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A brass lion counterweight from Jamestown, being scanned in the Virtual Curation Lab. Photo by Jay Paul
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The scanned image. Photo by Jay Paul
It started as a way to fill the hour that it takes Virginia Commonwealth University anthropology instructor Bernard Means and his students to commit a single historical artifact to computer memory with his 3-D scanner. "We decided we could play a game or something," he says. "Chess just seemed to evolve organically."
But this is no ordinary game of chess. Tiny replicas of jug fragments, animal bones, arrowheads and figurines make up the pawns, knights and other chess pieces created by the 3-D printer at the Virtual Curation Laboratory, set up in 2011 to compile a virtual catalog of artifacts from sites such as Jamestown, George Washington's Ferry Farm and James Madison's Montpelier.
The results of the hourlong scanning jobs — intricate, 360-degree images of each artifact — are proving an invaluable way of making such items accessible to archaeologists and researchers across the globe. But the printed 3-D chess pieces are also making quite an impression, and nearer to home.
In the past month, for example, Means has shown these and other replica items — which it takes the printer 20 to 30 minutes to "build" from tiny layers of corn-based plastic — at two schools and two archaeology conferences. One of the schools was Richmond Waldorf, where Means brought life-size replicas and a full set of chess pieces to Katie Bullington's fourth-grade class. "He showed the students many artifacts — human and animal, tools and pottery shards," Bullington says. Being able to touch them, as well as see their relative sizes, "really helped them ‘get' stuff." Means also gave the chess set to the group, and Bullington says it will be kept and handed down to each successive fourth-grade class.
A relationship with the Historic Jamestowne site is also enabling access to the lab's creations. There, the 3-D models are shared during public tours. "One of the things we've printed for them is a butchered dog [jawbone]," Means says. "The real one is too fragile to even show to people, but they take the copy out and hand it to people."
"There's a big ‘wow' factor to it," says Jeff Aronowitz of the site's Jamestown Rediscovery Project. "To hold the artifact yourself, you're getting the scale and seeing the engravings. For example, the animal remains, you can feel the butcher marks."
Means says it's the lab's mission to "preserve and make the past more accessible," and he plans to broaden the lab's educational and outreach efforts. Meanwhile, that scanning time is giving the professor and his students lots of opportunity to think about future chess sets. "I'm planning on doing a Hollywood Cemetery set," Means says. "We've scanned three grave markers so far, so we need six more."