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VCU Archaeology

Muskrat Love (Ice Age Style), Giant Ground Sloths, a Giant Beaver, and a Mastodon Humerus

by Bernard K. Means


Archaeology laboratory at the Virginia Museum of Natural History. The table in the foreground and the lab counter to its left have 3D scanners while the lab counter to its right has the Ultimaker 2+ 3D printer. Dr. Elizabeth Moore, VMNH Curator of Archaeology talks to VCU alumnae Cameron Walker and Dani Kawa about flotation sorting.

With the dawn of the New Year, I spent much of the first week of 2017 3D scanning and printing the remains of the end of another era, the last Ice Age. I left early on the morning of January 2 to travel from my home in Fredericksburg, Virginia to the Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH) in the distant city of Martinsville. I was not alone. I had with me the tried and true NextEngine Desktop 3D scanner–a veteran of several similar trips in the past–and its newer cousin, the NextEngine Desktop Ultra 3D scanner. They were accompanied by the Ultimaker 2+, newly operational thanks to an upgrade kit purchased by Virginia Commonwealth University’s (VCU) College of Humanities & Sciences Technology Services Support division and the aid of Jeff Aronowitz of The Valentine.


VMNH’s Ray Vodden demonstrates the anatomical positioning of two giant ground sloth casts on the museum’s replica of a giant ground sloth, sporting its seasonally festive hat.

I was invited this time to VMNH by Research Technician Ray Vodden, who is in charge of casting and molding for VMNH, to 3D scan some giant ground sloth bones and casts as part of an effort to reconstruct a giant ground sloth skeleton.  VMNH has rights and lefts of giant ground sloth bones and needs lefts and rights of those skeletal elements. I focused on 3D scanning actual bones while at VMNH that I can later digitally mirror and then 3D print, so that these mirrored bones can be molded and cast. The Virtual Curation Laboratory has done this in the past for VMNH with a mastodon jugal, which you can see here. Ray also provided casts that I will 3D scan once I have returned to the Virtual Curation Laboratory. These ground sloth bones and casts are from the Carter Bog site in Darke County, Ohio, and are on loan to VMNH from the Dayton Society of Natural History.


Ice Age muskrat skull being 3-D scanned.

The Carter Bog site, which dates to around 11,000 years ago and the end of the last Ice Age, also contains numerous other skeletal remains. I took advantage of my time at VMNH to 3D scan several skeletal elements of the numerous muskrats found at Carter Bog, including two skulls, a femur, a tibia, an ulna, and part of a pelvis. All of the post-cranial remains were from the right side of a muskrat, and I will digital mirror them so that I can create a more “complete” muskrat skeleton.    Ray also provided a baby mastodon’s humerus that showed evidence for damage by two extinct carnivores, a short-faced bear and a dire wolf.

I also 3D scanned a partial cranium of a giant beaver, an extinct cousin of the modern-day beaver. You can find a digital model of the giant beaver cranium here. At Ray’s suggestion, I used this partial cranium to create a digital endocast (e.g. a positive impression of a negative space) of a portion of the giant beaver’s brain, which can be manipulated here.

giant beaver skull.gif


I would be remiss if I did not note that VMNH also has a strong archaeological collection curated by Dr. Elizabeth Moore, with an emphasis on zooarchaeology. I took advantage of my time at VMNH to also 3D scan some archaeological items, which I will discuss in a subsequent blog.

As I write the first draft of this blog, I am preparing for a trip to the Las Vegas Natural History Museum in a special project funded by the Smithsonian Affiliations central office in Washington, D.C. Like the Las Vegas Natural History Museum, VMNH is a Smithsonian Affiliate and this imminent trip will parallel some of the work I just completed at the VMNH as well as a Smithsonian Affiliations funded-project last August at the Western Science Center. The Smithsonian Affiliations seeks to link museums to share knowledge and collections, and many museums are turning to digital means such as 3D visualization through 3D scanning and 3D printing.



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