The Virtual Curation Laboratory

Members of the Virtual Curation Laboratory scan an artifact at Jamestown.

Members of the Virtual Curation Laboratory scan an artifact at Jamestown.

The Virtual Curation Laboratory (VCL) is a program that began in the fall of 2011 as part of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Legacy Program, an initiative that provides funding to projects that help preserve natural and cultural resources.  The purpose of the Virtual Curation Laboratory is to incorporate the use of 3D scanning and printing technology into the curation and preservation of archaeological materials.  Using a NextEngine Desktop 3D Scanner, VCL personnel are able to scan artifacts and create accurate three-dimensional models of them that can then be shared with researchers, scholars, and students around the globe.  The project has rapidly expanded from its modest beginnings over the past few years and continues to grow as we discover new ways to utilize this technology and improve our understanding of it.

3D technology is beneficial to a wide array of people, including students, educators, archaeologists, curators, and any interested members of the public.  Digital models can be made of an immensely diverse set of artifacts and ecofacts that are relevant to teachers and students involved in a myriad of fields such as archaeology, anthropology, osteology, and history.  These models can also be printed using a 3D printer, like the VCL’s Makerbot Replicator, which creates fairly precise plastic reproductions of the objects that we have scanned and processed.

Scanning a Moche figurine at the Virginia Museum of Natural History

Scanning a Moche figurine at the Virginia Museum of Natural History

There is incredible research value in 3D technology as well, and it has a great deal of potential in artifact curation.  By creating 3D models of artifacts and ecofacts from archaeological collections, we can reduce the amount of handling an object experiences, as the digital model can be shared and studied in place of the real thing.  Research done by the Virtual Curation Laboratory has also proven that digital models can exhibit more detail on the computer than can be seen when studying the object itself.  Another benefit to researchers is the ability to share these models quickly with anyone in the world who has access to a computer, smartphone, or tablet.  This means that researchers will not have to travel long distances to study an artifact, and models can even be made available to those working in the field so that they may be able to quickly and accurately identify the material they are uncovering.

Our MakerBot Replicator creating a replica of a wig curler from Ferry Farm in the VCL.

Our MakerBot Replicator creating a replica of a wig curler from Ferry Farm in the VCL.

The public also benefits from the creation and use of 3D technology, as digital models of artifacts from significant historic and prehistoric sites can be shared with anyone online, or by using tablet and smartphone applications.  This opens up a new, unique opportunity for people who are interested in archaeological or historic sites and artifacts to have access to collections that they would not have otherwise been able to see.

The Virtual Curation Laboratory has taken great strides in learning the capabilities and limitations of 3D scanning and printing and their application in archaeology, which has been one of the goals of the project.  We hope to gain a more thorough knowledge of these applications as we continue our research, so that we may promote the use of this technology in various archaeological settings.

To learn more about the Virtual Curation Laboratory, visit our blog at vcuarchaeology3d.wordpress.com.

You can also visit the VCL’s virtual museum at virtualcurationmuseum.wordpress.com.

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