A Giant Ground Sloth is 2 ½ Fourth Graders Tall

By Bernard K. Means, Director, Virtual Curation Laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University

Go to any public archaeology event or even an academically oriented archaeology conference, and you will probably see at least one button, shirt, or even a ball cap emblazoned with an image of a dinosaur (probably a Tyrannosaurus rex) contained within a thick red circle and bisected by a thick red line.

Below or surrounding that image might be the words “Archaeologists Don’t Dig Dinosaurs.” I use this image myself on my first day of lecturing in my Introduction to Archaeology course each semester. One of the basic messages that I try to impart on that first day is that archaeologists are not paleontologists.

3D scanning a bone from an enslaved context at VMNH pictured is Dr Elizabeth Moore
3D scanning a bone from an enslaved context at VMNH pictured is Dr Elizabeth Moore. Image by author.

We might like dinosaurs or other prehistoric animals, but if those animals lived before or did not interact with humans or their hominid ancestors, those “terrible lizards” and other ancient creatures fall outside of our purview. I also warn any budding archaeologist that they will get asked, probably by a relative and certainly by a member of the public, if they have “found any dinosaurs yet?” after their first, second, third, ad nauseam, dig.

However, I’ve begun to rethink over the last few months that image of the dinosaur struck out in red.

This reassessment of the phrase “Archaeologists Don’t Dig Dinosaurs” has grown out of my work in the Virtual Curation Laboratory with various natural history museums, notably the Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH) in Martinsville, Virginia, the Western Science Center (WSC) in Hemet, California, and the Las Vegas Natural History Museum (LVNHM), not surprisingly in Las Vegas, New Mexico.

Beginning at VMNH, I found fossils creeping into what I 3D scanned. Paleontologists at that museum asked if I would not mind scanning the occasional fossil in between artifact scans, such as Miocene whale vertebrae, a lungfish bone from Chile, or various Ice Age animals. In fact, for VMNH right now, I am 3D printing mirrored 3D scans of giant ground sloth bones—VMNH has lefts and rights and needs rights and lefts.

3d scanning a prehistoric camel skull at WSC
3D scanning a prehistoric camel skull. Image by author.

I’ve actually been 3D scanning and 3D printing quite a few Ice Age animal bones over the last year. In addition to the aforementioned giant ground sloth bones from VMNH, I have 3D scanned giant beaver (VMNH), mastodon (VMNH, WSC, and a private collection), mammoth (VMNH, WSC, LVMNH), short- faced bear (WSC), American camel (WSC, LVMNH) and dire wolf (LVMNH)—yes dire wolves were once real and not just something made up for Game of Thrones. These animals are all now extinct—and these fossils do potentially represent an overlap between archaeology and paleontology as these animals all lived at the time after humans entered the Americas. Some scenarios even argue that humans are partly or solely responsible for the extinction of these Ice Age megafauna (e.g. big animals!). But, the dinosaur bones I 3D scanned at LVMNH or the dinosaur tracks I 3D scanned at VMNH well predate the presence of humans in the Americas or anywhere across the globe, as dinosaurs went extinct millions of years before humans first evolved.

3D scanning an allosauroid vertebra at LVMNH
3D scanning an allosauroid vertebra at LVMNH. Image by author.


So, why bring up dinosaurs, or even the fossils of Ice Age animals from contexts not associated with human activity? This is because I increasingly find myself in settings that are less archaeology oriented, but more focused on how 3D technologies—particularly 3D printing—can help inform the past. And, I am talking to audiences that are generally interested in the past—whether the human past or an even deeper past. I want to encourage and celebrate this interest, this fascination with science, and not be quite so pedantic about, ”Well, no, I don’t do dinosaurs, ask someone else.” Paleontologists, as well as archaeologists, are also interested in public outreach and share our goal of teaching people about the past—our disciplinary differences are important, but I think we need to sometimes blur these boundaries.

3D scanning maeve foster
Scanning Maeve Foster.

Which gets me to the title of this blog. On May 1, 2017, I was invited to speak to the soon-to-be retired Judith Fitzpatrick’s fourth grade class about applications of 3D printing, and I brought along a wide selection of recent 3D prints, including artifacts from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and India, animal bones from archaeological and modern contexts, and various fossils, including a giant ground sloth claw. I also had with me a 3D print of a 4th grader—Maeve Foster—who had interviewed me the previous month for her class, as she is interested in 3D printing. Maeve was out ill that day, but her fellow classmates were fascinated that she was there in miniature 3D-printed form, and they placed her figure on her desk. The students really liked the opportunity to handle the replicated objects, and to discuss their significance.

