3-D Artifacts and Digital Archaeology: A Match Made in the Clouds??

     Greetings and happy Fall 2014! This summer I was fortunate to participate in Dr. Goldstein’s Cultural Heritage management class which introduced me to a wide range of topics in creating long terms plans for the promotion, conservation, and preservation of sites across the globe. I decided to bring these skills to CAP this year and create a project that can help promote, conserve, and preserve some of our CAP artifacts. Thus the idea to create 3-D scans of some of our artifacts was born!

     For this project, I plan to create 3-D images that can be manipulated through space and accessed for free. I will choose artifacts that highlight interesting elements from our fieldwork thus far. Whether I seek the technology to manipulate the image within the Blog, links to outside websites, or create links to user-friendly, 3-D capable .PDFs is still in the works. Nonetheless, the goal is to link our digital visitors to 3-D images of artifacts linked to specific sites for an integrated archaeology-heritage experience, without forcing you to join us in the MSU snow drifts!

     3-D scanning is pretty prominent in archaeology and has been useful for making large and remote repositories accessible to the public DAACS (Digital Archaeological

DAACS 3-D image artifact scan
DAACS 3-D image artifact scan

Archive of Comparative Slavery) scanned 3-D images of Afro-Caribbean ceramics that are for the most part inaccessible to people concerned with cultural heritage issues. Their goal was to add another dimension to connecting their ever-expanding repository of Atlantic World data to the public. DAACS used the popular yet expensive NEXTEngine HD scanner for their project. The finished 3-D image requires users to download specific software to view the finished product. While there are more expensive and less expensive techniques, this way allows users to manipulate the artifact in free space which can be very helpful for grasping the full 3-D image. The final product however, is rather lacking. There is no color and the textures look the same for each artifact. Hopefully, this is a work in progress and more detailed images are on the way. 

     Right here on campus, MATRIX  in collaboration with AFRICOM and the Smithsonian among others, started the Gorée Island Archaeological Digital Repository project to create 3-D images of some of the artifacts from Gorée Island, a Senegalese embarkation point during the TransAtlantic Slave Trade. The project uses a portable and inexpensive process called stereophotogrammetry that can create 3-D representations via the average smart phone. Therefore the information and technology is shared with Senegalese archaeologists who can create these images, with relatively few resources, and begin their own projects.  Ultimately, these images will be free to access through the web. The digital repository of Gorée Island artifacts can be shared among archaeologist, Senegalese communities, as well as African Diaspora cultural heritage workers world-wide. This can help bridge some gaps between archaeology and descendant communities and the histories the two create.

     While 3-D scanning seems to be a good resolution for cultural heritage management issues such as artifact handling, dissemination, and storage, there are several challenges that we sill have to overcome. Regardless of the price of the equipment or software, the process requires human labor which can take up to hours or even days to have a completed 3-D image.  Also pubic creation of 3-D image is still growing so it may be difficult to find reasonable ways to embed the final images on blogs or website; therefore requiring secondary software that may be unavailable to the average visitor. Also, if the object representation is just a grayish blob, void of any other sensory experience, what does it actually achieve in terms of cultural heritage?

Blair's 3-D object image
Blair’s 3-D object image

Ultimately, archaeologists and cultural heritage workers must keep our end goals in mind: what do we want to do with the scan? 3-D print it for classrooms or displays?Display images in 3-D space on websites or apps such as msu.seum? Who should have access to the files and at what cost? These questions have a variety of answers and will need to be addressed on a case by case basis. On the other hand archaeologist Paul Mullins reminds us that the benefits of 3-D scanning artifacts exceed practical connections such as access. 3-D images can help us document artifacts as well as re-visualize them… drawing our eye to elements that we may have missed with our rote necessity to assign form/function and then it store away (Mullins 2014). Therefore challenging archaeologists to reframe our basic assumptions about visual observations, especially in the digital realm.

     3-D imaging is a useful technology that can address both our short-term fieldwork goals and long-term curation and dissemination goals. Producing 3-D images of CAP artifacts can create another connection between archaeology and the MSU Community. Who knows what 3-D reproductions can lead to of alumni memorabilia, increased digital collaboration with other campus archaeology programs, or cool additions to MSU Second LIfe! The possibilities are endless.

     Stay tuned for my next blog posts that provide step by step instructions for creating your own 3-D images such as the one below and our next steps in creating 3-D images of some of our artifacts!

Author: Blair Zaid

Mullins, Paul. 2014. “More Real than Real: Re-Visualizing the Digital Artifact.” Archaeology and Material Culture. Online http://paulmullins.wordpress.com/2014/04/29/more-real-than-real-re-visualizing-the-digital-artifact/.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *