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.

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.

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.