by Bernard K. Means
“This is incredible” said the young boy approaching the Virtual Curation Laboratory/Jamestown Rediscovery space at the RVA MakerFest on October 3, 2015, which was held at the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond. Last week’s RVA MakerFest was just my latest excursion into the rapidly growing Maker movement.
It was certainly the biggest event of which I have been a part. Jeff Aronowitz of Jamestown Rediscovery and I took command of two tables and of the 10,000 attendees, Jeff estimates we probably talked to at least 4,000 people about archaeology. Jeff focused on Jamestown archaeology, and aspects of the technology he uses to tell the story of that English colony’s early years, including 3D printing and scanning.
I concentrated on 3D printed artifacts that have been 3D scanned by the Virtual Curation Laboratory, either on location, or as a loan to the Virtual Curation Laboratory. These artifacts of course included a large selection from Jamestown, but also included artifacts recovered from archaeological sites across the world, as well as animal bone from our growing zooarchaeological collections. One young woman with a child in tow remarked that she liked our display, and commented that this was one of the few places that showed an actual application of the making process, rather than simply highlighting the process itself.
This was a very different perspective than one I encountered earlier in the summer, when I participated in the first annual National MakerFaire in Washington, D.C. on June 12 and 13, 2015. On the first day of that two day affair, several of the makers criticized the Virtual Curation Laboratory’s display of 3D printed artifact replicas from across the world. These makers had no problem with the artifact replicas themselves, but rather with the fact that we had made items with us, and were not actively making them.
Fortunately, the attendees seemed to have no issue with seeing made items, and certainly liked the idea that they could handle artifacts–or at least replicas one step removed from the actual artifact.
With my experience at the National MakerFaire, I was not quite sure what type of scenario Jeff and I would have to handle at the RVA MakerFest. Originally, expectations were dampened, as it had been raining in Virginia (and many other places) for days, and earlier in the week, forecasters predicted that a hurricane might strike over the weekend. However, because so many other organizations cancelled their planned events, the RVA MakerFest was heavily trafficked from the moment it opened and until the moment it closed. I definitely spoke to more people about archaeology, virtual curation, 3D scanning, and 3D printing than at all other events combined throughout the year so far.
As I have seen at other events, the Virtual Curation Laboratory’s 3D printed chess sets certainly attracted visitors, who then would ask questions about the array of objects I had strewn across one of our two tables. For this event, we had another 3D printed object that drew visitors to our setup. This summer, I traveled to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History to scan some artifacts before the Anthropology Department closed their collections for the next two years for a planned rehousing and shelving upgrade. My initial intent was to 3D scan artifacts associated with New Deal excavations in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, but I was shown the Carnegie’s extensive collection of artifacts from Costa Rica and these drew my attention. One of the Costa Rican objects that I scanned was a seated figurine of a woman. Once I returned to the Virtual Curation Laboratory with the digital file, and once it was edited by Digital Curation Supervisor Lauren Volkers, I then printed several copies to scale.
VCU student Lucia Aguilar, who is interning in the Virtual Curation Laboratory, painted one replica to resemble the original. And, she also painted on replica to represent Wonder Woman. The colorful contrast was a hit with people of all ages.
3D printing and 3D scanning are very much emerging technologies, and Jeff’s demonstration of both types of technology also enticed people to see what we were talking about. He scanned some people with a scanner attached to an iPad, and also had with him a 3D printer–people marveled at seeing a 21st century technology being used to 3D printed artifacts from the 17th century that had been 3D scanned.
My basic takeaway is that more archaeology programs should consider participating in non-traditional venues. Throwing our own festivals or holding workshops at meetings of avocationals and professionals is certainly a worthy endeavor, but we tend to reach the same people we always reach. By participating in a Maker-related event, we can talk to individuals unaware of what archaeology is or what archaeologists do and share our passion about what the past can tell us about others–and ourselves.