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VCU Archaeology

I was in a New York State Museum State of Mind

by Bernard K. Means, Director

Last week at this time, I had just began my nine-hour journey via Amtrak from Fredericksburg, Virginia, to Albany, New York. I had thought about flying, but with an up to two-hour drive to the airport (depending on traffic), getting to the airport at least two hours early (because of security), the flight itself, and then waiting on the other end for my luggage, taking the train did not seem much more of an ordeal than flying (I had my fill of air travel for now with my recent long excursion to/from India). There is more leg room on the train than economy class on the plane, free Wifi (of varying quality) and a place I could plug in a laptop to do some work (a challenge, however, on the bumpy tracks, to do any significant writing). I also had a plus-one that would not have liked the rough handling as checked baggage–a NextEngine Desktop 3D scanner.

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New York City, as viewed from Amtrak’s Northeast Regional train

I was traveling to Albany at the request of Dr. John P. Hart, Director, Research & Collections Division, at the New York State Museum. Dr. Hart, whom I have known for longer than most of my freshman Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) students have been alive, invited me to the Museum to conduct a workshop on 3D scanning and 3D printing for museum staff on Tuesday, June 14, followed by a public lecture on 3D scanning/3D printing on Wednesday, June 15. This visit was not my first time at the Museum related to 3D scanning.  Two years ago, as part of a recently completed Department of Defense Legacy Program project, I spend a few days at the Museum 3D scanning artifacts with the NextEngine Desktop 3D scanner, focusing on those used by William Ritchie to develop his guide to New York projectile points, as recounted here.


Adena projectile point from New York State.

Tuesday morning, June 14, Dr. Hart picked me and my equipment up at my hotel, located below some lovely freeway overpasses, and we traveled to the Museum.  He and I selected a few artifacts for 3D scanning that day for the workshop, including a large ceramic vessel fragment that had been shaped into a disk, had a holed drilled in its center, and then lines etched into one surface radiation from the hole to the disk’s edges–resembling at quick glance a sand dollar. This was the first artifact that I selected to 3D scan for the workshop, a process I began 30 minutes before the workshop’s scheduled time so that I would have a digital model to show the workshop participants. Dr. Hart was able to hook my computer up to the room’s projector, which eased my interaction with the two dozen or so people that showed up.

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Bone awl 3D scanned during the workshop.

As the workshop began, the first scan of the worked ceramic disk was completed, and I was able to set up a second scan of the object–we usually do at least two 3D scans of each object to capture all of the object’s surfaces. I discussed the various options inherent with the NextEngine 3D scanner’s operations (which you can find detailed in this report here, which includes an illustrated user’s guide). I also demonstrated the use of the portable Structure Sensor scanner, which is of much lower resolution than the NextEngine, but is certainly more portable–I took this to India recently with me, something that would have been challenging to do with the NextEngine scanner. Based on one participant’s suggestion, I used the Structure Sensor on the same worked ceramic disk, which showed the limitations of this device compared to the NextEngine.  I also did the first scan of a bone awl during the workshop, which I finished later back in the Museum’s collections area. After I was done speaking, I invited participants to see 3D printed artifact replicas, which engendered a fair amount of interest. After the workshop, Dr. Hart and I went back into the collections storage room to select additional objects for 3D scanning that afternoon and the next day before and after my public lecture.

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Lecturing on 3D archaeology (Image courtesy of John P. Hart).

On Wednesday, June 15, I gave a lecture to 45 members of the public and museum staff entitled “The Past Coming to You in 3D: Archaeological Applications of 3D Scanning and 3D Printing.” I discussed our almost 5 years of experience with 3D scanning in the Virtual Curation Laboratory, including my recent work in India, as well as the work I did at the Museum two years ago. I also explored various applications of 3D printing to research, teaching, and public outreach–including to the visually impaired.  I ended my lecture with an invitation for participants to see 3D printed models from across the world, including objects 3D scanned at the Museum two summers ago.  Two of the education staff were particularly interested in 3D printed projectile points, noting that these would be more useful for their addressing the public than printed paper point typologies.  Fortunately, as I had made extra, I was able to give them a half dozen or so points I had scanned from New York state.

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Pathological (right) and non-pathological (left) dog vertebra.

After the lecture, Andrea Lain,  Anthropology Collections Manager, wondered if I would have time to 3D scan a dog vertebrae from the  Menands Bridge site in Albany County, New York,  that showed a pathology resulting from the dog being employed by American Indians as a pack animal approximately two millennia ago.

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3D scanning a non-pathological dog vertebra.

The idea was that educators could use 3D printed replicas of the pathological vertebra in programs with school groups–something not really feasible for the fragile original bone. I did have the time, and Ralph Rataul of the Museum found the pathological vertebra from the dog, as well as a non-pathological vertebra from the same dog (Museum specimen A-74838) that was recovered from Pit 142 at the Menands Bridge site.

I scanned both vertebra after my talk, as well as a few ceramic vessel and pipe fragments that included representations of human faces.


Ceramic rim sherd with human face.

The next day, Thursday, June 16, I was soon bouncing my way southbound along the train tracks back to Fredericksburg, Virginia, on Amtrak’s Northeast Regional.  Certainly, this was a short, but very worthwhile visit to the New York State Museum. The following day, I was back in the Virtual Curation Laboratory in Richmond, Virginia, where I took the time to edit the two dog vertebra, and even print them as well.

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3D printed replicas of pathological (right) and non-pathological (left) dog vertebra.



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