Operations Manager at Sustainable Archaeology: Western

Sustaining the practice of archaeology in Ontario, Canada

This is our 3rd year participating in Day of Archaeology, and we are excited, once again, to be joining our colleagues in this virtual space to share with you some of the diverse experiences archaeologists have over the course of a regular day.

This year, we want to focus on the sorts of technology we have available here at Sustainable Archaeology: Western University. Most of the equipment in our new facility is for non-destructive image capture and analysis: 3D scanners, 3D printer, digital x-ray, microCT scanner, etc. We are fortunate, as archaeologists, to have a single location with dedicated access to equipment such as this! On any given day, several pieces of equipment will be in use by different researchers. Today, a couple of a staff members – Hillary and Heather – have been working on chipping away the outer “envelope” of a 3D printed cuneiform tablet to reveal the inner tablet for the first time in over 4,000 years! But to explain how we got to this point, let’s start from the beginning.

Cuneiiform tablet_small

Sustainable Archaeology was built adjacent to the Museum of Ontario Archaeology in London, Ontario, Canada. The Museum houses a variety of collections, predominantly from Ontario but there are some international antiquities that were acquired by the mid-20th century curator of the Museum, including a small collection of cuneiform tablets. One of those tablets was suspected to be an Old Babylonian “envelope” tablet – a cuneiform tablet nested inside of a cuneiform tablet. But how to tell without breaking the tablet open? Sustainable Archaeology had a solution – we scanned the tablet in the microCT scanner. Sure enough, there was evidence that another tablet was enfolded within the outer layer of clay – and it appeared to have cuneiform writing on it as well!

cuneiform envelope 009_mCT

With microCT imaging software, VG Studio, Hillary painstakingly ‘excavated’, or peeled-off, the outer layer of clay. This was a tricky process, because CT images differentiate material based on the density of voxels in a 3D dimensional space – metal, for instance, is much more dense and thus appears much ‘whiter’ than wood. But the clay ‘envelope’ was the same density as the enclosed clay tablet – so selecting which voxels to digitally peel-away from the region of interest was a labour intensive process. Hillary was able to do this because there was a slight void between the clay surfaces. This lead us to an idea – if we 3D printed the tablet, would the void still be intact? In which case, wouldn’t we be able to break the outer tablet off of the inner tablet?

So for our second experiment, we did just that. We digitally cut the cuneiform tablet in half, so we could see the inside structure(s), and we we printed off that cuneiform half on the 3D printer. Sure enough, the void was there – but it was very thin. In order to create more void space – an area that would be filled with printer powder but no binder would be laid down – we scaled up the size of the tablet to double its original size. Then we printed it off and got to work chipping off the external ‘envelope’ – to reveal a clear, sharp cuneiform surface on the embedded tablet. Success!

tablet_excavating

tablet_excavated

 

We are constantly envisioning ways that the equipment we have here at SA can complement one another. Colin is next door in the Collaboration Room with the Virtual Reality equipment. He is working on an application that allows us to digitally pick up, move, throw and stack digital assets that we’ve scanned on our 3D scanners (such as pots!) within a virtual reality space. This way, as you are immersed within a virtual reconstruction of a Lawson site longhouse, such as that created by Western PhD candidate Michael Carter, while wearing a set of 3D goggles such as Oculus Rift of HTC Vive, you will also be able to digitally engage with objects within that virtual space.

For more information on what we do at Sustainable Archaeology, check out our website at www.sustainablearchaeology.org. You can also follow us on Instagram @sustarchaeology or Twitter @SustArchaeology.

Sustainable Archaeology: Collections preservation & digitization

Archaeologists come on many varieties. Hi! I’m Rhonda, and the bulk of my own archaeological training and graduate work prepared me for a career in academic archaeology – teaching and training, conducting field-schools and researching my collections. The position I ultimately found myself in – as the Project and Operations Manager of a high-capacity archaeological storage facility and innovative digital research laboratory – had a sharp new learning curve. Today, instead of spending time with my colleagues out in the field excavating and collecting archaeological artifacts, I spend my days managing the long-term curation of those collections and enabling their accessibility and research-ability through traditional as well as new and innovative means.

The Sustainable Archaeology facility at Western University (there are two facilities that were established as a part of this project, the other is a McMaster University) was designed to hold over 54,000 boxes of artifacts at full capacity. Our partners at McMaster will house 30,000 boxes. All of the artifacts in those boxes will be added to a digital database, part of an “Informational Platform” that is being developed to showcase the spatial, temporal and object variables of each artifact in the collections, along with its associated records. A typical day at our facilities can involve accepting such a collection into our care, re-packaging a collection to meet our long-term archival standards, adding tracking capabilities to that collection, digitizing the associated records of that collection or entering the information from that collection into the digital database.

