab.

Current intern Shonalika Mondal helps wash artifacts in the Jamestown archaeology lab.

Current intern Michelle Taylor, left, discusses artifact photography with former intern Lucy Treado in Jamestown's archaeology lab.

Current intern Michelle Taylor, left, discusses artifact photography with former intern Lucy Treado in Jamestown’s archaeology lab.

In part because of our blog posts and publications, the VCL has become a model for a number of individuals and institutions who wish to modify their own procedures, or establish a new laboratory of their own.  We recently hosted two individuals seeking to learn more about what makes the VCL work: Cagney Guest, a graduate student from Western Carolina University; and, Sarah Loomis, an undergraduate student from Miami University.

Cagney Guest, left, getting some pointers from VCL Digital Curation Supervisor Lauren Volkers

Cagney Guest, left, getting some pointers from VCL Digital Curation Supervisor Lauren Volkers

Cagney was only able to spend a day in the VCL, but we were able to show him our basic workflow, from 3D scanning an object through editing and then to 3D printing. We were able to discuss some of the issues he had with 3D scanning, and even scanned one artifact he brought with him that was giving him some problems. I also noted some of the software we use for editing 3D models, including the powerful MeshMixer (definitely take the time to look at video tutorials on how to use this program) and the even more powerful MeshLab (ditto on the video tuturials).

Sarah Loomis holds a Masonic pipe from George Washington's Ferry Farm in her left hand and the digital unwrapped pipe in her left--both as 3D prints.

Sarah Loomis holds a Masonic pipe from George Washington’s Ferry Farm in her left hand and the digital unwrapped pipe in her left–both as 3D prints.

Sarah was able to spend a few days with the VCL and her summer research project focused less on the 3D scanning process and more on the various ways we use our 3D scans of artifacts, especially in how they can be used to share and display information.  We were fortunate that her visit coincided with planned visits to Jamestown to scan some artifacts, as well as the Fairfield Plantation site, to demonstrate inexpensive 3D scanning in the field. Sarah is also quite adept with MeshLab and demonstrated how a cylindrical 3D model can be unrolled as a flat object, thus allowing an entire design normally curved around an object to be viewed at a single time.  We used this technique to unwrap the Masonic design on an 18th century smoking pipe recovered archaeologically at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Jamestown's Merry Outlaw shows artifacts to (from left to right) Shonalika, Michelle, Lucy, Sarah, Dr. Perry Jones, and Zoe Rahsman.

Jamestown’s Merry Outlaw shows artifacts to (from left to right) Shonalika, Michelle, Lucy, Sarah, Dr. Perry Jones, and Zoe Rahsman.

Sarah joined my two current interns, Shonalika and Michelle, and former intern Lucy Treado as we traveled to Jamestown on June 10. Another former intern, Zoe Rahsman, joined us at the archaeology laboratory at Jamestown.  We first set up our scanning equipment–a NextEngine Desktop 3D scanner that has been at Jamestown many a time before.  Jamestown’s Jeff Aronowitz provided us with a number of artifacts to scan, including cast bronze bell fragments, a Bartmann sherd, and a smoking pipe.

Bartmann sherd, unaware that it would soon be blinded by lasers.

Bartmann sherd, unaware that it would soon be blinded by lasers.

We were also joined by a faculty member from VCU’s Dental School, Dr. Perry Jones, who has an interest in the applications of 3D printing–something he has discussed on numerous occasions with myself and with Jeff. Once the team was assembled, Jamestown’s Merry Outlaw provided a tour of the collections, followed by a behind-the-scenes tour by Jeff of Jamestown’s new Education Shed, or “Ed Shed,” which features a marriage of 3D technology and archaeology, including a 3D scanner and a 3D printer.  The latter will enable visitors to see 3D printing in action of many artifacts the VCL has scanned on past visits.

Jeff Aronowitz and Sarah Loomis in the Ed Shed.

Jeff Aronowitz and Sarah Loomis in the Ed Shed.

While Jeff was giving my team a tour of the Jamestown excavations, I returned to their archaeology laboratory to continue scanning artifacts.

Artifact scanning at Jamestown.

Artifact scanning at Jamestown.

I had learned earlier in the day that a celebrity was coming to tour Jamestown, and there was some question whether our 3D scanning would interfere with the tour.  Eventually, it was decided that the celebrity-Weird Al!!!!!-might be interested in seeing 3D scanning in action.  I must admit it was a bit surreal to explain to Weird Al and his family how 3D scanning worked, how the resulting 3D models could be 3D printed for research, education, and outreach.  I was able to provide his daughter with a 3D print of a petrel bone from Bermuda scanned at Jamestown, as well as a pig figurine from the Phillipines.  Who knows, maybe Weird Al’s next song will be about virtual curation at Jamestown!

Fairfield Foundation's Thane Harpole discusses the Fairfield Plantation site with Shonalika, Zoe, and Sarah

Fairfield Foundation’s Thane Harpole discusses the Fairfield Plantation site with Shonalika, Zoe, and Sarah

The day following our scanning at Jamestown, Shonalika, Zoe, and Sarah joined me on a trip to the Fairfield Plantation site, where the Fairfield Foundation was conducting a preservation workshop.  Zoe and I demonstrated how the low-cost Sense 3D scanner can be used to document archaeological features, including wall fall.

Zoe Rahsman uses the Sense 3D scanner to document part of a brick wall at the Fairfield Plantation.

Zoe Rahsman uses the Sense 3D scanner to document part of a brick wall at the Fairfield Plantation.

I also discussed the applications of 3D printing in outreach, and provided the Fairfield Foundation’s Dr. Dave Brown with a 3D printed wall segment I scanned during a 2014 Fairfield Foundation preservation workshop. The workshop participants seemed more interested in the 3D printed replicas of artifacts and features than they did with the 3D scanning process itself.

ŽDiscussing 3D printing with Preservation Workshop at the Fairfield Plantation.

ŽDiscussing 3D printing with Preservation Workshop at the Fairfield Plantation.

This pattern is one that I have seen repeatedly, and highlights the potential power of 3D printing to attract the attention of individuals.  At least right now, while 3D printing technology is still novel, we can use this general interest to draw people into a deeper appreciation of the past.

More on the 3D printed past in my next post…….

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