Bringing Archaeology and 3D Modeling to the K-12 Classroom

Many archeologists, as part of their public outreach efforts, see the recent movement to bring science and math based curriculum into classrooms as an opportunity to introduce both teachers and students to archaeology and anthropology. This trend has also caused schools and programs to reach out to archaeologists and other scientists to present to their students. However you end up standing in front of thirty 5th graders, there are some things that will help you achieve your goals and survive to see another invitation extended to you.

I would argue that archaeology is uniquely suited to classroom presentations in that it covers every subject being taught in today’s schools, especially when 3D modeling is included, and is an inherently hands on and accessible science. In order build an easy to use guide for people interested in bringing 3D modeling and archaeology to public education I have drawn on my knowledge of the public education standards and how to best cooperate with public school teachers, gained by five years experience in a classroom. Though I will focus mostly on archaeological modeling and K-12 education in this post, all of the material covered here is applicable to all fields of anthropology, all subfields of archaeology, and really any field of science.

Getting into the classroom

The two biggest things to remember when presenting in a kindergarten through 12th grade education setting is time and flexibility. Time is everything to a teacher, and even more important to the students. Frustrations about time are not necessarily exclusive to the time you are taking out of their day by presenting. Sometimes it is the time of day you want to come into the class, and sometimes it is the time of year. This is where flexibility comes in. Here are my quick and easy tips to getting a teacher to say yes, and to have them ask you back:

  1. Contact schools you work with and get a school calendar, or join their Facebook page. If you know what is going on at school a teacher will not turn you down because you asked to come and present on field day. 
  2. Know or ask what topic/subject they are covering and explicitly tell the teacher how the material you are presenting matches that. My other suggestion to this is do not concentrate only on science. See the next section for more details on this. 
  3. Bring ALL necessary supplies (including pencils and paper) and make sure to communicate this with the teacher. Also, if you will be using computers, arrive early and make sure everything is in order for the kids to log on.


All topics taught by a teacher must meet what they call a standard. These standards can include things like teaching a kindergartener that a book has a front cover and a back cover (standard “LAFS.K.RI.2.5”). Before you freak out I’m not proposing that anyone learn the standards, though they are available for your reading pleasure on every state’s education website. Here are the Florida standards for language arts and math by grade level.

Kindergarten standard for reading. (Source: Florida Department of Education)


The chart below connects the four main subjects to 3D modeling and printing in archaeology. The great thing about many topics covered within each subject is that they can be taught at almost every grade level, with varying degrees of difficulty of course. Elementary schools, for example, may only have the students classify according to shape, size, and color whereas middle schoolers are capable of predicting the use of an object and classifying based on those observations. Seeing these parallels will save you some time in writing lessons and will increase the variety of grade levels you can present in.


Archaeological 3D Modeling

Archaeology (all subfields)


– Scale and ratio
– Conversion of standard to metric
– Fractional measurements
– Coordinate grids
– Laying out a unit (Pythagorean Theorem)
– Positive/Negative numbers
– Angles
– Degrees


– Building experimental models
– Classification
– Documenting results
– Geology
– Weather Cycles
– Evolution
– Chemistry (Carbon 14)


– Photography for preservation
– Interpreting sites and items
– Understanding context
– Academic research
– Preserving historic items
– Validating sources

Language Arts

– Creative writing prompts
– Argumentative writing about interpretations
– Academic writing prompts
– Report writing
– Critical dissent
– Concise writing through abstracts
This table is only a sampling of the topics that can be taught per subject, I stuck with general ideas because each school district and each state has their own standards that need to be met.

To help clarify, I will expand upon one topic within each subject and choose a grade level to give a better perspective of how they connect to classroom instruction.

Math: Scale and Ratio

Min catapults in a math class for exploring math and historic technology. Full article here. (Image by

In Florida, most 6th grade students are beginning to learn how to work with ratios and scale modeling. A possible lesson connection could be scaling a building within modeling software so that it could be displayed and explored in a museum by smaller kids. This is a hands-on math intense topic that helps others and has real world applications.

Science: Classification

Elementary students begin to classify objects very early on, by shape and size, as early as kindergarten. Using 3D printed lithic points and pottery students could work on their classifying skills while also handling what would otherwise be fragile artifacts.

For further reading on the power of these models to communicate context, see this post. (Image by Mariana Zechini)

History: Understanding Context

Holding an object only seen in pictures before can often be revolutionary. Changing a person’s perspective and understanding of an item. High Schoolers begin writing research papers early on in their freshmen year, and often write about things they have only seen in books. Physically touching a cannonball that shattered on a tree, like the one printed by UWF students Janene Johnston and Mariana Zechini, can add context to the tree, the cannon ball, and the person who surely escaped death.

Language Arts: Writing

Amazingly, this is often forgotten by archaeologists and yet comprises a large percentage of what we do. Academic writing and writing an opposing critique are skills they will need as they move into college, something we as archaeologists and scientist are painfully aware of. Archaeologist have a unique relationship with journaling and note taking, a skill that many take for granted.


By providing some general examples and simple tips, I have given those that desire to bring 3D modeling into a classroom some tools to access the world of education standards. Because this is only a starting point, if you are an archaeologist hoping to do some public outreach or a teacher looking to give some of your standards a new spin with real world applications, please share if you have ideas of your own.


Elizabeth Chance Campbell is a Master’s student at the University of Central Florida and will be defending her thesis, on an 1866 watermill, in the spring. She worked in a low income middle school for five years where she taught students with learning disabilities before moving to Georgia, where her wife is stationed in the Air Force. She hopes to take her experience as an educator and as an archaeologist to the next level by creating lessons that can be incorporated into classroom settings with students of all levels.

Painting the Past: Using Paint to Bring Plastic Artifacts to Life

Scanning and printing in 3D has many applications to the world of archaeology and one of the greatest is its utility in public archaeology demonstrations. However, because plastic models are usually printed in one solid color and are mostly hollow to speed up the printing process, the result does not look or feel much like the original artifact beyond its general shape. To remedy one of these disadvantages, we paint 3D printed models at the University of West Florida. We do this to make the artifact look more realistic and to create a more intimate relationship between the viewer and the artifact. By painting plastic artifacts, we allow the viewer to better understand the object and how it looked during use, after excavation, or following conservation.

Here, I am painting a case shot from the Natural Bridge Battlefield Historic State Park. My station includes a variety of paintbrushes, acrylic paints and lots of paper plates, cups, and towels. (Image by author)

After I started painting models at the Virtual Curation Laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University, under Dr. Bernard Means, I began 3D printing and painting for Dr. Kristina Killgrove and the Archaeology Institute at the University of West Florida. Along with some other graduate students, we have painted various types of artifacts from different sites, including hominin and animal bone. Below is a list of equipment needed for painting and some tips I have found useful throughout my experience. Additionally, I have included a step-by-step guide to painting, using an olive jar neck sherd from the Luna site.

This is a printed homo naledi skull from the Rising Star Expedition led by Lee Berger in South Africa. Digital images of bone are online for researchers to download and print. (Image by author)


These are just a few of my favorite painted artifacts that I created throughout my time at UWF. Clockwise from left: an Apalachee jar, lead-glazed coarse earthenware, and an olive jar neck sherd. (Image by author)




  1. A variety of brushes. Ideally, you want as many different types of brushes as possible so that you can re-create as many different patterns as possible. I suggest using any variety of skinny, round tip brushes, flat tip brushes, fan brushes, and angled tip brushes in small and large sizes. You will need the skinny, small brushes for detail and the larger flat tip brushes for larger surface areas. I suggest buying a variety pack of 20-30 brushes on Amazon and experimenting with those.
  2. Acrylic paint. My favorite brand to use is Liquitex Basics. If you are not sure what colors you will need, I suggest buying either the 24- or 48-pack of acrylic paint and seeing which colors you use the most. Or you can buy the 4oz tubes of the colors I have found I use the most (I have never needed the hot pink to paint a plastic model):
    1. Yellow Oxide, Titanium White, Burnt Sienna, Ivory Black, Red Oxide, Burnt Umber, Raw Umber, Raw Sienna, and Unbleached Titanium
  3. Paper plates and cups (or whatever you have at your disposal) for palettes and water cups. I usually use a paper plate as my palette and reuse it as much as possible. I do the same with a water cup and paper towels.
  4. Fixative (optional). I have never had a problem with paint wearing off a plastic artifact. However, if you know the object will be handled a lot, it might be useful to buy a can of spray fixative, which sets the paint and prevents it from rubbing off. Alternatively, hairspray can work as a cheap fixative if you’re in a bind.
  5. An open mind! I love painting plastic models because it combines my love of art and my love of the past. I was an art student for one semester, although I was planning to major in photography, not painting. This experience has been useful but is absolutely not necessary. I never thought of myself as a painter (and I still don’t) but keeping an open mind allows me to be more confident in my painting. So do not be afraid to mess up or try new techniques! The worst that can happen is that you have to paint over it and try again.
Here you can see the different types of brushes that I use and the base coat of Unbleached Titanium I use on models. (Image by author)

Tips & Techniques

Below are some tips and techniques that I have found useful through my experience. These are only suggestions and it would be a good idea to experiment and see what works best for you!

  • I like to paint each object with one coat of Unbleached Titanium. This is an cream color that works as an excellent base coat by covering up the original plastic color and allows the following coats to be richer in color. It is not totally necessary, but if I accidentally miss a spot while painting, this base coat provides a more natural color (depending on the object, of course) rather than solid black, white, or gray, which are usually the colors that I print in.
  • Use different painting techniques! For example, I prefer to dabble rather than paint one even coat all over the object. Dabbling provides texture, which is absolutely necessary when representing artifacts. For example, dabbling helps to create the porous texture that most ceramics have and also adds an extra dimension to the object. Other techniques include washing, dry brushing, and stippling. For more info on painting techniques, check out this blog.
  • Let each coat of paint dry, especially the first coat! Layering the colors is much easier if each layer is dry. This prevents two or more paint colors from mixing and allows you to keep the texture of the object exactly how you want it. Plus, it makes for a less messy painting experience…or, at least, it helps.
  • Do not be afraid to mix paint to get the exact color you need. Sometimes the exact color we need to use does not come straight from the tube. For example, to get the perfect brown, I sometimes have to mix lighter shades in with darker shades, or add red, yellow, black, or white to get the tones right. Do not be afraid to experiment!
  • Use one color at a time. What I mean is, focus on one or two colors on the object and paint those all at once. This makes it easier for you to maintain the same colors throughout the object, especially if you had to make a custom color. This way, you don’t need to remember the exact ratios and colors.
  • Always use a clean brush whether it’s brand new or just washed. Accidentally mixing your last color with your newest color can mess up your work.
  • If you are painting ceramics that have a glaze over the artifact, I suggest using glue as the final step to create a shiny surface that mimics the glaze.
  • Do not be afraid to mess up! The best thing about painting is you can always paint over anything you do not like. Painting is very forgiving because no matter how many times you feel you may have messed up, you can always re-paint!
These are some ceramics from sites along Garcon Point in Pensacola. The artifacts on the right are real and the ones on the left are painted. These were painted by graduate students Jane Holmstrom, Katy Patterson, and myself.

Depending on the artifact, painting can take a few hours. Overall, 3D scanning and printing can be a tedious process that is only lengthened (but greatly enhanced!) by painting. Scanning an artifact can take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour and a half. Printing is the longest step that could take up to several hours, depending on the size and complexity of the model. The olive jar neck sherd, that I will walk you through next month, took approximately an hour to scan, an hour to print, and 30 minutes to paint. While these processes can be time consuming, they greatly enhance the public’s experience with archaeology!

I hope this painting tutorial helped give you some tips, tricks, and ideas for painting plastic artifacts in your very own lab! I would love to know what you think, so please feel free to leave any questions or comments!


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.

Against the Flow: Reconstructive Modeling of a Watermill

As an archaeologist, my first experience with modeling came almost as an afterthought to my thesis work. I had an opportunity to present my work as a poster during the Southeastern Archaeology Conference in Athens, Georgia and wanted to show people in a readily accessible visual format what the watermill structure looked like prior to the weather, moss, and debris created what exists today. Much like when an artifact is printed and made available to the public, I had a desire to connect the public to my mill. Once I realized its outreach capabilities, the model I had created became a center point of my research.

Mill two views.png
The mill as it stands today on the left and a scaled reconstruction on the right. (Image by author)
Brick and Gear attachment piece that were recovered during excavations. (Image by author)

I began this model as an attempt to recreate the mill and then develop a scale model. The mill is a mid-nineteenth century watermill that is the focus of my master’s thesis. As it stands today, the mill is a dilapidated concrete foundation nestled on the shore of a creek in Central Florida, the wheel and gears are missing as well as the mill house that would have held milling equipment. Severe disturbance from both water intrusion and modern construction around the area made finding smaller artifacts difficult, and in the end only a few bricks and some metal pieces associated with the axle were recovered.

