3D Printing and Conservation

Tracy H. Jenkins

In our field, we’re constantly developing new techniques and technologies to improve our ability to discover, preserve, and share the past.  Recently, Archaeology in Annapolis has been conserving iron artifacts associated with a spiritual deposit at Wye House Plantation in Talbot County, Maryland.  We believe that about a dozen iron objects laid near the corner of one of the slave quarters and in close proximity to a number of circular objects may represent an altar to the Yoruba deity Ogun, the god of the forge.  In order to verify this hypothesis and to protect the rusted remains of these items, we set out to stabilize and identify each fragment of iron from this deposit.

Conservation of iron objects refers to a number of ways of taking the rust off, leeching out impurities, and coating the artifact with a barrier to humidity and oils from our skin that would lead to further deterioration.  Because this is a destructive process, it can sometimes damage the artifacts, especially when there is so little original iron left that the artifact is only held together by rust.  As a result, we make it standard practice to photograph each artifact before it enters the conservation process so that we have a record of it.  Recently, we have taken this to the next level with 3D scanning.

Makerbot 3D printer working on the hoe blade replica

Makerbot 3D printer working on the hoe blade replica

In 2014, The University of Maryland equipped McKeldin Library with a Makerspace, a room dedicated to the new technologies of 3D.  The makerspace contains 3D scanners, printers, modeling software, and a vinyl cutter.  Any student can register to use the space!  Students can also rent handheld scanners from the help desk on the 2nd floor of the library, and the makerspace also offers online training and help from an IT specialist.  Special thanks to Preston Tobery for all his help!

After checking out one of the scanners, a Sense scanner by Cubify, we brought it back to the lab and scanned the hoe blade.  The software the scanner uses has a program in it to recognize objects, so it was easy to isolate the artifact in our model.  After a bit of editing, we had a fairly accurate representation of the hoe blade!  We then transferred the file to the makerspace computer and sent it to the printer, running it overnight.  The result is an almost perfect copy of the fragile hoe blade in durable plastic.  This copy will be going into our new exhibit in Hornbake Library on our excavations at Wye House!

Original hoe blade and 3d-printed replica.  Print was made using a Cubify Sense scanner and a Makerbot printer.

Original hoe blade and 3d-printed replica. Print was made using a Cubify Sense scanner and a Makerbot printer.



Winter Update

IMG_20151203_104845_414 (1)This fall has been a busy semester in the lab.  We began to process artifacts from our field season, gave a public lecture in Easton, and celebrated the dedication of Frederick Douglass Square on campus.  A dedicated crew of undergraduates worked steadily to wash, photograph, and sort artifacts from the 2014-2015 shovel test pit survey at Bethel A.M.E. Church in Easton, MD.  With about 100 STPs dug on a 10-foot grid, having materials from this close-interval survey finally ready for analysis should reveal some of the complexities of this site, which is unusually deep, large, and stratified compared with most sites we have worked with over the past many years.  Thanks to Katie Mayer, Joshua Finken, Kristin Ngo, Katie Calvert, Becca Lane, Stephanie Callahan, and Tim Vettel for their hard work!  Tracy Jenkins will be cataloging these artifacts over the winter break.

We have also spent this Fall making some preliminary interpretations of an African-American spiritual deposit from Wye House Plantation in Talbot County.  Junior Sarah Buchanan cataloged this deposit over the course of the semester and identified which artifacts were ritually significant.  Tracy Jenkins has steadily worked to conserve two dozen iron artifacts that were placed to the south of the main deposit so that we can identify the artifacts and their significance to the total picture of spiritual practice in this location on the plantation.

041Having washed most of the artifacts from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center during our excavation there this summer, Sarah Janesko cataloged the assemblage this Fall and she and Trish Markert have been working on a site report for our two years of excavation there.

