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VCU Archaeology

Philadelphia Story: “We the People” and 3D Scanning at the National Constitution Center Site

By Bernard K. Means, Director

Last year I made a couple of trips to the Museum Resource Center (MRCE) in Landover, Maryland, to 3D scan some artifacts from antebellum (pre-American Civil War) enslaved and post-bellum (ritual cache) contexts at Manassas National Battlefield Park in Manassas, Virginia. At the request of MRCE’s director, Robert Sonderman, I discussed 3D scanning and 3D printing with members of the staff and some researchers.  One of those individuals was Elena Popchock. Elena is now the Exhibition Developer at the National Constitution Center (NCC) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At her invitation, I traveled to Philadelphia on August 8 to 3D scan and 3D print Revolutionary-era artifacts recovered from National Park Service (NPS) investigations that took place at the location of the NCC.

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Waiting for the Northeast Regional train at Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Elena was kind enough to summarize this project.

The National Constitution Center (NCC) and Independence National Historical Park (INHP) are partnering on a small exhibit highlighting an archeology project that was conducted at the site of the NCC building at 5th and Arch Streets in Philadelphia. In a renovated section of the main exhibition, archeological artifacts from the NCC site will be on display in order to tell the story of “We the People” of Philadelphia—the everyday people living on this very block while all the momentous changes and events were happening during the Constitutional Convention. In addition to seeing the objects that these people left behind, visitors will have the opportunity to interact with 3D printed replicas of these artifacts and connect to the people of the past.

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Standing in front of the National Constitution Center.

On August 8, after a somewhat bumpy but otherwise fine train trip from Fredericksburg, Virginia, to Philadelphia via Amtrak, I took a taxi over to the NCC where I met Elena and Sarah Winski, NCC’s Manager of Exhibit Development. After lunch, we headed over to the INHP archaeological laboratory, which is house behind a series of nondescript doors on Walnut Street, near its intersection with 4th Street.  There we met Jed Levin, Chief of the History Branch for INHP and Debbie Miller, Material Culture Specialist at AECOM.

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The NextEngine Desktop 3D scanner and a pearlware plate from the NCC site.

The five of us discussed the artifacts set aside for 3D scanning from the NCC site, and which would be best suited for one of two purposes. Some artifacts were being scanned so that they could be mounted on an exhibit panel, allowing people to touch the past. The original artifacts would be visible, but safely protected within an exhibit case. The other artifacts that I was to scan were for an educational cart that would have a hands-on component and would be used for public programs.

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Each of these three gaming pieces was 3D scanned.

Since I had to wait for my hotel room to become available, I went ahead and set up the NextEngine Desktop 3D scanner and 3D scanned three circular gaming pieces made from fragments of earthenware vessels. I also 3D scanned Elena and Sarah with the Structure scanner.

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Using the Structure scanner on Jed Levin.

Over the following three days, I think I ended up scanning all ofthe NCC exhibits staff, as well as Jed and Debbie.

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After I checked into the hotel, I used the Structure scanner that I brought with me to 3D scan a donkey statue in front of my hotel representing the state of North Dakota. This sculpture was left over from the Democratic National Convention–one of 50 located throughout the  city.  I would later see and 3D scan the donkey statue for Arkansas and for Rhode Island.  The latter was actually in the entrance lobby for the NCC. Elena and Sarah pointed out the irony of the Rhode Island donkey being in the lobby of the NCC, as Rhode Island boycotted the original Constitutional Convention of 1787.

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On the morning of August 9, I met Jed outside the front of the NPS archaeology lab at 7:30 am.  Jed was kind enough this day and the next two days to open the lab at this early hour. I managed to 3D scan seven artifacts during the day: a green-glazed molded plate, a square baking dish made from locally produced Philadelphia creamware, a red earthenware porringer, an earthenware whistle in the shape of a bird, a red earthenware ointment jar, a carved wooden horse, and a carved wooden boat.

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The next day–Wednesday, August 10–the NextEngine scanner was used on seven artifacts from the NCC site: a wine bottle seal for Edward Cathrall (1750), a thimble for a small child, a pearlware plate, a corset stay made of whale bone, a potter’s slip cup made of red earthenware, a cupping class, and a while clay tobacco pipe bowl.

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Holding the mastodon tooth given to Ben Franklin.

I also had the opportunity to 3D scan one object that was not from the NCC site. This was a mastodon tooth that is normally on exhibit at Franklin Court. The mastodon tooth was likely sent to Ben Franklin, who, along with Thomas Jefferson, was interested in this prehistoric proboscidean.


I was particularly  pleased to have the opportunity to 3D scan this historic prehistoric artifact, as I have long been a fan of Ben Franklin, and this artifact made a connection of sorts to the previous week’s trip to the Western Science Center. I started 3D scanning a domino with the numbers 6 and 3 indicated on either side, but this scan failed due to the orientation I chose for 3D scanning.

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Thursday morning was my last day for 3D scanning on this trip to Philadelphia. After Jed opened the door to the archaeology lab at 7:30 a.m., I successfully 3D scanned the 6/3 domino, and later in the morning 3D scanned a 5/2nce these two digital models are edited, I can made additional dominoes that combine the respective halves, thus digitally expanding these two historic artifacts. Just before 8:30 am, I began 3D scanning a small slipware bowl with a distinctive “S”-shaped design.


I suggested that bowl over a larger slipware plate, because the thick slipped design gave the vessel a tactile component related to the object’s decoration.

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After starting the second of two scans of this child-sized bowl, I headed over to the NCC with Jed’s borrowed umbrella.  The rumbles of thunder heralded a heavy, albeit brief, rain storm that began to flood the streets as I made the short walk to the NCC. I arrived at the NCC shortly after 9 a.m., where I met Elena and Sarah. Our destination was the popular Signers’ Hall at NCC, where we planned to 3D scan a number of the signers of the US Constitution with the Structure scanner.  I 3D scanned Alexander Hamilton, Ben Franklin, and George Washington, while Elena 3D scanned James Madison and Sarah recorded Gouverneur Morris–except his peg leg, which I scanned.

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Just before I left the NCC I 3D scanned my last member of the exhibits staff just before I left to return to the IHNP archaeology lab.

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With a few hours before my return train trip to Fredericksburg, I took time to 3D scan with the NextEngine the 5/2 domino, a quintal vase, and a pewter plate. I also backed up all the scanned data, so that I am my student interns can edit the digital models in the coming weeks. I look forward to returning to Philadelphia, and seeing the completed archaeology exhibit at NCC.



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