Since so little was found, I was forced to rethink what I could learn from the mill foundation, rather than a collection of artifacts. As a result, I turned my focus to determining the size of the wheel, the size of the gear and then from that information how much power the mill would have been able to produce. This led me to modeling.

Mill as it looked when finished in Tinkercad. From here I was able to have it printed. (Image by author)

While in the field I took measurements with surveying equipment as well as hand tools. I would later use this information to recreate the mill in Tinkercad, an excellent modeling site that is free. I decided to create a scale model of the mill, for several purposes:

  1. I wanted to play with different size wheels and gears and how they would have fit within the existing foundation.
  2. I needed to see what the association was between wood inserts in the floor of the gearbox and a gear.
  3. I wanted to be able to show future audiences how the mill would have looked when first constructed.
Gearbox with wood inserts pointed out. These were found after excavating the box. (Image by author)
The model in Tinkercad showing the correlation of the gear and where it would have been positioned over the wood insert. (Image by author)

The mill, recreated in Tinkercad, was designed on a 1 inch:1 foot scale, though it was scaled much smaller when printed to reduce cost. With the 3D reconstruction, I was able to visually determine that the wheel would have most likely been between 4 and 5 feet in diameter with a maximum width of 2 feet. Any smaller and the wheel would have lost efficiency. I also found that a gear would have aligned perfectly above the wood inserts in the bottom of the gear box, perhaps serving as a buffer in case the gear bounced against the floor.

The mill was printed using an online printing service and I took the model with me as a visual aid for a poster presentation I gave at the 2016 Southeast Archaeology Conference. Watching grown archaeologists spin the wheel on my model, only confirmed my belief in its ability to capture the public’s interest.

Modeling artifacts has brought them out of the lab and scale models of buildings and machines will bring large or immovable structures into the hands of the public. The educational material this type of reconstructive modeling could produce is vast; math (scale modeling teaches ratios), history (changing technologies can be recreated to give temporal context), physics (calculating horsepower and energy of machines), communication (creating modern instructions on the operation of a historic machine), etc. Making sure that math, history, science, and language arts are all covered is the intent of any archeologist working in schools.

Next week I will review Tinkercad and talk more about its potential in an educational setting.

Final mill model. The wheel and gear are one unit and spin freely on the foundation allowing audiences to physically experience the mill turning. (Image by author)


Elizabeth Chance Campbell is a Master’s student at the University of Central Florida and will be defending her thesis, on an 1866 watermill, in the spring. She worked in a low income middle school for five years where she taught students with learning disabilities before moving to Georgia, where her wife is stationed in the Air Force. She hopes to take her experience as an educator and as an archaeologist to the next level by creating lessons that can be incorporated into classroom settings with students of all levels.

Hands on the Past: the Ferry Farm Touchbox, Virtual Curation, and Tactile Archaeology

This week’s entry is a repost Bernard Means from the Virtual Curation Laboratory. Dr. Means and VCL have been using 3D prints as a tool for working with the visually impaired for over three years now. For a more recent entry from earlier this year, see Jedi Master of 3D Printing: Creating Access Passes to the Past.

By Bernard K. Means, Director of the Virtual Curation Laboratory

Melanie Marquis demonstrated the Touchbox
Melanie Marquis demonstrates the touch box. (Image by author)

This past Friday (March 22, 2013), I had the opportunity to speak with Melanie Marquis, laboratory supervisor at George Washington’s Ferry Farm, regarding a Touchbox she had developed for blind and other visually impaired visitors.  Standard museum displays—with artifacts and text protected behind clear acrylic or glass case fronts—are inaccessible to those who cannot see or have difficulty seeing.  The Touchbox was developed to make sure that these visitors also have the opportunity to learn and experience the rich history imbedded in the archaeological landscape at Ferry Farm—a history that includes American Indian artifacts spanning millennia, objects associated with a young George Washington and his family, and items recovered from a significant Union encampment dating to the American Civil War. The Touchbox includes large print and Braille maps of the Ferry Farm archaeological investigations, unprovenienced artifacts that can be safely handled, and some objects purchased from thrift shops that are analogues of materials recovered archaeologically.