Stefan Woehlke continued his work at Montpelier in addition to teaching a section of Introduction to Archaeology.  He has forged new connections with descendants of African Americans who lived and worked as tenant farmers after the Civil War at what was once President James Madison’s home.  He has also been using the University of Maryland’s 3-D laser scanner to systematically map the results of excavations around the Montpelier mansion over the past several years.  This will enable archaeologists there to stitch together the fruits of many field seasons and more fully reconstruct the historical landscape.

What’s on the horizon?

Winter break for us is a time for analysis and writing.  The upcoming Society for Historical Archaeology annual meeting January 6-10 will be held this year in Washington, D.C., at the Omni Shoreham Hotel and the University of Maryland Department of Anthropology has a strong showing.  For our part, Archaeology in Annapolis staff and student contributions include the following:

  • Sarah Janesko “Remembering the Tenant Farmers: A Comparison of Two Late 19th-Century Tenant Farm Dwellings in Maryland” Thursday 4:30pm.
  • Stefan Woehlke “Developing an Ecological Interpretation of Land Use in Virginia’s Piedmont: The Montpelier Example” Friday 2:15pm.
  • Ashley Rivas “Gender Ideals in 19th and 20th Century Easton, Maryland: An Analysis of Toys and Family Planning Material in Historically African-American Communities” Thursday 2:00pm.
  • Benjamin Skolnik “The Aura of Things: Locating Authenticity and the Power of Objects” Friday 4:00pm.
  • Mark Leone will participate in a forum discussion on “Catching Up with Caches: The Latest on African Diasporic Spirit Practices in the Archaeological Record,” chaired by Garrett Fesler, Thursday 1:00pm.
  • Tracy Jenkins will participate in a forum discussion on “Historic Black Lives Matter: Archaeology as Activism in the 21st Century,” chaired by Kelley Deetz, Thursday 9:00am.
  • Mark Leone and Kathryn Deeley will lead a tour of Archaeology in Annapolis’ work for over 30 years in downtown historic Annapolis, Wednesday 9:30am.

Meanwhile, we continue analysis on materials from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and Bethel A.M.E. Church.


Public Lecture at the Avalon Theater, October 8th

Archaeology Presentation

The Archaeology of the Early African American Community of Talbot County 
Thursday, October 8, 6–7:30 pm
Avalon Theatre, Easton, Maryland
African American Independence and Resilience
Religious, Medical
, & Gardening Practices

Free refreshments! Including adult beverages! 
Archaeology in the early African American Community in Easton and excavations at Wye House, near Easton, show the origins of independent black communities whose members sustained themselves with new, African inspired religious traditions, medical traditions, and gardening traditions, all of which can be found through archaeology. This talk by University of Maryland archaeologists shows the connections between African American life on historic plantations and African American life among free people in Easton.

Notes from the Field, Summer 2015

Feature Excavation

-Katie Mayer


An archaeological feature is a context that interrupts the soil stratigraphy of a single unit – while the strata within the unit are horizontal, the feature is marked by its vertical position.  Usually this means that in the past, people dug out a section of the land, leaving an empty pit that was later filled in with newer soil.  The pit could have originally been dug out either to make room for new material such as a post or foundation, or to gather the material within it (soil and inclusions) for a new purpose.


Katie Mayer and Ashley Rivas recover artifacts through a screen at Bethel Church

Katie Mayer and Ashley Rivas recover artifacts through a screen at Bethel Church

In the case of Feature 3, which we recently excavated in Easton, we believe that the land was originally dug up to lay the foundation of the parsonage used by the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and was later dug up again to remove some of the bricks, after which the resulting pit was filled back in with dirt.  Thus, while the soil surrounding the feature retained its original horizontal stratigraphy, all of the soil within the feature came from a single context – most likely twentieth century, assuming that the pit was dug out after the foundation was laid.  Features like Feature 3 are known as “robber’s pits,” because at some point in time, material was taken from them.  Most of the time, however, the material was not removed during a robbery, but by the people who were using the land at the time.


