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VCU Archaeology

Mapping Faux Island: An Application of 3D Printing for Archaeological Education

by Bernard K. Means

Each spring semester, I teach an archaeological research design and methods course to Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) anthropology students. The timing of this course is no mistake–I want to ensure that students taking a field school in the summer are informed and prepared at least on a basic level with field methodology, laboratory procedures and artifact identification and analysis. At first, this was taught as a purely lecture endeavor, using a class format inherited from a predecessor. This was not an ideal situation, given that we only met twice a week for 75 minutes–certainly not enough time for incorporating a hands-on component to a class of 20 to 25 students. The Virtual Curation Laboratory (VCL) that I direct has only enough space for 5 or 6 students at a time, and insufficient space to leave material out for students to examine at their leisure.  Just a few years ago, I was able to add a dedicated laboratory section to this course, which gave me more time for hands-on activities that could at least emulate field or laboratory settings. Or, at least whatever activities I could fit into a 105 minutes, as I still lacked an adequately sized permanent laboratory space.  Anything that I do with my students has to be set up and taken down in the few minutes I have before class and the few minutes I have after class, as my laboratory classroom space needs to be cleared for the next, unrelated class each week.

3D educational applications

When I first began teaching this laboratory section, I tried incorporating real, but unprovenienced artifacts into my teaching of this course.  It proved impractical to carry a box of artifacts across our large urban campus–especially the groundstone–and still required more handling and care than for which I really had time, if I wanted the artifacts to be available for future classes. Even in the earliest incarnation of this laboratory class, we began to incorporate 3D printed artifact replicas–some in bright, primary colors–to teach basic identification, particularly of chipped stone tool forms and animal bone species or elements. Students generally found working with replicas as a fine way to learn artifact identification (McCuistion 2013).

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Intern preparing artifacts for 3D printing

With this year’s laboratory sections, I am relying even more heavily on the large amount of 3D printed and painted artifact and ecofact replicas in my pedagogy.

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Zoe Rahsman supervising the Faux Island mapping project.

Last week, aided by VCU alumnae and VCL laboratory manager Zoe Rahsman, and VCU history major and VCL intern Jesse Wallace, we headed over to my laboratory classroom and used the 15 minutes we have available to us to set up a fake archaeological site, which students in the class later designated Faux Island (44HN666).


Picture of the Faux Island site by VCU student Charlie Parker, who is taking the class. And, yes, the floor is not clean.

Fortunately for us, the classroom floor consisted of 12-inch square tiles that we could incorporate into the site grid. We used four tiles for each grid square, which we marked with masking tape.  We then set up a few faux features on the site.

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Adult burial feature

A blue ethernet cord was used to outline an adult burial, and a large plastic skeleton left over from a past Halloween was placed in a flexed position.  I did break off one leg while adjusting the skeleton, so we ended up with disarticulated “bones” in another part of the site.

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Child burial

A second, smaller skeleton was placed on Faux Island as a child’s burial

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A hearth

Red strings from old conference badges became our hearths, and Zoe, Jesse, and I placed 3D printed historic and prehistoric artifacts and 3D printed ecofacts around the site.

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Students then arrived in class, were handed some graph paper, and asked to map the site using their knowledge of archaeological mapping presented in the preceding days course. Right now, they are busily finalizing their maps of Faux Island, and the inventory of their “discoveries”–so more on that in a future post.

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Contemplating the success of Faux Island


Reference Cited

McCuistion, Ashley (2013) Promoting the Past: The Educational Applications of 3D Scanning Technology in Archaeology. Journal of Middle Atlantic Archaeology 29:35-42.




2 thoughts on “Mapping Faux Island: An Application of 3D Printing for Archaeological Education

  1. Great idea. Stealing it.

    Posted by Robin Van Auken | February 7, 2016, 11:03 am

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