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VCU Archaeology

Investing in the Future by Curating the Past: the Veterans Curation Program and the Virtual Curation Laboratory

by Bernard K. Means, Director

By our nature, we archaeologists have a strong interest in the past of our fellow humans, the pre-modern bipedal apes that preceded us, and even our closest tool-using relatives (e.g. chimpanzees, gorillas, etc.).  We work directly with material remains and seek to interpret and reconstruct past beliefs, activities, and customs. Small broken fragments of pottery, stone, glass, bone, shell, rusty metal, and many other items–large and small–are incomplete pieces of the puzzle that we try to fit together in our quixotic quest to understand what makes us who we are. We conduct our excavations of archaeological sites–the places where we find our broken bits–sometimes close to home, other times in exotic locales. Careful notes document an inherently destructive process–archaeologist who excavate destroy that which they seek to understand. Once we have completed our excavations, presented our papers, and published our reports, we sometimes neglect the next, most important stage–curation of our artifacts and records.  Museums, collections repositories, offices in cultural resource management (CRM) firms, storage lockers, basements, and attics are filled with objects for which adequate care has not been expended–robbing future generations of the ability to analyze old collections using new technologies that can answer questions not thought of by earlier generations of scholars.  This situation has rightly been designated as a curation crisis.

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Dealing with the previous neglect of collections is a challenging, almost herculean task.  The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has developed an innovative way to address their curation backlog by forming the Veterans Curation Program (VCP).  According to their web site,

The Veterans Curation Program (VCP) was created to process at-risk archaeological collections belonging to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  Stewardship of archaeological collections, including both artifacts and associated records, is the responsibility of landowning agencies such as the Corps.  Processing these collections to federal standards for long-term storage and access is undertaken by cultural resource management firms familiar with the work.

The VCP not only works to rehabilitate old collections in need of careful attention, they also use the various steps involved in curation–documentation, photography, database management–to teach skills to military veterans.

Talking about virtual curation. Image courtesy of Peter Quantock.

Talking about virtual curation. Image courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

On Monday, August 23, I took Route 1 to travel up to Alexandria, Virginia, with the goal of discussing virtual curation–specifically the work of the Virtual Curation Laboratory–at the Alexandria VCP office (the VCP also has offices in Augusta, Georgia, and St. Louis, Missouri). Teaching veterans about new or emerging technologies is important to the VCP, as it is for my undergraduate students at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). I brought along two 3D scanners to demonstrate aspects of virtual curation. I first demonstrated the NextEngine Desktop 3D scanner using one of the artifacts the VCP was actively working to curate.

Scanning a pendant. Image courtesy of Peter Quantock.

Scanning a pendant. Image courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Digital model of the pendant.

Digital model of the pendant.

While I was asked a number of questions about this scanner and how it worked, following a presentation on the work of the Virtual Curation Laboratory, I think interest was strongest with the 3D printed replicas I had brought along. These replicas were generated from digital models of scanned artifacts, and I was able to give everyone a copy of a 3D printed replica of a point used to kill the first European at Jamestown.

Peter Quantock is scanned by one of the veterans.

Peter Quantock is scanned by one of the veterans.

I also brought along the more accessible–and more moderately priced–Structure Scanner, which I use attached to an iPAD Mini.  This piece of technology was of particular interest to everyone at VCP and, while not as accurate as the NextEngine, the ease of use made the Structure Scanner more attractive. And, of course, I was able to show that even this scanner can record important archaeological information based on my recent trip to India.

Technological innovations are not THE answer to the curation crisis in archaeology, but they are AN answer–particularly if they are integrated into a worthy endeavor such as the VCP.

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