Feature 3 removed

Feature 3 removed

We found Feature 3 at the end of a brick pier while excavating a strat around the remains of the foundation, leading us to the conclusion that the feature once contained more of the same bricks.  The dirt used to fill in the pit was composed largely of coal ash similar to what we found in the strat above it, and beneath the ash, we found a layer of yellow dirt belonging to what we believe is the next strat down.  While screening the soil we had excavated, we found several artifacts, including many broken pieces of brick.


In the creation of a feature, the original stratigraphy of that area is lost, so the question remains as to what the soil may have contained before it was dug out.  We map out the exact coordinates of features so that we can determine why they may have been created, based on its positioning in relation to other elements of its site.   There are some questions we can’t answer yet – for instance, where was the original soil from the pit deposited?  But by determining the context of the artifacts mixed in with the newly deposited soil, we can learn about the soil used to fill the feature, and assess which context or contexts it was taken from.


Notes for the field, Summer 2015

Public Archaeology at Bethel A.M.E. Church in Easton, Maryland

-Kyle Harper


This summer the AiA field school is conducting three weeks of archaeological excavations in the adjacent lot of the Bethel A.M.E. Church located in the historic Hill Community of Easton, Maryland. For nearly two centuries Bethel A.M.E. Church’s community-building initiative has linked African American congregates through a network of other A.M.E. Churches in the U.S. Throughout its history, Bethel A.M.E. has played a vital role in abolitionist projects such as the Underground Railroad, as well as the Civil Rights Movement, all of which have contributed to a lasting heritage of African American resilience.


Kyle Harper helps survey the site at SERC with a laser transit

Kyle Harper helps survey the site at SERC with a laser transit

For the last thirty years, AiA has fostered a strong tradition of active and critical engagement with descendant communities in the Chesapeake region. Integral to our work in Easton is a continuation of this fundamental philosophy, which incorporates elements of both public and community archaeology. One of the key aspects of public archaeology is the sharing of archaeological sites and findings with the public. When doing public archaeology, archaeologists this summer not only regard education of the public to be just as important as the research itself, but also ensure that tours of the site have a structure, and that there are both convincing and relatable ties to the present drawn from the artifacts from the past (Leone 1983).


Our work this summer at Bethel A.M.E. is a continuation from a shovel test pit survey conducted last summer. Three units have been dug this summer in the adjacent lot in locales that may reveal material artifacts, which attest to the church’s role in civic engagement and community-building. Our site has been open to the public in order to share with community members our findings and their significance, and to participate in the dig. Visitors to the site are given a tour of current excavations and are invited to participate in in an array of activities such as digging, screening for artifacts and washing of artifacts.


Community archaeology is another aspect of our work this summer in Easton. Community archaeology differs from public archaeology by seeking a more active engagement with community residents, in order to gain their input on archaeological findings, on our own interpretations of artifacts and on future research design. Additionally, when working with a descendant community, we as archaeologists seek to better understand notions of community as multi-vocal and dynamic constructs. Often our expectations of community position community members as homogenous groups who all have the same shared interests. As this is most often not the case, the idea of community should be reconciled between notions of a natural category and as a process of continual transformation. According to archaeologist Anna S. Agbe-Davies, the true reality of a community is neither “natural or essential, but rather processual or generative” (2010: 383).



While uncovering pasts that have largely been excluded from or misrepresented in mainstream Anglo-dominated history is one of our primary goals at Bethel A.M.E., AiA takes as one of its key objectives to make archaeology relevant and useful to the residents of the Hill Community. By engaging with local community members, the archaeology that is performed at Bethel A.M.E. has the potential to empower residents in their efforts to preserve the rich and diverse cultural heritage of the Hill Community.


Works Cited:

Agbe-Davies, Anna S. 2010. Concepts of Community in the Pursuit of an Inclusive Archaeology. International Journal of Heritage Studies. 16(6): 373-389.

Leone, Mark. 1983. Method as Message: Interpreting the Past with the Public. Museum News. 62(1): 34-41.


