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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