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.

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.

I, Object: Using 3D Printed Artifacts to Teach the Past

By Bernard K. Means, Director, Virtual Curation Laboratory

On Monday of this week (October 17, 2016), I was contacted by Brooke Byington, a student teacher at William Fox Elementary School in Richmond, Virginia. She is currently a graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), where I teach. A few years ago, she had taken my Introduction to Archaeology course and learned that I had 3D printed artifacts from Jamestown. For her fourth grade class, she wanted to know if she could borrow some 3D printed replicas for a lesson on archaeology and Jamestown.


Figure 1. (Photo by author)

Now, if she was asking for real artifacts, this request would be impossible—the original artifacts are too rare and too fragile. But, for 3D printed replicas, this is not an issue. We have a large number of 3D scanned and 3D printed artifacts from Jamestown—in fact from across the globe. I invited Brooke to visit the Virtual Curation Laboratory (VCL), and she accepted, with a visit scheduled for the afternoon of the next day. That Tuesday morning, I came in and 3D printed an extra butchered dog jaw from the “Starving Time” at James Fort of 1609 to 1610. This period saw desperate English settlers under siege from the native population, and turning to eating anything they could (rats, dogs, horses, and, eventually, people). After the dog jaw was printed, my Laboratory Manager Brenna Geraghty, herself a VCU alumnae, painted the replica to give it an air of verisimilitude (Figure 1).

When Brooke came to the VCL, I was able to share with her the butchered dog jaw and other objects from Jamestown. And, because these were “extra” copies of the 3D printed artifacts, I could give them to Brooke. She would not need to worry about returning them, and this will make it easier for her to develop lessons around these objects.

This is where I see the real power of 3D printed replicas. I think one of the strengths of archaeology is that we use the things we find to tell stories about the people of the past. Sometimes of these stories are clearly linked to particular individuals, places, or times, and others ares more broadly referring to aspects of the human condition.

Figure 2. (Photo by author)

The importance of 3D scanned and 3D printed items for education is not lost on other educators either. Just a few weeks ago, Gillian Lambert, an 8th Grade English teacher and an English Department Coordinator in the Henrico County, Virginia, school system got in touch with me. She wanted to use the 3D scan of the key found on Edgar Allan Poe’s body that is on our Sketchfab site for a lesson, which she has graciously agreed to allow me to place on our own blog site (link). The key was originally scanned at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum here in Richmond, Virginia (Figure 2).

Last week I talked to educators in two different settings. One was at the Valentine Museum, here in Richmond, Virginia. Jeff Aronowitz, the E. Claiborne Robins, Jr. Director of Public Programs at The Valentine, arranged on October 10 for the two of us to talk about educational technology to Henrico Middle and High School English teachers and Henrico High School social studies teachers, with an emphasis on 3D scanning and 3D printing. We were particularly interested in letting the teachers know that artifacts were available via Sketchfab and other sites that they could 3D print for their lessons. And, of course, we were interested in establishing a dialogue with the teachers to find out how we could help them with their lessons and teaching people about the past and the City of Richmond’s heritage. I had set up a table of artifacts from all over the world that teachers could look at after Jeff and I finished talking about off-the-shelf and low-cost technological solutions for education (Figure 3).

Figure 3. (Photo by author)

Two days after that, I was in Colonial Williamsburg for the National Archaeology Educators Conference, organized by Project Archaeology. Here, I was speaking to an audience that included educators and professional archaeologists responsible for public outreach from all over the world. I informed people about the Virtual Curation Laboratory, particularly our strong focus on experiential learning for undergraduate VCU students, as well as our 3D scanning efforts across the world. Again, I had a table of artifact replicas out for people to examine, and a number of attendees seemed inspired to use 3D printed replicas in their own outreach efforts (Figure 4).

Figure 4. (Photo by author)
Figure 5. (Photo by author)

I rely myself on 3D printed artifact replicas as a key way of teaching my VCU students about archaeological methods, particular artifact and bone identification. I can hand out multiple sets of 3D printed objects in a classroom that I have at best for two hours. I have even incorporated 3D printed artifacts into a mapping lesson for my student. Currently, my VCL interns and workers in the lab are creating identification and research kits that will be available for my students next semester, and eventually distributed on the web at a dedicated site. The lessons will be linked to models that can be downloaded, so that they can be used by anyone in the world (Figure 5).

I think that the day is not far off that 3D printed artifact replicas will become a regular part of teaching. Tactile learning is an important tool, and replicas are moving on from simply being seen as novelties to legitimate pedagogical tools.