Monthly Archives: April 2014

More Real than Real: Re-Visualizing the Digital Artifact

3D scan of pipe from Camp Misery in Stafford County, Virginia (image courtesy VCU Virtual Curation Museum)

3D scan of pipe from Camp Misery in Stafford County, Virginia (image courtesy VCU Virtual Curation Museum)

Much of the lure of archaeology rests in the seduction of things: we are fascinated with the texture, color, heft, and odor of material artifacts that invoke antiquity, the allure of the alien, and the sensory richness of material life.  Yet we often cannot physically experience artifacts that are in distant places, and many objects are too fragile to be handled.  A variety of technologies now make it possible to produce exceptional 3D digital models of artifacts that can be rendered as visual and even material recreations: now archaeologists can visualize or handle a perfectly accurate scale model of, for instance,a 20th-century cap gun, a butchered dolphin bone from Jamestown, a Roman oil lamp (this example is from a 17th-century context at Jamestown), or an effigy pipe, all scanned by Virginia Commonwealth University’s Virtual Curation Laboratory and included in their Virtual Curation Museum.

Scanning of an Acheulian hand axe (image courtesy VCU Virtual Curation Laboratory)

Scanning of an Acheulian hand axe (image courtesy VCU Virtual Curation Laboratory)

For archaeologists, much of the attraction of 3D artifact scanning is its documentation of artifacts in distant repositories; scanned artifacts can be accessible to scholars even if they remain in private hands; and virtual documentation can assist us in conserving especially fragile things.  Increasingly more archaeologists are no longer wedded to the expectation that their career rests solely on digging sites that are “theirs”; instead, increasingly more of us are working with museum and archival collections, and 3D artifact scanning would allow increasingly more work with curated collections in distant places.  Nevertheless, some of the most interesting implications of 3D scanning may be the new “artifacts” it produces in the form of scans and recreated objects and the ways these digitized things illuminate what archaeologists and audiences consider to be “authentic” artifacts. Read the rest of this entry

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Consuming Pethood: Pets as Family

Eddie Williams poses before the mobile billboard being driven around Indianapolis in search of Williams' poodle Boomer (image from WTHR)

Eddie Williams poses before the mobile billboard being driven around Indianapolis in search of Williams’ poodle Boomer (image from WTHR)

A mobile billboard is rolling around Indianapolis Indiana until April 20th pleading for help finding Boomer, a poodle thieved from the car of his owner Eddie Williams. Williams purchased the billboard to circulate through the city for five days offering a $1500 reward for the return of Boomer, no questions asked. The billboard rental cost $1950, in addition to the cost of hiring a private investigator to assist, but Williams dismissed the cost, indicating “I don’t care about the money. What I care about is Boomer.” Williams is a truck driver who travels with his dog, and he said that “He’s not a dog to me he’s a little human. My little human, and he’s my travelling companion.”

The lengths Williams has gone to secure Boomer just a week before Lost Dog Awareness Day probably do not surprise many other pet owners. Boomer is simply one of many pets granted a status that places them firmly alongside humans while illuminating the philosophical complexities of human and natural relationships, childhood, public health, and consumer culture. Boomer and his peers are distinctive if not unique material things quite unlike prosaic commodities, cast as anthropomorphized “family members” endowed with nearly all of the fundamental characteristics we associate with humans. Read the rest of this entry

The Morality of Property and Cultural Patrimony

Peruvian looters' pit (image Nathancraig, Wikipedia)

Peruvian looters’ pit (image Nathancraig, Wikipedia)

This week an FBI art crime team announced that it is investigating a collection from central Indiana that includes a vast range of material things from all over the world, ranging from World War II items to stone tools to human remains.  I have absolutely no connection to this project that happens to be in my neighborhood, but archaeologists and FBI officers who have surveyed the collection have publicly confirmed that it has astounding global and temporal scope and includes thousands of objects.  For archaeologists and observers committed to preservation, the most important implications of the investigation are perhaps not about the specific things in the collection and their ultimate disposition.  Instead, we might be more alarmed by the public response to the investigation, which has rallied to defend the legal footing for such collections, attack the role of the government and archaeologists patrolling artifact trade, and ignore the moral dimensions of human remains as collectibles.

After a news conference this week, the blogosphere theatrically lit up with property rights defenses, conspiracy theories, racist xenophobia, and attacks on the President.  Rather than illuminate how materials such as human remains and mortuary artifacts might be best preserved under genuine museum conditions or returned to legal descendants, the press and blogosphere have fixed on painting the state—and allied archaeologists—as a step away from raiding all our coffee cans of arrowheads.  This is probably an emotionally satisfying response to creeping wariness of the state, but it avoids the moral issues at the heart of this and many more cultural patrimony cases: human remains, mortuary artifacts, and unique culturally specific artifacts have been reduced to the status of property no different than any other thing and accorded no dignified treatment or preservation that is informed by descendants.  During a week that many people raced to ensure that National Geographic did not air a show with World War II German soldiers’ remains, the Indiana investigation has been greeted by a contrasting defense of personal property and nearly no commitment to the dignity of human remains now claimed as collectibles. Read the rest of this entry

Archaeology, Human Dignity, and the Fascination of Death

An archaeologist excavates a casket lid from the Mississippi State Asylum (image from University of Mississippi Medical Center Public Affairs)

An archaeologist excavates a casket lid from the Mississippi State Asylum (image from University of Mississippi Medical Center Public Affairs)

In 1855 the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum opened, and by the time it moved in 1935 thousands of patients had been buried on the hospital grounds.  The Mississippi asylum’s story is by no means unique: A vast range of mentally ill, developmentally delayed, and chronically ill Americans found themselves captive in dehumanizing institutions, lost to desperate and distant families and unceremoniously buried by the state.  Much of archaeology’s mortuary landscape is peopled with similar lives that ended in asylums, battlefields, slave quarters, distant workplaces, prisons, and long-forgotten cemeteries.

At its best, archaeology dignifies these lives by treating their stories and forlorn remains with scientific rigor and moral respect.  When the University of Mississippi took aim on the former asylum grounds Mississippi State University’s Nicholas Hermann led a team that surveyed the site to document and preserve the scores of dead patients now consigned to unmarked graves alongside the contemporary Medical Center.  It is this moral notion of dignity that was violated by National Geographic Channel International’s “Nazi War Diggers,” which released (and then retracted) a promotional video last week on the four-episode series documenting the recovery of wartime dead who “lie rotting under World War Two’s Eastern Front.”  This week the channel abruptly placed the series on “indefinite” delay (and removed all traces of it from their web page), awkwardly acknowledging that it was reviewing the series “while questions raised in recent days regarding accusations about the program can be properly reviewed.” Read the rest of this entry