Printing a Plantation: Using Photogrammetry and 3D Printing to Bring Archaeology to the Public

Nestled among the dense forests and sprawling agricultural fields of Gloucester, Virginia is a little-known early Colonial property called Fairfield Plantation. Patented in 1648, Fairfield was the home of the Burwell family, one of the wealthiest and most politically influential families in Colonial Virginia. Their property reflected their prominent role in society, featuring a striking manor house and numerous outbuildings positioned at the heart of a substantial plantation. The house grew and evolved with the family over time, and remained home to the Burwells until they sold it in 1787. The property exchanged hands several times in the years that followed, until 1897 when the house burned and was left to ruin. Over a century later, Fairfield Foundation archaeologists are bringing new life to this important historic property using the latest innovations in 3D technology.

Figure 1
Historic photograph of the Fairfield Plantation manor house. (Courtesy of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)
Figure 2
Archaeologists working with Adventures in Preservation workshop participants at Fairfield Plantation. (Courtesy of the Fairfield Foundation)

The Fairfield Foundation is a non-profit organization headquartered in Gloucester, Virginia that has been promoting and involving the public in hands-on archaeology, preservation, and education activities within Virginia’s Middle Peninsula and surrounding areas since 2000. Their primary research site is Fairfield Plantation, where thousands of students, interns, and volunteers have learned about archaeology and colonial history at Fairfield Plantation, making it a valuable educational resource within our community.

Earlier this summer we initiated a project utilizing 3D technology to digitally record, reimagine, and recreate the historic landscape at Fairfield Plantation. Our goal is to develop an interactive 3D printed model that will bring the experience of archaeology to the community, and ultimately draw more attention and visitation to the site. Using a Phantom 4 Pro drone (affectionately named Major Tom), we have begun documenting the ruins and surrounding landscape by flying over the site and capturing hundreds of photographs, which are later transformed into highly detailed 3D models using Agisoft PhotoScan. These models will later be 3D printed to develop a tangible replica of the site.

Figure 3
3D model of a collapsed chimney at Fairfield Plantation. (Courtesy of the Fairfield Foundation)

What makes this project unique is that instead of having one solid model, we will be printing each test unit individually and repeating the documentation and printing process over time so that each layer we excavate in the field can be incorporated into the printed model as a removable piece. Members of the public will be able to take the model apart layer by layer and experience the same process of discovery that archaeologists do. We will also use the digital model as a basis for digitally reconstructing the house, which will be printed and incorporated into the replica. This replica will bring Fairfield Plantation to life, providing residents and visitors to Gloucester a chance to interact with the past and connect with local history. When finished, the model will be housed and publicly accessible at the Fairfield Foundation’s headquarters, the Center for Archaeology, Preservation, and Education (CAPE) in Gloucester Courthouse.

Figure 4
Ashley McCuistion flies the drone over the manor house ruins at Fairfield Plantation. (Courtesy of the Fairfield Foundation)

This project challenges people to experience history in a new, tangible way, and brings Fairfield Plantation into a local and global spotlight. Digital models and printed replicas of the site will be an integral part of lesson plans we will make available to individuals and classrooms around the world, drawing new attention to the rich history of Virginia as seen through Fairfield Plantation. It also brings the Fairfield Foundation new opportunities for public outreach and education, and places the organization at the forefront of a growing digital preservation movement in archaeology.

For future updates about this project, visit our blog at, and check out the 3D models we’ve produced of Fairfield Plantation at


Ashley McCuistion is an archaeologist with the Fairfield Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Gloucester, Virginia. In addition to being in the field, she is the Public Outreach Coordinator for the organization and Project Manager for the Fairfield Modeling Project. Ashley received her B.S. in Anthropology from Virginia Commonwealth University and her M.A. in Archaeology (pending thesis completion) from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She has been researching creative ways to incorporate 3D scanning and printing technology into public archaeology since 2012.

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.

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.

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.  

Painting an Olive Jar Neck Sherd from the Luna Site in Pensacola, FL

Last month, I discussed some useful tips on how to paint 3D printed plastic objects. Today, I will walk you through the painting process using an olive jar neck sherd from the Luna site. The sherd was one of the defining artifacts that helped UWF archaeologists recognize and establish the significance of the site. Below is my step-by-step guide on how to paint this specific artifact using the equipment and tips I outlined in my previous post.

  1. painting-stationHere is my painting station, equipped with the colors I use for this artifact (minus two that I added in), paint brushes, paper towels, my “palette,” and a water cup. 
  2. I start by adding a layer of unbleached titanium over the whole object.first-layer-ubt-mariana
  3. Then, I mix some paints to create the reddish color of the entire vessel. I use red and yellow to create a salmon color and add bits of Unbleached Titanium and Raw Sienna. I use the dabbing technique to create texture.

    1. Here is a close-up of the texture.
    2. Here is the entire second layer.
  4. colors-used-for-gray
    Colors used for gray.

    I mix the colors I use for the gray sides of the artifact. I obviously do this by mixing white and gray and then paint one layer on the sides. For a second layer of gray, I add a little bit of Raw Umber to the mix, which makes it slightly more brown. When I layer it on top of the light gray color, it creates depth and texture. There is also a line of gray at the bottom of the artifact.

  5. I do something similar to the entire object now. I add a little bit of grays and browns over the entire object to match the various tones and colors the artifact has in real life. I do this using a mix of dabbing and dry brush techniques and I try to be gentle and light about applying this layer.
  6. The final touch is to add a black detail towards the bottom corner of the concave side.
  7. This is the final product:

The final product is definitely not perfect, but it will do! Painted models, such as the olive jar neck sherd, can be implemented in educational demonstrations in classrooms, out in the field, in museums, or anywhere where archaeologists are able to interact with the public. I really hope that you enjoyed these blog posts about painting plastic artifacts and found some useful information. As always, feel free to respond with any questions or feedback.

Happy painting!

Mariana Zechini is a graduate student at the University of West Florida. She received her B.S. in Anthropology at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2014 and has four years of experience in 3D scanning archaeological materials. Her thesis focuses on analyzing stable isotopes from human remains from a medieval cemetery site in Berlin, Germany.