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.