3D printed giant ground sloth claw
3D printed giant sloth claw. Image by author.


maeve foster 3D
3D printed Maeve Foster. Image by author.

They were also glad to find out that they could download and 3D print some of the objects from our Sketchfab site. One of the items that I passed around that was of great interest was a 3D printed giant ground sloth claw, 3D scanned originally at VMNH. A young 4th grader asked how tall giant ground sloths were, relative to 4th graders. 4th graders not being a standard measure in archaeology or paleontology, I asked if one of the students would offer up their height. A young girl quickly stated that she was 4 feet tall. So, this makes the extinct giant ground sloth 2 ½ 4th graders tall.

setting up 3D prints at Short Pump elementary school
Setting up 3D prints at Short Pump Elementary School.

I certainly think the future of public archaeology—and public paleontology—as well as educational applications will be found in the chirping and beeping of the 3D printer. For more on educational applications of 3D printing, I refer the reader to this recent blog: Enhancing archaeological research with 3D printing.

In the Virtual Curation Laboratory, a team of Virginia Commonwealth University undergraduate students and alumni works under project director Dr. Bernard K. Means to digitally preserve the past and share it with the world. Check out and download digital artifact models on our Sketchfab page.

Nephelococcygia (Cloud Watching) for Public Outreach

One of the limitations I often face when using 3D technology for public outreach is the still very small database of models to pull from. The process for creating a 3D model of an artifact or site is time consuming and most of us simply do not have time to model everything we would like too. Therefore, it is in our best interest to find ways of making 3D technology more appealing to our peers in other branches of archaeology. For this post, I tested the CloudCompare software and found that it has a lot of potential.

Testing the Program

Recently, the American Civil War monument that I used as a subject for my first photogrammetry model was knocked over. The Sons of the Confederacy group here in Tallahassee, Florida believe that it was accidently hit by a work vehicle and was not intentional vandalism. I saw this as a perfect opportunity to test out CloudCompare and see what changes might have occurred to the monument.

The CloudCompare software overlays the point cloud you get from either photogrammetry or laser scanning the original model

on another version

to get a very nice visual comparison of the two. This is the first version using CloudCompare:

Note the blue in the center of the monument, indicating little change, and the red edges, suggesting a lot of change. For this first comparison, I aligned the base and this revealed that the marker’s position had changed (it is now set more square than before). This is something that I had missed while photographing and looking at the models separately. If you click on annotation 3 we can very nicely see the new footprint for the marker on its base. This also might explain why I could not get CloudCompare’s auto-alignment feature to work like I was expecting.

Also in this comparison you can see the two large chips (marked by annotation 1) that were removed from the base. While these show up, comparing the base is problematic as the original model had a lot of grass growing right next to the stone, and the recent version has the glass cleared away. This resulted in a lot of false positives when looking for damage on the base.

Since it was the marker that was knocked over though, I really wanted to see how that had changed. After aligning the face of the models, I got some more interesting results.

The first thing you might notice is that the top edge of the plaque and the edge of the oval on the plaque are red. I suspect that what we are seeing is one version of the models not generating this edge very well.

Annotation 2 highlights another piece of damage that I had previously missed in the form of a new notch in the marker’s edge. If you look back at the new version of the completed model, these notches look pretty uniform and this marker has been moved before. This makes me wonder if the equipment used to hoist the stone is causing this damage.

Also note that the cosmetic damage to the plaque does not show up. I was hoping that the program might track color changes as well, but you cannot have everything. Also, a chip missing out of the top-front edge that is not highlighted as much as it probably should be. I suspect some fiddling with settings should make this pop out more.


As a test, this monument was the perfect subject. I saw the changes that I expected to see, saw changes I had missed, and learned about some of the limitations of CloudCompare. The potential for this program as a research tool for documenting sites and artifacts is pretty obvious. However, I see a more direct use in our public outreach programs as well.

In particular, the Florida Public Archaeology Network has a program called Heritage Monitoring Scouts where we are organizing public volunteers to help monitor coastal sites that are threatened by sea level rise. If we were to train certain volunteers to take pictures for photogrammetry purposes, we could use CloudCompare to help document the degradation of these resources over time. This would be very useful information and I suspect that participants would find it rewarding as well.

Any other ideas? How would you use this software?

