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.

3dvcu_100_5000
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.

img_1719
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.

FPAN 3D Public Archaeology

Since hurricane Matthew threw off our schedule, this week we are reposting an entry from the Florida Public Archaeology Network’s Northwest region’s blog, Going Public: The Dirt on Public Archaeology. Here, the Kevin Gidusko talks about FPAN’s efforts to use 3D modeling and printing for public outreach and education.

Last year, several FPAN staff began to engage with a new type of technology that was making waves in the field of archaeology: 3D visualization of archaeological sites and artifacts (see here and here). Three-dimensional models of artifacts and archaeological sites have been around for a few years now, though for much of that time the hardware and software required to undertake a project was a bit cost-prohibitive, at least to us. However, as cost and 3D technology began to make a pivot towards more public use, we jumped at the opportunity to see what we could do with it. We were lucky in having colleagues, such as those at the VCU Virtual Curation Laboratory,  who had ventured into the field already and were able to give us much needed pointers. At FPAN, we immediately saw how this emerging technology could couple with our archaeology education outreach to engage the public in new and exciting ways.

Recently, we saw that the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture has partnered with Google to assist in engineering a portion of the museum that will provide access to more of the museum’s collections through 3D visualization. Many museums have the mass of their collections in storage, due to the fact that there is simply not enough space to display these items, or that the items are too fragile for display. This new, interactive display will allow visitors to follow their personal interests through a vast collection of artifacts that have been modeled and interpreted by museum staff. In a way, this creates a unique visitor experience for each and every person that comes to the museum. Astonishing!

But, FPAN got there first! We have been busy creating 3D models of artifacts and archaeological sites that the public is able to interact with through our Sketchfab site. There, you can see unique items up close and personal. You can even, if you are able to, download the item for 3D printing. Of course, this is just some friendly bragging; several groups preceded us and there are sure to be many who will follow us in utilizing this new technology. What is important is that the public now has ways to interact with archaeological resources from around the world in ways they have never been capable of before. Want to visit the British Museum, but can’t afford an airline ticket? Have a lunch break to check out what archaeologists in Korea are working on? Want to see what a shipwreck looks like, but don’t want to bother with all that pesky SCUBA diving? Take a peek here. Certainly, this new trend in interpretation and engagement is taking solid hold, and we’re happy to see the Smithsonian embrace the technology for the public!

FPAN will continue in incorporating 3D technology in our future outreach and will also apply it to current curriculum. Plenty of projects are in the works, and we are currently working on incorporating 3D models to our current Project Archaeology curricula for Kingsley Plantation and Florida Lighthouses. But, stay tuned for more!

You can learn more by checking out the links above, or you can swing by the 3D Public Archaeology Working Group Facebook page where professionals from around the world share ideas, answer questions, and show what they’re currently working on. No prior knowledge needed; we’re happy to talk anytime!

Text and Pics: Kevin Gidusko
Models: Kevin Gidusko and Tristan Harrenstein