Notes from the field, Summer 2015

We’ve been busy this past summer, excavating from June through the end of August.  Now that we’ve had a chance to catch up with ourselves, here’s what we’ve been up to!  The next several posts were written by field school students about their experiences and the work we did in summer 2015.  They were really a fantastic crew and it was a pleasure working with them.


More Than One Way to Read a Census: Working on Census Transcription for AiA’s “Locating People in the Past” Project

In the past six months, I have been part of Archaeology in Annapolis’ (AiA) project “Locating People in the Past.” This innovative project takes existing historic U.S. census data and two historic maps to create new, spatial information about people living in Talbot County, Maryland in the second half of the 19th century. With the help of a grant from the Future of Information Alliance, AiA used GIS (Geographic Information Systems) to digitize the maps and census data, and combined them into an interactive, public, map.

Locating People in the Past image


How did we do it? Ben Skolnik, Beth Pruitt and Stefan Woehlke combined the 1860 U.S. Census for Talbot Co. with an 1858 map, and the 1880 U.S. Census with an 1877 map. The result is a map that shows roads, structures, property boundaries and land owners along with demographic information about the individuals, enslaved and free, living in each district in the county. One of the goals of this project was to be able to use this spatial data to better understand changes in the distribution of plantations and of the movement of enslaved and freed individuals from the height of the plantation economy (1860s) to after Emancipation (1880s).

Talbot Co 1860 Enslaved 1858 roads 1858 Dilworth Map

Example of 1858 map overtop of modern map depicting enslaved population from 1860 census. Districts in darker red indicate higher number of enslaved individuals. (http://aia.umd.edu/locate/)


  • How did plantations change geographically over this period of time?
  • Which parts of the county had the highest populations of enslaved individuals in 1860 as opposed to 1880, and what could this mean for the archaeological record?

These questions don’t have easy answers but this project is a tool with which to begin to answer them.

My involvement with this project was small but crucial for its success; ensuring that the census data from 1860 and 1880 was completely transcribed into a digital format that could be used with GIS. In other words, typing up thousands of individual entries into an excel sheet so they can be used in a digital format. I learned a lot through the transcription process about knowing how to read the census: both literally reading the handwriting of different census enumerators as well as analyzing what the census information can tell us about that point in U.S. history. I gained a better understanding of how the historical records as well as the new spatial data can be used in historical archaeology projects.

I’ll start with the question “why does this matter?” It is important for two main reasons. First, it can aid genealogical research that is important to the community. AiA continues to work with people in and around Annapolis, MD whose ancestors are known to have been in the area for many generations. Descendants will be able to search the digitized data sets for individuals using the interactive map. What makes this different from other tools like Ancestry.com is the ability to locate a person on the historic map, and then be able to compare it to a modern map. It also allows for data to be analyzed geographically and over time. In other words, ideally, we can look up a person based on the 1860 census, place them on the 1858 map, and identify how that historic data translates to our roads and buildings today. We must, however, keep in mind the limits of this data, since not every census name was matched with a name on the historic maps. Future projects of this kind will hopefully be able to increase the success rate of finding these matches. For the records that have been matched, we hope the map can fill gaps in information for living descendants.

Secondly, this project is important because it can enhance our understanding of where important archaeological sites might be as well as draw connections between the material culture and historic records at late 19th century sites. On a broader scale, this data can be used to better understand the changes that occurred after the Civil War. Transcribing hand-written census documents into a digital format like an excel sheet makes the information search-able and can be easily manipulated to see trends regarding occupations, illnesses, and race based on the sub-districts within Talbot County. For example, in transcribing the 1880 census for Talbot County I found that many black residents, while at that point free individuals, still held servant or farm laborer positions. I became interested not only in how the data changed from the 1860 to the 1880 census, but changes in how data was collected in those two census periods.

One of the major differences between the 1860 and 1880 censuses is the type of information recorded before and after emancipation. From 1860 to 1880, the U.S. Census changed in these ways:

  • Values of “real estate” and “personal estates” were no longer recorded on the schedule
  • Illnesses, disabilities and reading and writing literacy were recorded with more detail
  • All persons’ names were recorded and there was no need for a “Slave Schedule”
  • The birthplace of each person’s mother and father were added
1900 History of US Census snipit slave schedule

Report on the History of the US Census describing changes made to the 1880 Census with the omission of the Slave Schedule. (Wright-Hunt 1900)


My superficial analysis of these changes in the census show that after the American Civil War and the passing of the 13th Amendment, the US government no longer needed criteria for recording slaves and instead added criteria for tracking literacy, health and families. The 1860 census only recorded the names of free people. Enslaved individuals were recorded in aggregate with no personal identification.

Additionally, another important change to the 1880 Census was in its enumeration process. The government wanted to make the process faster and more accurate. They wanted the whole processed completed in two weeks, or 12 working days, rather than the 100 working days it took for the 1870 census to be completed. It was during the 1880 census period that a Superintendent of Census was appointed by the President under the Department of the Interior and one or two Supervisors were appointed in each state to advise on best practices for the district subdivisions. This meant there were more Census Supervisors than judicial marshals, which added “a higher degree of local knowledge” and a “closer and more direct supervision of the actual work of enumeration” (Wright-Hunt 1900). Congress was in agreement that a quicker and more detailed census of the population was worth the legislative and executive time and money spent.

Census 1880 snipit

1880 Census records showing common occupations. (1880 US Federal Census)

One of the challenges I encountered was learning how to read 19th century terms and handwriting. Many occupations were familiar, like Oysterman, Inn Keeper, or Farmer, but others like Milliner (ladies hat-maker), or Hod Carrier (brick and cement carriers) were less familiar. I also didn’t recognize some of the common illnesses for the time period. For example, “Childbed fever” came up as an illness a few times for mothers who had young children. I learned through an NPR story that Childbed fever was an illness affecting women who were exposed to germs and other infections during child birth. A Hungarian doctor, Ignaz Semmelweis, came to the conclusion that mothers who had their babies delivered by doctors who were also doing autopsies had a higher-rate of death by this illness than did mothers who had midwives (who did not perform autopsies). His discovery prompted his advocacy for hand-washing in hospitals, although he was unaware of what we know today as “germs.” It is possible that the mothers in the census who had childbed fever gave birth under similar situations which led to their illness.

In the process of digitizing these census records, I saw stories emerge from the text – both of the people recorded and of the enumerators doing the recording. I imagined what it was like for the census takers walking from home to home in the heat of June in Maryland. Did they sit at people’s tables and speak with the head of the house? Or did they draw attention from everyone in the household, like in this 1870 census depiction from the Library of Congress?

1870_census_med Library of Congress

Picture: 1870 Census drawing. Courtesy of Library of Congress.


I could see a distinct difference between each enumerator based on how completely and neatly the enumerators recorded information – understanding that they, too, were people and had different personalities that came through in their task of hand-recording the census.

The census enumerators in 1860 and 1880 were actively participating in recording their history – a snapshot of their country at a specific point in time. Today, archaeologists from the University of Maryland, are using this information to better understand the social, cultural and economic contexts of Talbot County in a postbellum America. The Locating People in the Past project set out to reveal gaps in archival information using geospatial analysis. But I believe that information about the process of data collection in the late 19th century was also revealing. The laws and protocols surrounding the census enumeration can be just as informative about how our government changed in the years after the Civil War. This concept can be applied to the archaeology we do today. Archaeology, too, requires a particular methodology in data collection which is just as important to understand as the data that we collect.

-Sarah Janesko, MAA Student, University of Maryland, College Park


Filming Archaeology at Wye House

The beginning of the video, showing images of the Wye House mansion and the Lloyd slave censuses. Source: Assemble Studio.

