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Virginia Department of Historic Resources

Spotlight on DHR Collections: 3-D Scanning and Printing of Artifacts

Making the Past More Accessible

Conducting a 3-D scan of a wine bottle seal
3-D scanning of a wine bottle stamped “N B” recovered from Kingsmill Quarter in James City Co.

One of the privileges I enjoy as the Chief Curator for the Department of Historic Resources is my role as steward of a number of Virginia’s artifacts. DHR provides a stable, secure climate for over a million objects, ensuring that they will remain available for future generations. We also care for the associated, original field records associated with these precious resources. I enjoy facilitating access to these irreplaceable objects for exhibits, analysis, and scholarly research.

As a curator, I can too easily take for granted my ready access to these one-of-a-kind artifacts from the past. Thankfully, the advent of three-dimensional (3-D) scanning technology allows us to make these unique items accessible to more people either online or by way of replicas for hands-on examination.

An early proponent of 3-D technology for archaeology in Virginia, Dr. Bernard Means created the Virtual Curation Laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University in August 2011. For years, he and his students have scanned objects, artifacts, and fossils from all over the world. He has created a “virtual museum” online, where three-dimensional images of objects can be accessed—and many (when permission is provided by the objects’ owners) can be 3-D printed, allowing students of the past from all over the world to conveniently print replicas. (Here is a link to a gallery of popular items that you can 3-D print. If you do not own a 3-D printer, check out your local library, many provide 3-D printers for public use.)

 

Historical jugs and pipes in the DHR Collections
Some curated wine bottles with seals. A 1770 wine bottle seal leans against one of the smoking pipes, all part of DHR’s  Study Collections.

Late last year, Dr. Means visited DHR to 3-D scan objects from Betsy (DHR #44YO0088), a ship scuttled in the York River in 1781 during the Battle of Yorktown that DHR underwater archaeologist investigated in the 1980s. We are now actively re-curating and re-conserving those Betsy artifacts, a project that was the focus of last year’s archaeology month (October) poster, and a number of engaging previous blog posts. Dr. Means’ 3-D scans of objects from Betsy are posted now on the Virtual Curation Laboratory website where viewers can rotate and enlarge each one online. In effect, artifacts once buried on the bottom of the York River are now accessible worldwide.

One of the aspects of 3-D replicas that I find inspiring is our ability to print the items at a larger scale. In the photos below, you can see an enlarged 3-D printed wine bottle seal. The large white round object is a 3-D plastic replica of the original that brings out details that can be hard to see in the smaller, dark green circular glass seal (pictured at the tip of my thumb and in the second image). You can see the 3-D scan of the bottle seal online.

 

 

 

 

I can readily take plastic replicas of artifacts to classrooms and conferences to share with other researchers and citizens. For those who have compromised vision, these replicas enable them to see AND TOUCH details directly. Three-D replicas allow everyone to experience these objects with an ease that is often not possible with the fragile, original artifacts. It is rewarding to expand access to these artifacts, mute witnesses from the past. Every day, we gain new insights about past challenges and triumphs from the study – and exhibits of – Virginia’s archaeological collections.

At this blog you can follow the activities of the Virtual Curation Laboratory at VCU.

—Laura J. Galke
Chief Curator, DHR

Updated June 2, 2020