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VCU Archaeology

SHA in DC with 3D

by Bernard K. Means

Pick up an archaeology technical report, and you will find often dense writing liberally sprinkled with acronyms.  I know, I have had to write numerous such reports myself. Still, I could not resist a blog post title that is largely acronyms to characterize the Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA–acronym #1) annual meeting in Washington, D.C. (DC–acronym #2) where I talked about three-dimensional (3D–acronym #3) archaeology in two major contexts, as well as demonstrated the applications of 3D printed items for historical archaeology, both directly and indirectly. Oh, and speaking of acronyms, the were numerous representatives from Maryland’s State Highways Administration (another SHA) but we won’t worry about their acronym here.

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Canadian archaeologist William Moss holds a replica of Bernard K. Means that he has seen on Facebook

The SHA annual meeting is the largest gathering of North American archaeologists that focus on the historic period largely beginning with the expansion of Europeans following the voyages of Columbus, and the impacts of their colonization efforts across the world–including the enslavement of Africans and the genocide of American Indians. SHA meetings in the Washington, D.C. area tend to be quite large as most members live along or near the Atlantic Coast.  So many people were there that I missed many friends that were as busy as I was scurrying to and fro, from meeting to meeting, and paper session to paper session. Still, it was a great time to reconnect with people, and I was particularly happy to see former students Catarina Conceicao (who now works at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello), Mariana Zechini (graduate student at the University of West Florida), and Ashley McCuistion (graduate student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania).  The latter two I saw quite a bit, as they helped out at registration.

Now, how does 3D fit into the SHAs in DC? SHA has a Tech Committee that hosts ongoing exhibits at the conference highlighting new or emerging technologies (or, at least new to historical archaeologists) and I was asked to bring along some of the 3D printed historic artifacts we have from places like Jamestown, Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, James Madison’s Montpelier, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Manassas National Battlefield Park, George Washington’s Ferry Farm, and even Washington, D.C. I do a similar set up at other archaeology conferences, and it has proven a good tool not only to highlight the potential for virtual curation for preserving archaeological discoveries, but also to share them as well. And, for Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU-acronmyn #4) students who often help with such exhibit tables, this is a great way for them to interact with professionals without the awkwardness that they could potentially feel at their first conferences. Alas, the lack of funding precluded my bringing VCU students to the SHAs this year, despite the proximity to Richmond, Virginia.

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Mariana (seated) and Ashley (standing) help with 3D printed artifacts, protected by the headpiece of the staff of Ra.

Now, being in DC, I of course had a meeting not associated with the SHA meeting.  I stepped out for a bit to meet with Public Knowledge‘s Courtney Duffey to talk about 3D/DC, an upcoming advocacy day in DC related to digital access issues–which I meant I had to leave my exhibit table unattended. Or, so I thought.  When I returned from my meeting, I found Ashley and Mariana quite comfortably filling roles they had filled in the past as experts on virtual curation and 3D printed historic artifacts!


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3D in DC at SHA from the Virtual Curation Laboratory had more of a presence than 3D printed replicas in the Tech-centered area in the exhibits room.  On Saturday morning, I participated in a session organized by the University of Virginia’s Kelley Deetz based on an consortium she heads called Universities Studying Slavery.  I spoke about VCU’s ties to enslaved workers, particularly with a well discovered in 1994 that contained the discarded remains of individuals–largely of African descent–related to autopsies performed at the university’s medical college. I brought up the potential of 3D printed artifacts found in the well–not the human remains–and from throughout Richmond to tell the story of the university’s, the city’s and the nation’s shameful and lingering legacy of the enslavement of Americans.

In the afternoon, I also talked about “Achieving Immortality by Sharing and Teaching the Past” through 3D scanning and 3D printing of historic artifacts at field schools, for public outreach, k-12 and college education, museum exhibits, and making the past accessible to the visually impaired.

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Just before the SHAs I was able to produce an artifact label in braille, and the Virtual Curation Laboratory will begin to create similar items, especially with a new partnership with the Virginia Historical Society that I will discuss in a future post.

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This paper was a 3-minute presentation as part  of a session of similarly length presentations or demonstrations that I organized this year entitled “Teaching the Past to the Huddled Masses, Yearning to Learn: Building an Educational Toolkit for Archaeology” which included over  a dozen presenters.


Tristan Harrenstein hands a butchered horse tibia from Jamestown to a visitor at the SHA’s Public Archaeology Day (Image courtesy of the Florida Public Archaeology Network)

Unfortunately, being in sessions all day on Saturday, January 9, 2016, meant that I could not participate in the SHA’s Public Archaeology day–doubly unfortunate as the theme was technology in archaeology. Fortunately, I was able to provide Tristan Harrenstein of the Florida Public Archaeology Network some extra 3D printed artifacts that he could incorporate into their public archaeology presence.

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Painting a 3D printed peanut that dates to 1890.

Overall, I think there is a growing understanding and appreciation for how virtual curation–especially 3D printing–has the potential to democratize access to the historical past. (3D printed peanuts from 1890 are particularly popular. The original was scanned at the Isle of Wight County Museum.)



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