The beginning of the video, showing images of the Wye House mansion and the Lloyd slave censuses. Source: Assemble Studio.

Last summer was the last time Archaeology in Annapolis will likely excavate at Wye House. After a decade of our collective involvement and after five years of being out there myself, it’s an odd feeling to say goodbye to this place. Assemble Studio in Easton, Maryland, just outside of Wye House, finished two beautiful videos this week that summarize the archaeological work we’ve done there. One is a short, five minute “trailer,” and the other is the full, eleven minute version (see below). Along with vivid shots of the plantation’s landscape, historical photographs, and illustrations, the videos showcase Ben Skolnik, Dr. Leone, and I discussing the intellectual weight of our investigations. The final products took the combined efforts of a team of filmmakers, editors, archaeological staff, and field school students. Even before the day of filming, years of thought and work went into those eleven minutes.

I acted as a consultant to Eric Gravely and Patrick Rogan, who are part of the Assemble team, and who came out to Wye House last summer during our field school to film the footage you see in the videos. We worked with Mr. Rogan two years ago when we curated the Joint Heritage at Wye House exhibit at the Academy Art Museum in Easton. He designed the exhibit space to effectively tell the story of the plantation and our research. When we neared the end of that process, he and I discussed the possibility of launching an online exhibit of Joint Heritage, including professionally-produced videos and interactive educational tools. Although we don’t have the funding to create the full website yet, we didn’t want to waste our last opportunity to create the videos. For months leading up to the summer, Mr. Rogan and I considered the talking points of the exhibit and how to translate that to video. What are our main messages? How do we tie in a story of the archaeological process, the global Atlantic Slave Trade in general, and Wye House specifically together?

Continue Reading »


AiA in 3D: 3D Laser Scanning (and Printing!) at SERC and Wye House

We’ve been dealing with some very cool technology lately, both in the field and back on campus.  Ben Skolnik, Stefan Woehlke and I presented a paper at the Society of Historical Archaeology Annual Conference in Seattle talking about the costs and benefits one of AiA’s most recent and exciting tools — a 3D laser scanner.  During the summer of 2014, we were able to use it to scan our work in the field — in other words, the scanner spins, using millions of lasers to scan the landscape while also taking photographs.  Import this data into the computer software and what you have is an interactive re-creation of the landscape, unit, or feature in digital 3D.  With this type of data, Ben was even able to isolate one of the girts of a ruined frame structure at SERC and use a 3D printer to create a small-scale model.  Below you’ll find an adapted version of our paper, as well as a photos and videos of the process!!  After all, this is all about the visuals.


The FARO 3D-Scanner at SERC, 2014 AiA Field School (photo by B. Skolnik)

An Intro to 3D Laser Scanning in Archaeology

In recent years, companies such as FARO and CyArk have begun incorporating 3D laser scanners into field-ready packages.  Archaeologists have successfully employed these new 3D laser-scanning techniques to record sites such as Mount Rushmore and Merv in modern-day Turkmenistan.  Despite the potential benefits of using this technology, which produces quickly scanned, high-resolution images of topography and features, several limitations have slowed it from entering the archaeologist’s standard toolkit.  It exceeds the budget of many archaeological research projects and the large quantities of digital data recorded by these machines (often millions of points) present challenges in both manipulation and curation of these datasets.  Additionally, methodologies that incorporate these scanners as a part of excavation remain undeveloped.  This paper explores the use of a 3D laser scanner by Archaeology in Annapolis at several sites, and offers an evaluation of its successes and shortcomings as a tool to aid archaeological excavation and research.

Archaeologists have frequently turned to new and innovative technologies to assist in the excavation, recordation, and interpretation of sites.  Radio-carbon dating is perhaps the most profound example of a technology that has fundamentally changed the discipline; but there are many other tools and methodologies that have been developed that assist us in digging up the past.  As the cost of terrestrial LiDAR systems comes down, we expect that it will be used more and more frequently as a part of the archaeological toolkit.