Tristan Harrenstein is trained as an archaeologist and has a passion for outreach and education. This is fortunate as he is also an employee of the Florida Public Archaeology Network, an organization dedicated to promoting the preservation and appreciation of our archaeological resources. He shares a blog space with his boss (Barbara Clark) and you can read more blog posts on other archaeology related subjects that tickle our fancy here.

Incorporating 3D Models into FPAN Curriculum

At the Florida Public Archaeology Network’s East Central office we have been hard at work adapting 3D modeled and printed objects into curriculum based on artifacts recovered from the Kingsley Plantation National Park Site, a former slave plantation in northeast Florida. FPAN and the Kingsley Plantation host an annual workshop for teachers to introduce Project Archaeology curriculum and the site-specific supplemental, Investigating a Tabby Slave Cabin . The supplemental curriculum uses the archaeological investigations of one of the plantation’s slave cabins as the framework for discussing how archaeologists investigate shelter.  One of the educational aids used in teaching the curriculum is a floor mat based on plan drawings of the site. Teachers and students then use paper cutouts of artifacts recovered from the site. While this is a neat idea, the problem is that paper cutouts are not terribly engaging to adults, let alone children.

Participants in the Project Archaeology workshop that takes place at the Kingsley Plantation work together to recreate an archaeological site to learn how archaeologists investigate the concept of shelter. Here, they are using cut-outs of artifact drawings to replace them into their original context.

A real improvement to the curriculum could be made if the paper cutouts were replaced with 3D printed models. FPAN requested access to a portion of the Kingsley Plantation artifacts from the National Park Service which were housed at the University of Florida. This portion of the collection is currently a part of ongoing research of the site under the direction of Dr. James Davidson, who directed the archaeological research upon which the FPAN curriculum is based.  One thousand photos in eighteen sets later, I was ready to start on the real work of photogrammetry

(Left) author Jeffery Robinson collects pictures for processing. (Right) Example of 360 round-table set-up for photography of artifacts.

The program that I used for photogrammetric rendering was Agisoft Photoscan, as it is the standard program for this use in the archaeological community. Now, because we had used a lightbox to shoot the artifacts in, masking the photos became a necessity. Trying to process without the masks caused Agisoft to render the model incorrectly. I also found several other reasons for errors in rendering: sharp edges, flat surfaces, reflective surfaces, and differences in lighting. Due to this and other errors, only twelve of the eighteen photosets were able to be completed. Those models can be viewed, and pending NPS review, downloaded  here.

04 (1)
All of the completed models as shown on The models will be available for view/download pending NPS review.

After uploading, I printed out the models on a Makerbot 5th Generation Replicator. This is a great machine for printing out good quality models and is pretty user friendly too. After a short experimentation period to get it set up right, I was able to print out all of the models. The models were then sanded down with a dremel to provide a nice even surface. The models were then painted to provide more realism, as no one wants to look at a boring grey model.  Hopefully we will soon be able to send kits of these objects out to go with the curriculum sometime in the future.

(Top left) 3D models are printed on a Makerbot 3D printer. (Top right) the printed, plastic 3D models. (Bottom) The author applies acrylic paint to the models.


Jeffery Robinson has a B.A. in Anthropology from the University of Central Florida. He has been volunteering at FPAN’s East Central office for the past year.

Autodesk ReMake – Review

Over the last couple years, we have seen the 3D archaeology community grow at an incredible rate. As awareness for the potential of these tools has grown, I have been asked several times about the best way to get started. Depending on their need, I generally recommended Agisoft PhotoScan as the current standard in archaeology circles. With PhotoScan they can get lots of help, flexibility in subject scale, few limitations, high accuracy, it is relatively easy to use, and it has recently come down in price.

However, to anyone currently looking to get into photogrammetry for interpretive and educational purposes, I have a new recommendation. Autodesk ReMake is perfect for any program that just needs to make a model of an object without investing too much time and money.


The professional version of ReMake currently runs at $30 a month or $300 a year. You could compare this to PhotoScan’s regular professional license of $3499, but they are really not related. A more appropriate comparison is to PhotoScan’s standard license which is currently available for one-time fee of $179. As a result, ReMake really does not make financial sense at this level.

However, ReMake has a free or educational license which makes it worth considering. There are features that are available in the full version that are not in these licenses. For example, neither can freely use “Ultra quality” images (though I have not had any issues) and the free version is limited to 50 photos (though you can do an awful lot with 50 photos). For the rest of this post, I will be talking about these two licenses.