SA: Western shelving

SA: Western shelving

Beyond collections management, SA: Western has built a state-of-the-art digitization lab showcasing equipment such as a micro-CT scanner, digital x-ray, white-light and red-laser 3D scanners, a digital microscope, a 3D powder-based printer for full-colour replication as well as a series of innovative VR equipment including Oculus Rift, LEAP motion, and HP Sprout. The aim of this laboratory is not simply to provide new and engaging means of presenting content, but to provide researchers, descendent communities and interested laypersons with new tools to enable a broader depth of archaeological understanding, engagement and interpretation. A typical day in the lab could include anything from graduate students utilizing the microCT scanner to interpret clay vessel manufacture or Jesuit ring construction, to a researcher scanning a projectile point on one of the 3D scanners so that a scaled-up replica can be printed off on the 3D printer. We currently have a PhD candidate – Michael Carter – working on methods of 3D reconstructing Iroquoian longhouses. These reconstructed dwellings will be digital assets that we will incorporate into a gaming platform that will allow us to create an immersive environment that we can engage with by wearing a VR headset such an the Oculus Rift and hand motion sensors such as LEAP motion.

Lawson Site immersive environment screen capture

Today at Sustainable Archaeology: Western, we have one of our local CRM companies visiting to float soil samples in our flotation machine. Dr. Andrew Nelson, from the Anthropology Department at the University of Western Ontario, is using the microCT scanner to scan an old family heirloom – a gold coin from Peru. Two of the database team members have been working out how to capture artifact metadata, and myself and a summer student have been trying to work through some colour replication discrepancies between 3D scan capture and 3D printing. Behind all of that, though, are the day-to-day activities that keep this archaeological research facility and artifact repository running smoothly – requesting quotes for some final pieces of equipment, ensuring health and safety standards are up-to-date by running a safety check on the mobile shelving, arranging for some maintenance to the facility to ensure that conditions in the shelving area remain stable, and answering inquiries from those interested in storing their collections at our facility in the near future. All in a day’s work!

Day of Archaeology at Sustainable Archaeology

Hi! I am Dr. Rhonda Bathurst, Facility Manager here at Sustainable Archaeology: Western. Kira Westby is our Administrative Assistant. Together we’ll be sharing what a general day is like here at our state-of-the-art research and curation facility!

Left to right: Rhonda, chained to her desk for the day (Halloween 2013), and Kira, celebrating a delivery of packing foam at the facility (winter 2014)

Left to right: Rhonda, chained to her desk for the day (Halloween 2013), and Kira, celebrating a delivery of packing foam at the facility (winter 2014)

Sustainable Archaeology: Western is an off-campus facility of the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, Canada under the Direction of Dr. Neal Ferris. Together with our partners at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, we consolidate archaeological collections from across Ontario both physically in our two repositories, and (perhaps more importantly) digitally, in our web-based database. To learn more about the particulars of Sustainable Archaeology – our funding bodies, mandate, policies, and more, be sure to visit our website.

As a relatively new facility (we have existed as an actual building for only three years this September), there are still a number of daily challenges to meet, from administering the grant that funds the project, to purchasing and maintaining equipment for our labs. We are also developing policies and protocol for managing over 80,000 boxes of artifacts that our project will physically curate between both facilities. One of our current areas of focus is the development of our informational platform. We have four staff members on site on any given day, three of who spend most of their day on database development – including Kira, who wears several hats around here! We also have four work study students and a broad array of researchers, grad students and others who filter through our doors on a daily basis – we’ll introduce you as they drop in!

 Administration

As an Archaeologist, my background informs decisions that are made here in regards to equipment, space utilization, and research opportunities. But Administration is my day-to-day. I start each day by going over the daily and weekly calendar with Kira – we discuss what appointments to expect and what our goals are for the week. Today we’ve got a lot on the agenda! First we’ll need to go through our email, and then prepare for a work study orientation session. We’ll have to watch for a grad student who will be coming in to do some research on the microCT scanner. Our 3D scanning & printing Lab Technician, Nelson, will be in today as well working on setting up mounting methods for the white-light laser scanners up in our Research Mezzanine. We’ll need to keep an eye out for Western Facilities Management and Western ITS, both of whom will be in to install an additional power outlet and network connection in our Collaboration Room in preparation for our new Videoconferencing equipment that will be delivered in a few weeks. I have a Purchase Order I need to submit today for some new computer furnishings and a vendor I need to speak to about setting up a proactive pest monitoring system for the storage area. There are two meetings I have to schedule with other Administrators in the Western Support Services Building to discuss the ongoing administration of our grant funds. Kira will likely squeeze in some temperature and humidity readings, as she does every other week, to monitor the conditions of our storage room. I’ll need to remind the cleaning service that we are due for our quarterly window cleaning. And at some point, I will need to finish up some vacuuming around the facility. If we’re lucky, we’ll spy some deer in the ravine from our Collaboration Room. Those are some of the things we are aware of as we start the day, but each day brings new developments. On the surface, it all seems to have little to do with archaeology, but without these tasks, this facility would cease to be or to function.

