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VCU Archaeology

3D Scanning is a Mammoth Responsibility: Or, What Happens in Vegas Definitely Does not Need to Say in Vegas

by Bernard K. Means

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California Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas

Two weeks ago at the time I began writing this, I was sitting in a hotel room at the California Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. I wasn’t in Vegas to gamble or see shows or even attend an anthropology convention (as was true the last time I was in Vegas). Rather, I was on a special mission for the Smithsonian Affilations office in Washington, D.C. under Director Harold Closter and National Outreach Manager Laura Hansen. This special mission was to 3-D scan part of the collections at the Las Vegas Natural History Museum (LVNHM), a Smithsonian Affiliate. The basic structure of this special mission paralleled a successful foray for the Smithsonian Affiliations at another affiliate last August, the Western Science Center. As detailed here for the Western Science Center, these special missions for Smithsonian Affiliates are intended to introduce new ways of documenting, preserving, and sharing the past–especially via virtual curation through 3-D scanning, as well as 3-D printing.

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I arrived at LVNHM when it opened and met with Marilyn Gillespie, the museum’s Executive Director and Founder. We briefly talked about the goals of my mission and I then began a self-guided tour of the museum.

I was particularly interested in the Treasures of Egypt exhibit, which was once part of the Luxor Casino.  I wanted to see this reconstruction of Tutankhamun’s tomb, partly because I am interested in how archaeology is portrayed in popular culture.  During my last visit to Las Vegas, I took some time to 3-D scan some of the Egyptian sculptures at the Luxor Casino itself. I used the Structure Scanner attachment for an iPad Mini 4 to record various components of the Treasures of Egypt exhibit at LVNHM.

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Dr. Josh Bonde moves the Rhynchotherium skull so it can be 3D scanned.

After my tour, I met with Dr. Joshua Bonde, Assistant Professor in Residence for Paleontology at the University of Nevada Las Vegas to select some items for my initial 3-D scanning using the NextEngine Desktop 3-D scanner.

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Not on the list: 3-D scanning!

We selected some dinosaur fossils for 3-D scanning, and headed down to the Richard A. Ditton Learning Lab to set up the NextEngine scanner and I began 3-D scanning a metoposaur vertebra from an ancient salamander-type creature that reached up to 10-feet in length.

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Metoposaur vertebra

Over the next few days, I would 3-D scan a number of dinosaur bones from allosauroids to iguanodons. Dinosaurs, as I tell my Introduction to Archaeology students, are not the normal province of archaeologists, as they were extinct millions of years before the first erect walking ape made a stone tool.

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Nonetheless, I’ve always liked dinosaurs, so was happy to 3-D scan these fossils. Additionally, as Dr. Bonde and I discussed, the basic aims of public and research paleontology are not that dissimilar from that of public archaeology.

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Dinosaur vertebra from a possible new species

Laura Hansen, who joined us on my second day at LVNHM, noted that the type of outreach Dr. Bonde and I did for paleontology and archaeology, respectively, was part of what motivated the Smithsonian Affiliations to not only fund this trip but support and encourage links between all the Smithsonian Affiliates.

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Pleistocene camel or deer rib with possible cut marks.

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I did take some time to 3-D scan one possible cultural item, the rib of Pleistocene camel or deer that has possible cut marks made by using a stone tool. I also 3-D scanned the remains of a number of Ice Age animals that were present when humans first entered the Americas, but that are now extinct.

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Mammoth tooth

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Pleistocene camel phalanx

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Pleistocene camel metatarsal

These included a very large mastodon tooth, a rhynchotherium skull (a type of extinct elephant-like creature), Pleistocene camel leg and foot bones, and a dire wolf toe bone.

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Dire wolf metacarpal

The dire wolf toe bone is the only remnant of this species in Nevada and was identified through the research of Dr. Bonde. The rhynchotherium skull, which came from Arizona, was donated to LVNHM.

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Our visit was covered by reporter John Przybys of the Las Vegas Review-Journal in an excellent article entitled “Scientist makes 3-D images of artifacts from Las Vegas museum to share online.” The characterization of my being “an artist of sorts who works in the media of digital imagery and, sometimes, bones” in the opening paragraph I think is a very apt one.

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VCU students Madelyn Knighting and Adam Blakemore hold 3D printed rhynchotherium skulls.

Since I left Las Vegas, I’ve begun a new semester at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and my students and I are working to translate our 3-D scan data into models that can be shared via the internet. In fact, we have a special collection devoted to LVNHM on our Sketchfab site, which you can find here. With new and returning VCU undergraduate interns, we’ll spend part of the coming months translating these digital models back into a tangible format via 3-D printing. Unlike the original bones and fossils, these replicas can be handled and studied by the thousands of school children who visit LVNHM every year.

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