Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Making 3D Scans of Artefacts for Community and Public Archaeology Part I

Making 3D Scans of Artefacts for Community and Public Archaeology

Part I- Background to 3D Technology in Archaeology

For my final project for our Digital Archaeology and Digital Heritage course, I decided to try my hand at 3D scanning using the facilities at the Sustainable Archaeology Centre in London, Ontario. As an avid fan of cool technology, this seemed like a great and flawless plan. I mean, it’s better than writing a paper, right? Well, it’s been a good experience overall. It was sometimes frustrating. Some days, after sitting in front of a computer screen for hours trying to learn complex software, I ended up ripping my hair out and asking why I didn't just write a damn paper. But through the process I learned some good skills that I’ll (hopefully) be putting to use later for my thesis project. Since my journey was lot of trial and error (and more error), I’m making this blog post to run through my methods. I want to be as transparent as possible so that others can use my methods (or not use them) if doing a similar project in the future. This blog post (Part I), will give a background on 3D scanning in  archaeology and community archaeology, and Part II will give a more detailed overview of my methods for creating digital 3D scans and some of my results.

A preview of my 3D model of a bifacial knife

In recent years, many archaeologists have begun to use 3D technology within their research and public dissemination. In research, 3D scans provide detailed representations of artefacts that can be replicated and manipulated from anywhere in the world. Researchers can “handle” artefacts, making observations and measurements without physically travelling to a collection. 3D scans, after completion, also have the potential to save a lot of time for curation staff and researchers working within curation facilities. These are some of the main ideas at work in the Sustainable Archaeology Centre, which is currently working its way up to providing these services to Ontario archaeology. The Virginia Commonwealth University has a similar project in the works.

For this project, I was more interested in how 3D models of artefacts could be useful in community and public archaeology, or archaeology by the people for the people. As it is, several archaeologists have started to use 3D scans to provide a resource to descendant communities, local communities, and the general public. It’s probably no surprise to anyone reading this that ownership of the past is a major political issue that plays out through archaeological remains. Some scholars have tried to use 3D technology to digitally repatriate communities with artefacts that were removed from a community or a country in past decades and centuries and have not been physically repatriated. A good large-scale example is the Parthenon Project, in which sculptures that were removed from the archaeological site in Athens in the 1800s and have not been (and likely will not ever be) physically repatriated were digitally reunited with the Parthenon in a short CG animated film using 3D scanning.

This same concept can play out with smaller communities too. If there is a conflict of interest between archaeologists and communities over the rightful ownership or stewardship of an artifact, 3D scans may be of use. Archaeologists can create a keep a digital copy of the artifact while the original is kept in the community. Similarly, items that cannot be physically repatriated can be copied and those copies can be given to a community. And 3D models can be recreated in 3D printers too, allowing for physical replicas of artefacts in addition to digital copies.

And let's face it, 3D models are pretty cool. As archaeologists, we might be interested in lists of calliper measurements and typological classifications of notch widths on projectile points, but these don't necessarily translate to the interests of other people. 3D models made available online can allow people to interact with archaeological materials however they like, coming up with their own ideas and interpretations of the artefacts. This has great potential for collaborative research. Mobile 3D devices and apps, such as Autodesk 123D Catch can even allow archaeologists to make 3D models while in the field with communities. And did I mention how cool 3D printers are? There are so many possibilities with 3D models that are only in their beginnings in archaeology.

This is not to imply that 3D scans are a miracle fix-all to the issues present in archaeology. In reality, there are many new issues that come up. Are digital copies the same as originals? Are 3D copies subject to copyright? Who has the right to view and use these copies? Is digital repatriation the same as physical repatriation to a descendant or local community? As it turns out, there is a lot of debate surrounding these questions and, not surprisingly, Western philosophies regarding objects and copies can differ wildly from Indigenous philosophies. These are big questions, and I certainly won’t be able to engage with them in this blog post. But they were on my mind while I was doing this work, and I hope they’re in mind for others as well. 3D technology is cool and all, but it’s certainly not void of its own issues in heritage and archaeology.

Additionally, 3D scanning isn’t really all that accessible to the average archaeologist. This is starting to change as technology becomes more affordable and as software becomes more user friendly. As it is, though, the hardware and software needed for scanning are costly, and there is a steep learning curve involved in using them. New questions start to arise with this technology- is 3D scanning worth the costs in time, labour, and money? Is this something that is actually realistic for a community archaeology project? Can scans be created in a reasonable amount of time, and then can they be made accessible to the general public? These are more of the questions that I hope to approach with this project. I certainly don’t have all of the answers, but I feel like I’ve come across some good insights about 3D scanning in archaeology through this project.

Make sure to check out Part II of this post to see more cool things!

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