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.
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.
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.