Raised map with Braille showing the Ferry Farm landscape.
Raised map with braille showing the Fairy Farm landscape. (Image by author)
Plastic replica (left) of an 18th century (right) recovered at Ferry Farm.
Plastic replica (left) of an 18th century brush (right) recovered at Ferry Farm. (Image by author)

What’s lacking from the Touchbox are key items recovered from Ferry Farm’s rich past that are too sensitive or fragile to be handled by any visitor to the site. Fortunately, our work at the Virtual Curation Laboratory allows us to create plastic replicas of artifacts from Ferry Farm that can be incorporated into the Touchbox.  We’ve been working with Ferry Farm’s artifact analyst, Laura Galke, over the last year-and-a-half to create virtual avatars of many significant small finds, including American Indian stone tools, 18th century wig curlers and buckle fragments, the Masonic pipe that may have belonged to George Washington, and Minié balls from the Civil War occupation—among other objects.  And, we have created plastic replicas using the MakerBot Replicator that is normally housed in the Virtual Curation Laboratory @ Virginia Commonwealth University.  The plastic replicas we create are scaled exactly the same as their more fragile actual analogues, and thus enable a tactile appreciation of Ferry Farm’s past.

Plastic (left) replica of an Adena point (right) from Ferry Farm.
Plastic (left) replica of an Adena point (right) from Ferry Farm. (Image by author)

Over the coming weeks, we will be creating plastic replicas of small finds virtually curated from George Washington’s Ferry Farm for specific inclusion into the Touchbox.  We here at the Virtual Curation Laboratory are excited about our chance to make Ferry Farm’s history available to a wider audience.

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.

But How Much is it Worth?: How 3D Printing to Shows Why Archaeologists Don’t Understand This Question

This is a repost of an entry written for the Virtual Curation Laboratory‘s blog and was the foundation for a presentation at the Southeastern Archaeology Conference’s (SEAC) 2016 lightning round.

Many of us have heard about archaeologists modeling and printing artifacts in 3D. There certainly are valuable research applications for this technology, but for me the really exciting prospect is in outreach and education. Sometimes however, I get the impression from others that they think this is neat, but a little gimmicky. I think that this perspective is understandable, if a bit short sighted.

This bone toothbrush (right) is far too fragile for it to be handled frequently. (Photo by Bernard Means)

There are a lot of things we can do with a 3D model (many of which you may have read about on this blog) that you cannot do with the real artifact. We can let people hold artifacts that are normally too fragile, put magnets in the edges of a broken artifact for people to reassemble (my personal mission), even make tangible displays for those who are visually impaired.

This is a hand forged nail, it is 2 1/2 inches long and was probably made sometime before 1900. That is all it can possibly tell us. (Photo by author)

While each of these are exciting, what really gets me worked up is the ability of 3D models and prints to pull the focus away from the value of the object and move it towards the value of what the object teaches us. When at a local heritage day, we often bring along a case of artifacts that were donated by collectors, so we don’t know where they came from. These are wonderful because we can let people touch them and not worry overly about them getting damaged. Unfortunately, when people ask me about these artifacts, all I can typically do is tell them what it is and maybe how old it is. Inadvertently, this is doing the exact opposite of what we want. It is reinforcing the idea that this artifact is valuable in and of itself.

However, 3D printing allows us to present an object that was recovered archaeologically, even if it is not real, and then focus on what that object taught us. For example, I have three printed, refitting artillery shell fragments from a Civil War site here in Florida. I can tell an audience that we know they are from a shell that broke up before it exploded due to the size of the fragments and the fact that the fuse is still attached. Then I can tell them that these pieces made a straight line pointing right at where the Confederate artillery was supposed to be! We know this because of how we found and mapped these artifacts.

And they
get it. In my experience, I can actually see them understanding this point in a way that I rarely achieved by using an abstract example or “what ifs.” This is the object, or a representation of that object, and here is what we learned because of how we recovered it. If you want to teach a preservation message, highlight the difference between archaeology and collecting, or just get the visitor to walk away understanding what archaeologists do, I have yet to find a more concise and consistent way of achieving this.

This is not to say that these 3D models will replace the artifacts. There is still a benefit to letting people see and interact with the real thing. However, as 3D printing becomes more accessible I fully intend to include at least one example at heritage events that shows the value of what we learn from artifacts.

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.