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VCU Archaeology

Transparency in Archaeology, a.k.a. Making a Spectacle of Ourselves

by Bernard K. Means

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For almost five years, the Virtual Curation Laboratory has been using a NextEngine Desktop 3D scanner as the primary tool for creating virtual digital models of artifacts, fossils, bones, and historical items.  The NextEngine basically works by sending lasers toward an object, and these lasers bounce back and are recorded–sort of like echolocation in bats or dolphins. It should be no surprise to anyone that a laser scanner would have a problem with translucent objects, such as bottles,as the lasers largely pass straight through such an item. Shiny objects are a problem as well, as they can scatter the lasers. To mitigate this issue, we may dust an object with a light talc powder, which provides sufficient opacity for the scanner’s lasers to be reflected back to the scanner. However, it can be challenging to get the powder to stick to glass. This week, Jeff Aronowitz of the Valentine Museum in Richmond  loaned the Virtual Curation Laboratory a Valentine Meat Juice bottle from his own collection. Powdering this pristine bottle was unsuccessful, as was using a glue stick to add tackiness, and then applying powder.

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However, since this is a non-archaeological item, I asked Jeff if we could paint it with watercolors, which would provide the needed opacity and also be readily removable. Summer Intern and Virginia Commonwealth University anthropology major Charlie Parker brought in some of her watercolors to paint the bottle, and our 3D scan was successful.  While the watercolors do obscure the original color of the bottle, they did enable the creation of a viable digital model that can be downloaded and 3D printed in a variety of media, including plastic and even glass. Jeff has consented to make the 3D model freely available, and you can print your own!

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It is available at our Sketchfab site.


We also 3D scanned not too long ago Patrick Henry’s glasses, which are on exhibit at the Virginia Historical Society. Here the issue that we had is that the temples (e.g. long arms of the glasses) shifted while we were scanning, so we only were able to get a good scan of the eye wires that hold in the lenses, as well as the bridge of the glasses.  The lenses were not recorded at all, but we could simulate those digitally.  Clearly, in the future, we will rely on photogrammetry to document these rare and fragile glasses.





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