Friday, November 18, 2011

The Future of the Past is Now: 3D artifact scanning

Guest blogger Dr. Bernard Means

Our guest blogger is Dr. Bernard K. Means, of Virginia Commonwealth University.  Dr. Means is a repeat "guest blogger" and we welcome his overview of  new technology available for research and preservation of archaeological collections. 

Figure 1
         Clinton King of Virginia Commonwealth University

On November 4, 2011, the Virtual Curation Unit for Recording Archaeology Materials Systematically (V.C.U.-R.A.M.S.) arrived at The State Museum of Pennsylvania to create 3D topological models of artifacts in the museum’s collections. The team consisted of myself as project director and Clinton King, our digital curator (Figure 1). Clinton is also an undergraduate student in anthropology at Virginia Commonwealth University. We had with us our NextEngine 3D object scanner. The V.C.U.-R.A.M.S. project is currently funded by the Department of Defense’s Legacy Program and was developed in cooperation with John Haynes, archaeologist for Marine Corps Base Quantico. The Legacy Program’s overall goal is to test innovative approaches and technologies to foster preservation of cultural resources on their bases across the world. Our specific task with our virtual archaeology curation project is to test the possibilities and limitations of 3D artifact scanning as a way to preserve critical cultural resources and make the digital models we create accessible to a larger audience of scholars and the interested public.

We selected The State Museum of Pennsylvania as a place to test our 3D artifact scanner because we knew that the archaeology division holds a vast array of archaeological objects, some of which are over 10,000 years old. From my own experience, I also know that archaeology division personnel really know their collection well, are very open to having research conducted on these collections, and are very helpful in providing access. My thanks to Janet, Kurt, Dave, and Liz for their help with getting the materials we needed for scanning.

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Scanning of archaeological objects is a time-consuming process, so we selected a wide range of items to test the scanning process. We selected four items to scan: a snake skeleton still (largely) in its original soil matrix; a Monongahela pot; a Paleoindian point; and, a decorated sherd. The snake skeleton in soil matrix was recovered in 1941 from the Martin site, a Monongahela village once located in Fayette County, Pennsylvania—and now under the waters of the Youghiogheny Reservoir (Figure 2). The skeleton was recovered from above a burial. The skeleton was chosen for scanning because it represented a unique object—both bone and soil—and because it will eventually begin to break down. In fact, some vertebrae have fallen out of the soil matrix. One of the potential strengths of 3D scanning is the ability to preserve objects that are or eventually will decay. We also scanned a Monongahela pot from the Martin site which had been mended in 1941—and the mend is beginning to separate today.

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The Paleoindian point is from a site in Perry County, Pennsylvania. This point is important because it was recovered from between two radiocarbon-dated layers at the Wallis Site (36Pe16), part of the 11 & 15 Highway Project (Figure 3). Scanning of this point will allow scholars throughout the world study the object, without having to come to The State Museum to do so. With this and other objects, we can also potentially create resin models that could be used for study or educational purposes.

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Finally, we also scanned a sherd recovered from the Sugar Run Village site, located in Warren County, Pennsylvania (Figure 4). This sherd is associated with the Hopewell occupation of the site and was recovered by Seneca Indians in 1941, laboring as relief workers for the Civilian Conservation Corps. Clinton was able to process this sherd’s digital model, as well as the other three objects Friday night, and we were able to set up two laptops that allowed attendees at the Workshops in Archaeology at The State Museum on November 5 to manipulate these artifact digital models in multiple dimensions and see all facets of the objects—without having to endanger the real objects themselves (Figure 5). 3D digital scanning certainly is another great tool for making precious and fragile artifacts accessible to all citizens of Pennsylvania.

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More details about our project can be found at:

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

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