Terrestrial LiDAR, also referred to as 3D laser scanning, uses active pulses of laser energy to create a detailed three-dimensional digital model of a mapped surface.  The instrument sends out a pulse of light in the [range of the spectrum] at a known angle.  That light energy travels along that specific trajectory until it encounters some physical object in its path.  Upon hitting this object, some of the energy is reflected back to the instrument platform.  The scanner records the time it took for the laser to make this round trip as well as the intensity of the energy returning.  Because we all known the speed of light (…299,792,458 meters per second, in case you need a reminder!) , we can take the time it took for the signal to return to the sensor, divide it by 2 (because it had to go there AND back), and divide by our speed to get the distance between our sensor and the point we just mapped. We can now change the angle at which our laser leaves the scanner and map another point.  If we repeat this process millions of times, we end up with a digital model of the surface we just mapped.  If you’ve ever spent time in the field, you’ll know how long it takes to map by hand, or even using a total station and prism — this process not only does all of this in a fraction of the time, but records everything, including exact distances.

Using the 3D Scanner at Wye House and SERC

Wye House

Excavations at Wye House in Talbot County demonstrate the value of using 3D scanning to record contexts in situ as they are excavated.  This deposit was located beneath what was once the entrance to a brick slave quarter on Wye Plantation.  The context, which consisted of a number of circular objects laid carefully beneath the entrance – including colored, white, aqua, or metallic artifacts that mediate the watery barrier between the living and the dead in African spirit practices.  This type of deposit must be carefully mapped and recorded prior to and during each stage of its removal – and this is where 3D scanning is a particularly valuable resource.  Using the scanner, millions of points were collected that allow for the deposit to be reconstructing digitally, preserving exact locations and measurable information that would normally take hours or days to record by hand.  Another benefit to using the 3D laser scanner at this site is the opportunity for community engagement with archaeology.  To put it bluntly, it’s a cool technology.  At Wye House, members of descendent community came out and watched as Ben gave a demonstration of the scanner, and were fascinating by how ‘high-tech’ our terrestrial excavations had become.  It regards to generating public interest and creating a visual product that can communicate the archaeology to a wide audience –point clouds are not only aesthetically interesting but interactive – 3D laser scanning holds a lot of potential.


During the 2014 field school at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, Archaeology in Annapolis conducted testing around the extant remains of a late 19th century frame building, likely a tenant house for the Sellman Family Farm in Edgewater, Maryland (previously a slave-holding plantation).  Now a part of the SERC campus, the wooden frame of this structure forms a visible ruin on the landscape – albeit a delicate one, as the wood has been subjected to decades of the elements.  Many of the components of the structure, including beams, girts, a fallen chimney, and brick piers, lay relatively undisturbed where they have fallen, and present the opportunity to imagine a reconstruction of the building through their careful recordation.  Our archaeology focused of the exterior of the structure so as not to disturb the fragile ruin, with test units in the front, back, and side yards, but the 3D-laser afforded us the opportunity to record what was left of the tenant house in a level of detail that drawings, maps, and photographs wouldn’t have captured alone.  With millions of points taken and stitched together, the structure can be rotated, zoomed in on, and explored in full 3D on a computer.  Further, one of our team [Ben, I’ll give you credit for this] was able to isolate one of the architectural elements from the structure – the long girt along the east [right?] side – and import it into MeshLab, allowing us to use 3D printing technology to recreate a small scale replica of the piece.  With further work, the potentials of this type of technology in archaeology present the means to recreate high-detail and 3-dimensional models of archaeological sites at every stage of excavation, both digitally and physically.