Making a Model

If you want to get an idea of what it takes to make a model in PhotoScan, I suggest checking out the guide I assembled here. ReMake simplifies this process immensely. You merely select your photos, name the model, decide if you want their auto crop or smart texture options, and then hit “Start.” As we are working with the free or educational licenses, the program will then upload your photos to a cloud, process them, and then notify you when your model is available to download.

It really is that simple. There are some limited editing options for a finished model, but I have not had much need for them. As you can see, the results are excellent and more than serviceable. Occasionally, I have gotten ReMake to assemble a model that PhotoScan could not figure out.



For ReMake features and limitations go hand-in-hand. If you are using one of the free licenses then you only have the option of using the cloud for processing your model, you cannot create it on your computer (locally). If you are like me, this is perfect because my computer struggles to do anything while a PhotoScan model is processing. Also, unlike programs such as 123D Catch you still retain full rights to your model.

If you want a fully 3D object in ReMake (one with a completed bottom) then you will have to use a second program to assemble it like Blender or MeshLab. Technically, you can do this in PhotoScan which automatically stitches two models together to create a complete model. In practice, this has been far more finicky so I do not expect to miss it.

Finally, there is no masking option in ReMake. This means that, if your background is not out of focus, you will run into problems. On the other hand, this will cause difficulties in PhotoScan too, though you can overcome them with effort. That being said, the model below turned out pretty well, and this is one that PhotoScan struggles to make sense of.


ReMake is a much simpler and more accessible program than PhotoScan. This naturally means that you have less control over your model and you have fewer options. If a model does not turn out well, for example, you do not have the option of spending hours trying to manipulate the program to get a result (which actually appeals to me somewhat). On the other hand, if you have a casual, non scientific project where you just need a model for a demonstration or for printing, it is excellent.

Tristan Harrenstein is trained as an archaeologist and has a passion for outreach and education. This is fortunate as he is also an employee of the Florida Public Archaeology Network, an organization dedicated to promoting the preservation and appreciation of our archaeological resources. He shares a blog space with his boss (Barbara Clark) and you can read more blog posts on other archaeology related subjects that tickle our fancy here.

World History, PBL, and 3D Archaeology

Reading about archaeology and museums and ancient civilizations can be a lot like reading about anything else at school – some kids might find it moderately interesting, while others probably would not. But what if students could play the role of archaeologists and museum curators, researching and creating their own museum exhibits using the very latest in super-cool modern technology?

I teach a World History survey course to 8th graders in Fredericksburg, Virginia. The scope of the content covers time from the Paleolithic Era to 1500 CE, and in the first few weeks of school, students are introduced as much to the study of history as to the content. In a virtual meeting with an archaeologist, my co-teacher and I got the idea for a Project-Based Learning (PBL) experience, culminating with a museum exhibit, complete with 3d-printed artifacts and augmented reality software, to showcase their learning to their parents. Below is the outline of the PBL.

The Entry Events:

img_3330I. Meeting with a Professional:

During the first month of school, students met (via Google Hangouts) a real archaeologist, Sarah Miller, and were introduced to the field, learning how the science of archaeology helps us understand the past. Miller told us about her work and shared how new advancements in technology improve knowledge of the past. (The Standard of Learning related to this lesson states, “Students will be able to explain how archaeological discoveries are changing present-day knowledge of early peoples.”) She discussed how archaeologists can get a replica of artifacts as 3d printables,
and sent us this picture of a Sumerian ziggurat. She said scans of the ziggurat and thousands of other ancient artifacts were available for free in museum libraries on the img_7400internet. Anyone can download them and print the artifacts in 3d (though of course many would be miniature versions of the originals, since few people have pyramid-sized 3d printers.)

II. Teacher’s Personal Experience with a Museum:

Last summer, I visited the Louvre and I showed students some pictures, sharing with them how meaningful it was for me to see artifacts from civilizations I have taught about for years (civilizations they are about to study — Mesopotamia). I then introduced the Museum project: Students would create a museum exhibit on a civilization or topic and have the opportunity to choose an artifact to print using our school’s 3d printer.

III. School Vision: Involving stakeholders

We are a school that needs our parents to feel connected, so I invited Mrs. Frazier, our principal, to talk to students about how much we want their parents to feel welcome at our school. She expressed that students can help by inviting their own parents to see their museum exhibit on Parent Teacher Conference Night.


