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VCU Archaeology

Coast to Coast: Archaeology for the People

by Bernard K. Means

From the first day of April, it’s been a very busy time for the Virtual Curation Laboratory, including: multiple presentations at two different conferences–one located on the Pacific coast and the other on the Atlantic; public outreach efforts centered on the 3D printed past; and, even a visit to the offices of three different members of Congress in Washington, D.C. in the middle of the month. As  Tristan Harrenstein (Florida Public Archaeology Network) pointed out in his recent blog post on this site, many members of the archaeological community who encounter 3D printed objects today see them as novelties–mere trinkets and toys–and fail to see their potential for outreach to the public. To be fair, the most commonly used 3D printers rely on plastic filament–which comes in a rainbow of colors; the resulting 3D printed replicas weigh much less than most artifacts and also betray their origins as printed items by the thin layers from which they are built.

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Furthermore, 3D printing is itself a novelty to many people. Media attention to 3D printing doesn’t help, ranging from the horrible–3D printed guns–to the fantastic–3D printed organs.  Archaeology and 3D printing only rarely get mentioned together in the media, with notable recent exceptions for Ötzi the Iceman and Palmyra’s Arch of Triumph (although the latter is not really a case of 3D printing, and has its own issues). The idea of 3D printing anything–much less replicas of artifacts or other items of cultural heritage–still seems like technology from a future more appropriate for the crew of the Starship Enterprise than as part of the archaeologist’s toolkit. Whether 3D printers become common appliances in the home, I do think more archaeologists will embrace them–not necessarily because of their tremendous potential for archaeology, but more for the research potential of 3D printed replicas.  3D printed animal or human bones from online type collections can aid in identifying fragmentary remains in ways not possible with static illustrations in printed guidebooks.

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3D printed raccoon skull.

My April began as an invited presenter at the Modeling Culture: 3D Archaeology and the Future of the Past conference organized by Elaine Sullivan and J. Cameron Monroe at the University of California (UC) Santa Cruz campus. My own talk was entitled “Artifact to Avatar: Entangling the Local with the Global by Creating Virtual ‘Material Culture’.”  I especially examined the creation of 3D printed replicas from 3D scanned archaeological remains. Even among this gathering of archaeologists focused on cutting-edge 3D applications to archaeology, most presenters focused on more research-oriented aspects of virtual archaeology, including documenting and recording individual archaeological objects, features, or entire sites to generate 3D digital models that accurately depict a physical past that we destroy as we uncover it.Other than by myself, 3D printing of the past was not something that came up in this day-long symposium–a point I will return to below.

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3D scanning an articulated coyote tail with a NextEngine Desktop 3D scanner

Most of the presenters also relied on photogrammetry rather than the 3D laser scanning that has been used principally to date in the Virtual Curation Laboratory. Photogrammetry certainly is a more portable way of documenting archaeological remains, and can achieve a higher level of accuracy if applied properly than the comparatively inexpensive NextEngine Desktop 3D scanner  or the very inexpensive Sense 3D or Structure scanners. During the question-and-answer period following my paper, one member of the audience questioned why I would use any device that did not provide the highest level of accuracy when creating a 3D digital model of an archaeological object. At the time, I noted that the NextEngine Desktop 3D scanner is well suited to my current workflow, especially with a constant turnover of undergraduate interns. However, thinking more on this over the last few weeks, I think we sometimes fetishize accuracy in our quest to record the vanishing past, while in many situations less precise models–especially when realized as 3D prints–are more than suitable for public outreach efforts.  We need to remember that public outreach is viewed as a central tenet of the ethical obligations of the archaeologist. I can say that fellow presenters at the Modeling Cultures were largely intrigued by the 3D printed replicas I brought with me (especially with the non-archaeological replicas of the key to Edgar Allan Poe’s trunk reputably found on his body), but the overall tenor of the Modelling Culture  conference was translating the actual into the virtual but not on then transforming the virtual back into the actual.

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3D printed items at the SAA meeting

A week after the Modeling Culture conference at UC Santa Cruz, nestled on the shore of the Pacific Ocean, I was at the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) annual meeting along the Atlantic Coast in Orlando, Florida, in the very artificial landscape that characterized the Disney Dolphin Hotel–complete with faux Coney Island boardwalk. Two of my three presentations here focused on the integration of 3D printed objects into public outreach activities. As part of the session Strategic Approaches to Digital Public Archaeology, sponsored by Public Archaeology Interest Group, I spoke about “Visualizing a Wired World’s Past: Digital and Tactile Public Archaeology in the Virtual Curation Laboratory” on Thursday morning in paper that complimented my Modeling Cultures  presentation.  I also gave a very brief presentation–less than 3 minutes–on the use of 3D printed artifacts to teach the mapping of a simulated (and portable) archaeology site as part of the first Teaching Archaeology Interest Group (TAIG) teaching slam.  This presentation was prosaically entitled “Teaching Archaeology through 3-D printing.” TAIG formed only last year and already has a large and growing membership. The SAA annual meeting was a great place for people interested in public archaeology to meet.  I am a member of SAA’s Public Education Committee and was also able to attend the Public Archaeology Interest Group meeting. Other than the people who attended these committee meetings, I met individually and in groups with others who are interested in integrating 3D printing into their public programs, including an ad hoc meeting with members of the Florida Public Archaeology Network (FPAN): Kevin Gidusko, Tristan Harrenstein,Jennifer Melcher, and Sarah Miller. After the SAAs, a Facebook group was formed to continue our conversations and you are welcome to join the 3D Public Archaeology Working Group.

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With just a few days rest upon returning from Orlando, Florida, I took the commuter rail from Fredericksburg, Virginia, to Washington, D.C. to join with Public Knowledge as part of one of their major initiatives: promoting 3D printing and the maker movement across the nation. On Wednesday, April 13, I walked up and down the halls of the Rayburn Office Building to meet with members of the staffs of three U.S. Representatives: Mick Mulvaney, Tim Ryan, and Mark Takano. Representative Mark Takano actually had a few minutes to talk directly with our team.  Representative Takano helped found the Congressional Maker Caucus two years ago. Our particular team from Public Knowledge focused on 3D printing and education.  Joseph Williams of the Perris Union High School District in California talked about STEM-related initiatives of the K-12 level, while I discussed how 3D printing can help democratize access to the world’s heritage, especially as more archaeological and other cultural heritage institutions are making their collections publicly accessible as downloadable digital models, such as the Virtual Curation Laboratory’s Sketchfab site.

April 14 saw a series of presentations on 3D printing, especially with respect to education, the maker movement, and public health initiatives, including the inspiring work of E-Nable. Most of the discussions revolved around objects that were born digital–created within a virtual computer environment–rather than digital objects that were derived from real items, e.g. virtual avatars of archaeological remains.  As part of a public showing of 3D printing in the Rayburn Office Building’s cafeteria, I was able to showcase hundreds of artifacts that have been 3D scanned in the Virtual Curation Laboratory, with most painted to resemble the real items by the very talented Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) students who intern in the lab. People are constantly amazed that there are non-STEM related applications for 3D printing, and people like touching an historical artifact–even if it is a printed replica one-step removed from the real item. Luckily, Jeff Aronowitz, a graduate student in VCU’s School of Education, was on hand to help engage with the congressional staffers–and even a congressman or two. My basic goal with participating in this Public Knowledge-sponsored endeavor is to convince a few more people that 3D printing has potential beyond STEM-focused education.




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