Challenging Archaeology through Virtual Curation and 3D Printing


I’m a part-time mastodon detective

For this Day of Archaeology post, I’m not going to focus on what I am currently doing—which is preparing for the Valley of Mastodons workshop and exhibit next week at the Western Science Center in Hemet, California.  That event is more paleontological than archaeological in nature, although humans and mastodons did interact after the former arrived in the New World and before the latter became extinct. Rather, I want to discuss two major initiatives that the Virtual Curation Laboratory (VCL) that I direct is simultaneously pursuing, and that will occupy quite a bit of my time and that of my Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) students over the next academic year.

3D scanning a bone at George Washington’s Mount Vernon

3D scanning a brick with impressions of an enslaved laborer’s fingers at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest

3D scanning a bone at James Madison’s Montpelier

3D scanning a wig hair curler at George Washington’s Ferry Farm

The first initiative is one related to work we have been doing since shortly after the VCL was founded in August 2011. We are currently partnering with the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (VFH) on a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)—yes, that’s still around—to increase the digital content of VFH’s Encyclopedia Virginia. The VCL is providing 3D digital models of artifacts 3D scanned from enslaved contexts that can also be downloaded by researchers and educators.  This summer, I have made return visits to George Washington’s Ferry Farm, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest and the Virginia Museum of Natural History to 3D laser scan artifacts associated with enslavement. Some of these 3D models can be found on our Sketchfab site in a special collection ( We are also working with VFH on making 3D printing of these digital models easy enough for teachers to integrate into their classrooms.

Kimmy Drudge examines Braille from a 3D printed exhibit component

The other major initiative, and one that we made preliminary inroads into over a year ago, is creating interactive material, e.g. 3D printed, for visitors to the Virginia Historical Society (VHS)—with a special focus on those who are visually impaired and who have limited ability to appreciate the exhibits. The VCL and VHS have since teamed with VCU’s Leadership for Empowerment and Abuse Prevention (LEAP) and the Virginia Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired on a new project funded by VCU’s Council for Community Engagement to 3D scan and 3D print up to 100 items selected from the Story of Virginia exhibit at VHS.  These 3D digital models will also be made available online through a special section of our Sketchfab site.

We’ll likely be pursuing other public outreach efforts throughout the coming months—including some related to Ice Age animals.

—Bernard K.  Means