Phase 1: Introducing the topic

img_3817I introduced the task and driving question for students, “How do we as museum staff create an exhibit to show the achievements of our topic?” Topics included empires of Mesopotamia, kingdoms of Egypt, and empires and religions of classical India. Our Instructional Technology Resource Teacher (ITRT) and I used the book Learning on Display to help us organize the process and create rubrics for assessment. We began with a Gallery Walk and students reflected on the following:

  • What is a Museum?
  • Why do we have museums?
  • What makes museums engaging for 8th graders?

Phase 2: Research

img_3853Students completed a research guide to learn more details about the society they were studying and determine what made their topic historically significant.

The teachers created questions directing students to find information aligned with the Virginia Standards of Learning (what students are supposed to be learning).

Phase 3: Exhibit Planning

img_3867Students planned their exhibit, and considered these questions:

  • How will we show what is important to remember about our topic?
  • How will we get visitors to experience our story?
  • What will our completed exhibit look like?
  • Will our exhibit work?

img_3865In groups, students showed their plan on large paper so that they could receive feedback from fellow students to inform their revisions.

After the plans were posted, students completed a gallery walk, viewing their peers’ plans to offer feedback that should be specific, helpful and kind. Students used post-it notes, and based on the protocol I learned at Buck Institute, they were given sentence starters: I like to commend an idea, I wonder to ask clarifying questions, and I have to offer a suggestion.

Upon being asked to reflect on the gallery walk, one student said, “criticism is not all bad. . .this is helpful!”

img_3873One group said, “we didn’t get a lot of helpful feedback” so they asked if they could present their plan to the whole class. I thought this was so powerful for students to put themselves “out there” for help.

After receiving feedback, students revised their plans, and were ready to put it all together.

Phase 4: Writing a Label Copy

img_3837Before students were able to print their artifact and set up their exhibit, the label copies were written to help their visitors understand the key points of their display, including the relevance of the artifact. The idea of creating the label copy before the creation of the exhibit is that if they waited until after the exhibit was done, they would be too excited to calm down and “write,” BUT it was wonderful to see them edit several times before the final copy was finished.

Phase 5: Constructing the Exhibit

This was the most exciting part for the students as they saw their research, plans, revision and ideas come to fruition.

Not all students chose to print a 3d artifact; a few students used the program Aurasma, making the exhibits interactive.

Here are a few comments from the students:

img_3959PBL was very good at teaching students to research on a focus and create project that not only teaches the student but others as well. The 3-D printer is a great way to create an artifact since most students can’t go around an archaeological dig. The 3-D printer is also good to create an artifact if a student’s focus was not able to have any historical artifacts. We didn’t really learn about archaeology in the PBL, but Archaeology was taught throughout depending on each focus project. Archaeology and artifacts helped us learn about what influenced the people of the time and what their life was like. – Paulo Pulido

img_3956I liked using a 3d printer because it creates a visual. I learned that archaeology is very time consuming and you have to be patient.

I think using a 3D printer for an artifact is a great idea. It makes the project more hands on.

img_3965On the last day of the project, as students were busily putting their exhibits up, some leaders from the school board – including Dr. Scott Baker, Superintendent and Mr. Keith Wolfe, Executive Director of Secondary Education and Leadership – observed the students preparing their exhibits. They were so intrigued by what we were doing they came back the next night for Parent-Teacher Conference night to see the students showcase their projects. Most of our parents came to interact with their students as they demonstrated their learning of their topic in history as well as the authentic tasks of creating a museum exhibit using real-life tools of the trade in archaeology.  

img_3964As an 8th-grade teacher, I may see 4-5 parents a couple times a year for “Conference Nights,” but more than 40 families came to interact with their children as students shared their learning.

This experience was an opportunity for students to see the relevance of history in a 21st-century setting, where they combined modern technology with the old-fashioned skills of inquiry and collaboration.


Sarah Bates King has been teaching for 15 years and has spent most of her career in World History with 8th graders. In 2012, she attended the National Social Studies conference, where she reconnected with a college friend, Sarah Miller,  an archaeologist. Since that time, they have made it a point to have a yearly virtual field trip to introduce urban students to archaeology in real life. She is very passionate about the study of human history and the humanities, and instills in her students the love of History. Outside of teaching, she enjoys relaxing with yoga retreats, running and spending time with her husband and two girls. In her downtime, she processes and reflects with posts to her blog about teaching in light of motherhood and a personal blog about life.