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VCU Archaeology

Visualizing a Wired Word’s Virtual and Printed Past, e.g. a Frenetic and Frantic September in the Virtual Curation Laboratory

by Bernard K. Means, Director

Lucia Aguilar painted this ca. 1000 A.D. Costa Rican figurine to look like Wonder Woman.

Lucia Aguilar painted this ca. 1000 A.D. Costa Rican figurine to look like Wonder Woman.

How is it already the beginning of October?  What happened to the month of September? Well, the entire month of September has been a blur for the Virtual Curation Laboratory’s staff, interns, student researchers, and volunteers. The month began with an exhibit opening at the Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH) that featured over 200 3D printed and painted artifacts; included a special course at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) that mapped digital artifacts on a world map as part of a course I taught in conjunction with the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) Road World Championships that were held in Richmond, Virginia the last full week of the month; saw research visits to Jamestown, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, Manassas National Battlefield Park, and George Washington’s Ferry Farm; an invited lecture on New Deal archaeology with 3D printed artifact replicas, as well as a discussion of 3D scanning at the Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology; and, ended with a video chat with students from a middle school in Missouri. 

Hannah Lickey points to an artifact she painted that is now on display at VMNH.

Hannah Lickey points to an artifact she painted that is now on display at VMNH.

The VMNH exhibit Exploring Virginia opened on September 5, 2015, with a reception the night before. Planning for the exhibit began the previous year, and I was contacted by VMNH’s Curator of Archaeology Dr. Elizabeth Moore in summer 2014 about whether the Virtual Curation Laboratory would be interested in contributing 3D printed artifact replicas for the exhibit, as well as exhibit content.

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Fortunately, I was developing a course entitled Visualizing and Exhibiting Anthropology for the Spring 2015 semester, and was able to integrate exhibit design and development into that course. This opportunity provided a real-life, rather than abstract experience for my students, as detailed in this recently posted article by VCU’s Brian McNeill: “At Virginia Museum of Natural History, students help design exhibit on Virginia exploration.

No rest for the wicked.  The next week, on September 8, I was interviewed by National Public Radio’s Patty Nevadomski for the Virginia Currents program about our 3D scanning and printing of World War II veteran Russell Scott.

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As should be the case, the Virtual Curation Laboratory is only a small part of his story. This story will November 12 at 8 p.m. & November 14 at 5:30 p.m. and will be available for viewing online around November 19 for a year or so at ideastations.org/virginiacurrents.

The following day, I traveled to Jamestown to do a bit of 3D scanning.

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Jamestown Rediscovery‘s Jeff Aronowitz was interested in having the Virtual Curation Laboratory 3D scan a recently excavated and mended Bartmann vessel, and I was happy to oblige.


We also 3D scanned a recently excavated shark vertebra as well.

The remainder of that week and the first part of the next, the lab staff and I worked on 3D printing and then painting replicas of artifacts that were originally excavated as part of New Deal work relief projects in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.

This was in preparation for an invited lecture at the Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology at Indiana University Bloomington given September 18 entitled “When Americans Dug Their Past: Doing Archaeology During the Great Depression.”

I spent the day of the lecture talking to staff and students at Indiana University Bloomington about 3D scanning and 3D printing, and took the time to 3D scan a mastodon tusk and mandible.

The following week was technically a week off for VCU students and faculty because of the UCI Road World Championships, an international event that was expected to, and actually did, bring hundreds of thousands of visitors to Richmond, Virginia.  VCU closed as it would have been too disruptive for students and faculty to access the main campus.  However, I, along with a number of other VCU faculty, taught a special one week course as part of the Great VCU Bike Race Book, an ALT Lab Collaborative Production.  The particular course I taught was titled “Visualizing a Wired World’s Past: Sharing Humanity’s Cultural Heritage with a City and the World.”

Lucia Aguilar (left) tells Bike Race student Taylor Conrad how to 3D scan artifacts.

Lucia Aguilar (left) tells Bike Race student Taylor Conrad how to 3D scan artifacts.

The eight students who took this course each selected three artifacts that were 3D scanned and 3D printed by the Virtual Curation Laboratory, entered information into a form linked to an interactive map of the world, and filmed a short video for each of the selected objects.  Each student also reflected on what participating in this course meant to them, including this one by Marjorie Burnett. The plan to expand this initiative over the coming months to incorporate many more of the hundreds of 3D scanned and 3D printed artifacts that we have in the Virtual Curation Laboratory.

This is not to say I neglected other research opportunities during the “Bike Race Week.” On September 22, I journeyed northward to Manassas National Battlefield Park with Laura Galke, Small Finds Analyst and Field Director for George Washington’s Ferry Farm (Ferry Farm).

George Washington's Ferry Farm's Small Finds analyst Laura Galke examines a colonoware bowl fragment.

George Washington’s Ferry Farm’s Small Finds analyst Laura Galke examines a colonoware bowl fragment.

Laura is doing a research on colonoware created by enslaved workers in Virginia for two upcoming national presentations, and I was interested in 3D scanning some of the colonoware so I could incorporate these materials into AntiquityNow’s Slavery Project.  Our time was brief, but I was able to 3D scan a colonoware smoking pipe bowl fragment and two mended pieces of a bowl.


Two days later I was in the Small Finds Laboratory at Ferry Farm, where the Virtual Curation Laboratory has made frequent visits in the past–the Small Finds Laboratory is a well organized repository of unique artifacts dating back over 10,000 years ago to the 20th century, and includes objects from George Washington and his family.

Hand-and-egg pipe.

Hand-and-egg pipe.

One of the objects I 3D scanned was this hand-and-egg pipe bowl that dates to the late 19th to early 20th centuries A.D.

Finally, I ended that month with a video chat with Dr. Eric Langhorst and his  8th grade U.S. History class at Discovery Middle School in Liberty, Missouri.

Eric Langhorst's 8th grade U.S. History class at Discovery Middle School in Liberty, Missouri.

Eric Langhorst’s 8th grade U.S. History class at Discovery Middle School in Liberty, Missouri.

Dr. Langhorst found out about the Virtual Curation Laboratory when doing online research about Jamestown.  His students prepared a series of questions for me, mostly revolving around 3D printing:

  • Are there size limits to what you can 3D print? No, not really.  If an object is too large for a printer, it can be digitally separated and printed in sections, and then reassembled.
  • What type of printers do you use and how much do they cost? We primarily use a MakerBot Replicator Mini (ca $1500.00) and a MakerBot Replicator 5th Generation (ca. $2500)
  • What is your personal favorite artifact that you have 3D printed? This is a tough one, as it changes from week to week, or even day to day.  My favorite artifact this week was probably a human vertebra with an embedded arrow point (the recipient did not survive)
  • Can you 3D print in color? Yes, although this is expensive.  We rely on acrylics to paint our replicas.
  • What you think 3D printers will be able to do in the future? There are seeming no real limitations on 3D printing.  People today are printing prosthetics, cars, houses, organs, shoes, clothing, and even food.
  • How often are you printing artifacts? Every day that I am in the Virtual Curation Laboratory, and, if I have an urgent project, I bring a printer home.
  • What time period of history do you typically work with on artifacts? Primarily we work in North American, with artifacts as far back as 10,000 years old, but we have scanned a prehistoric handaxe that was a million years old from South Africa!

For more about Dr. Langhorst, and his students, I recommend his Speaking of History Blog / Podcast: www.speakingofhistory.com

And, now, off to prepare for the RVA MakerFest, but more on that in the next post.


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