The Costs and Benefits

There are many benefits to having a tool like this available at an archaeological site like the two described above.  One is the ability to map things quickly and accurately, as we discussed in the intro section above.  This type of technology records sites and contexts so well that you would be able to go back and look at an entire context in situ, and interact with it digitally, even after it’s been removed.  (Never forget that excavation is a destructive practice — once something is taken from the ground, it cannot be put back, which makes recording one of the most important parts of our process!)  Another benefit is the potential for community engagement — exciting technology gets people interested, and is a great way to engage people of all ages at an archaeological site.  Beyond that, the images produces are both interactive and beautiful, and provide the potential for things like 3D printing.  These are the types of products that can be used in archaeological education, museum exhibits, community outreach and online resources.

There are some drawbacks to 3D scanning as well.  The main obstacle is price — it is a very expensive piece of equipment, and not all archaeology projects can afford it.  Even our scanner, which was the entry model from FARO, was an expense that we shared with our School of Architecture at the University of Maryland, College Park.  It is important to understand that in addition to the cost of the scanner itself, there are other associated costs to keep in mind.  Computers, data storage, software licenses and training must all be factored into the budget for a 3D scanner.  Another drawback is the size of the data, which requires high processing power and a lot of space for storage.  Working with these datasets can take a lot of time, depending on how fast your computer is (and some computers can’t handle it at all!).

As the cost of terrestrial LiDAR platforms comes down, it is almost certain that they will be used more and more frequently in archaeology.  This means that archaeologists will need to develop good methods for using them in the field.  As they enter our toolkits, we will need to think more about how best to use these scanners to the benefit of archaeology and the communities we work with!



Full ‘point cloud’ at SERC (screenshot by B. Skolnik)



“This Gave Me Great Influence Over Them”

Wee Frederick Douglass, Source: Kate Beaton

Wee Frederick Douglass, Source: Kate Beaton

The following is a modified version of the talk that I co-wrote with Benjamin Skolnik and presented at the Society for Historical Archaeology conference earlier this month:

As historical archaeologists, we frequently claim that our work “gives voice to the voiceless.” However, our work of “giving voice” runs into the issue that the most famous voice from our site at Wye House comes from Frederick Douglass, who shares his experiences of being enslaved there as a boy. While we write our dissertations, we attempt to articulate our relationships with Douglass as a historical figure, an author, a literary character, in popular culture, and as a guide for our archaeological work. We ask, ‘How can archaeologists use the experiences of historical figures who spoke for themselves to better tell the stories of those who could not?’

The Lloyd family and their direct descendants have owned the Wye House plantation for 11 generations. One of early Maryland’s most prominent families, the Lloyds left researchers a wealth of information that spans almost all of Maryland’s history. This site consists of many, well-documented standing structures, most relating to the 18th-19th century white owning family. It is a National Historic Landmark and has a rich and thorough collection of primary documents. The Maryland State Archives have 77 boxes of digitized reels, papers, documents, and materials donated from the Lloyd Family. Since the 1960s, the discipline of historical archaeology has turned research from solely these documents and buildings to excavate in and around the homes and workspaces of the enslaved people. Archaeology in Annapolis’s excavations at Wye have been no different as we began excavating an area described by Douglass as the Long Green in 2005.

As a witness, Douglass provides several important functions for us. His writings describe an area of the plantation generally neglected by the Lloyds’ records, visitors to the plantation, and other researchers prior to Archaeology in Annapolis. He defines the boundaries of the Long Green, a term that, to the best of our knowledge, we use because of him. He describes several buildings on the Long Green. Many are gone now and many the enslaved population on the plantation occupied. We also turn to Douglass to help us answer questions concerning material culture at Wye House. As we pulled up oyster shells from around domestic areas, we thought of Douglass writing about the people he saw using oyster shells as spoons. When we interpreted a buried cache in the doorway of a slave quarter that opens immediately onto the Lloyd family cemetery, we recalled the description that Douglass gives of the cemetery. He writes “Strange sights had been seen there by some of the older slaves. Shrouded ghosts, riding on great black horses, had been seen to enter.” This allowed us to understand the absolute necessity for the cache or spirit bundle to separate the spaces of the living and the dead.

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