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VCU Archaeology

Dawn of a New Ice Age (Exhibit) and More at the Virginia Museum of Natural History

by Bernard K. Means

I was scanning in the wrong place

I was scanning in the wrong place

I arrived in Martinsville, Virginia, late on the morning of Thursday, December 17, 2015, for a return visit to the Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH).  My basic goal for the visit was to attend the reception for their new Ice Age exhibit, which features giant beavers (Casteroides),  a Smilodon (saber-tooth cat), and a Bootherium (muskox).  All of these animals are extinct today but did overlap temporally with the earliest humans in Virginia. I was particularly interested in the Bootherium portion of the exhibit, because the Virtual Curation Laboratory (VCL) and Mercer University’s Jeremy Barker teamed to 3D print the skeleton from a specimen scanned by the Idaho Virtualization Laboratory.  Because of the large size of the Bootherium, each 3D scanned element took some time to print, and most had to be divided into multiple parts. Jeremy, who printed most of the biggest elements, had to divide the skull into more than two dozen pieces, which were then glued together. Jeremy and I worked directly with VMNH’s Research Technician Ray Vodden, who is in charge of the museum’s casting and molding program.

From left to right: Jeremy Barker, Bernard K. Means, and Ray Vodden.

From left to right: Jeremy Barker, Bernard K. Means, and Ray Vodden.

While an important contribution to the exhibit, the 3D printing of the Bootherium elements was only one step toward integrating that extinct animal into the exhibit.  Elements needed to be glued together, sanded, painted, and then arranged in the exhibit as if they were recently attacked by the saber-tooth cat that towers over the carcass of the Bootherium–with the skeleton of the non-extinct raccoon closely behind. This was work tackled by Ray and the VMNH’s talented exhibit staff and team of volunteers.

Next to this exciting Pleistocene tableau of predator and prey are the skeletons of two giant beavers, one of which is “swimming” through the exhibit case. This is an exciting new exhibit, and the Virtual Curation Laboratory is happy to make a contribution, as we did with the Exploring Virginia exhibit that opened earlier this fall.

Giant beavers

Giant beavers

Because Martinsville is a more that 4 hour drive from my hometown of Fredericksburg, Virginia (longer in the rain storm I drove through Thursday morning), I did not come to VMNH simply to attend the Ice Age exhibit opening.  I brought along the Virtual Curation Laboratory’s NextEngine Desktop 3D scanner–as I have done many times before. The VMNH has a diverse range of archaeological and paleontological items that I knew I could scan that could be added to our growing 3D digital model collection, including: skeletal elements from a 19th century dog burial from Fredericksburg; vertebra from a Miocene whale; a bone from a 60 million year old lungfish; and, historic artifacts from a looted slave quarter (where some “hunters” for Confederate gold thought they would be successful in their horribly misguided efforts). And, that was just on day one of my 3D scanning efforts. The second day of 3D scanning began with a handle from the Oak Hill quarter for enslaved (in Pittsylvannia County), continued with the femur of the dog burial, and finished with another fossil whale vertebra.

Jeremy and I also did some photogrammetry of aspects of the Ice Age exhibit and the Exploring Virginia exhibit.  I took the requisite numerous photographs, and Jeremy used his computer to create the final 3D models, which, are quite spectacular. But, those are for another post…..

The exhibit contains both the strange and the familiar.

The exhibit contains both the strange and the familiar.

So, if in Martinsville, make sure you visit the Virginia Museum of Natural History, where you can go back in time and visit a world populated by giant beavers, cats with saber-like teeth, and very large musk oxen.

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