Database Development

For over 2 years, the database crew have started their day working on code. As we enter our final stages of beta testing, the focus now is on tweaking the small things such as the layout of the online data entry forms, wording, even colours. We have a number of volunteers working with the database crew to test functionality and work-flow both in-house and externally. Today the focus of attention is on developing a tagging system for boxes in our inventory management, and solving coding bugs that have appeared in our data entry sections. Later in the day, our Facility Director, Dr. Neal Ferris will meet with the database development team to go over issues and questions arising over the last week. On the agenda – user interface, managing loans, and edits to the variables recorded for artifacts.

Work Study Students

With the end of summer classes, we have an influx of four new Western work-study students joining our ranks for the next couple of months. This morning, Kira and I will be providing an orientation for them that will outline everything from what to do in the event of a fire drill to how to pack boxes, recognize artifacts and enter data into the database. We will explain to them how we plan to inventory and track over 80,000 boxes of artifacts, and we will demonstrate how we’re utilizing 2D barcodes to aid with organization, tracking and data entry.

Work Study student at SA: Western in the collections repository.

Work Study student at SA: Western in the collections repository.

Research at Sustainable Archaeology

Our micro-CT scanner and its water-cooling unit are humming mechanically in the background of the Ancient Images Laboratory as Amy St. John, a PhD student in Anthropology at Western, works on scanning pieces of First People’s pottery that are several hundred years old. Amy’s thesis aims to differentiate different types of pottery temper used in the construction of these vessels. This will inform her about 1) different methods of pottery construction and 2) different styles of construction that may, in turn, allow her to hypothesize about who was making different styles of pottery and how wide spread they were throughout the region.

PhD Student Amy working on the microCT scanner

PhD Student Amy working on the microCT scanner

Meanwhile across the pond, Dr. Andrew Nelson, an affiliate of the SA and primary user of the microCT and digital x-ray, is on holiday in the other London, in England. Today he is visiting the company that built our microCT scanner. For the past few days he’s been spending time at the British Museum, working on a collaborative project with the Art Gallery of Ontario to scan medieval prayer beads. You can follow Andrew’s progress on our Twitter feed or on our blog, where we’ll be highlighting his adventures!

The Museum of Ontario Archaeology

Located adjacent to our new facility is the well-established Museum of Ontario Archaeology, which has been here since the early 1980’s. Staff from the Museum pass by with a cart full of boxes formerly housed in their offsite storage, now cleaned and repackaged to our standards and ready to be housed in the SA repository.

Wrap Up

It’s been a full day and we’re starting to wrap things up here. Our work study students survived their orientation relatively unscathed, and are wiser about how archaeology is done here in the province as well as how we aim to care for those collections over the long term here at Sustainable Archaeology. Dr. Ferris and the database team had a productive meeting this afternoon, and it’s exciting to see the database coming into shape – we’ll soon be entering data! The mCT scanner was humming all day as Amy worked through some trouble-spots she was experiencing as she learns to scan this particular material, while Nelson was busy calibrating scans and software on the 3D scanners in the mezzanine all afternoon. Dr. Nelson, over in the UK, reports he had a great visit with Andrew Ramsey at Nikon Metrology, and will be bringing home some valuable new tips and tricks on how to use our microCT XTH225 XT unit (not a bad way to spend a birthday  – enjoy a pint for us – Happy Birthday Andrew!).

Microscopic view of a whipworm egg

Microscopic view of a whipworm egg

I managed to get enough administrative tasks done today that I even managed to squeeze in a bit of training on our new Nikon SMZ25 digital microscope, to flex some of my analytical research muscles! Kira and I have gone over our preliminary calendar for next week, so that we are prepared and know what to expect when we return to work first thing on Monday morning. Thanks to all our fellow Archaeologists for sharing their day’s activities – there is so much more to archaeology than digging!

If you would like to keep in touch with more of our day-to-day experiences, please follow our blog http://sustainablearchaeologyuwo.blogspot.ca/