The Abstract features interesting research and the people behind it.
Davide Tanasi is a digital archaeologist at the University of South Florida. He creates highly detailed 3D scans of archaeological artifacts that can be viewed online or used to create 3D printed replicas.
Why is it important to digitize these artifacts as 3D objects?
It helps spread knowledge about them and guarantees that they will be passed to future generations. For example, the USF Libraries Farid Karam M.D. Lebanon Antiquities Collection is one of the largest collection of Lebanese archaeological artifacts in the U.S. Some of the objects are 3,500 years old. Due to space and personnel restrictions, it was never exhibited and made fully available to the general public. Being unpublished, hardly accessible and poorly visible online, it basically does not exist. Our project to recreate the collection in 3D is called the Virtual Karam Project. It allows us to share those objects around the world, hopefully triggering interest to curate and display the collection.
How do you scan them?
The 3D models of archaeological artifacts must be geometrically accurate to satisfy interested scholars but also realistic enough to engage the public. The “body” of the artifacts is captured with an ultra-precision 3D scanner integrated into a measuring robotic arm. The multicolored “skin” is acquired via a set of high quality digital photographs. From the combination of the two features comes the actual 3D model.
How common is it for museums to create 3D images of their collections?
The fire which recently destroyed the National Museum of Brazil was a global wake up call for curators to start plans for the 3D digitization of historical and archaeological collections. Plans not just for simple archiving and dissemination purposes but also to create a sister digital collection, which can be 3D printed and function as a “surrogate” in case the originals are destroyed. With the British Museum and the Smithsonian Institution leading the charge, it is becoming more common even for small museums to start virtualization projects for their collections.
What other kinds of collections are you digitizing in this way?
I’m working on the Joseph Veach Noble Collection at the Tampa Museum of Art, a group of 150 artifacts, mostly high quality Greek black and red-figure pottery from Athens, Attica and South Italy. Another one of my projects involves the Luigi Palma di Cesnola Collection of Cypriot Antiquities, which includes exquisite examples of ancient pottery and statues ranging between 2,500 B.C. to 400 A.D. Both collections are largely unpublished, only partly accessible to the local public, with poor digital representation.
How do you hope people will use these digital collections?
They are an advanced archival record for the museum. But the 3D models can also be built in Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality experiences for the public. Digital replicas can also be used by scholars in every part of the world or to popularize archaeology or trigger interest towards a certain museum or site. Digital collections can also be integrated in the teaching curriculum at K-12 and university level for history, art history and anthropology.
In spite of the gore, I sit completely transfixed by the deft movements of Sarah’s hands as she butchers a young spotted seal laid out on a strip of cardboard on the floor. “Can I help with anything?” I ask. She laughs as she separates out the meat from the fat and the fat from the skin and suggests that I can do the dishes if I like.
This is my third trip to the village of Quinhagak on the western coast of Alaska, surrounded by a landscape of vast expanses of tundra and an intertwined tangle of lakes and rivers which feed into the Bering Sea.
The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region of Alaska is home to the Yup’ik people, who practise a largely subsistence lifestyle characterised by seasonal hunting, fishing and gathering. An archaeological dig happens here each year over the brief summer season between July and August, although seasonal changes, once like clockwork, are becoming less distinct because of climate disruption.
The dig, which goes back nearly a decade, was initiated by the local community with the aim of rescuing the remains of an old sod house in a nearby area known as Nunalleq, or “the old village”, before it is lost to permafrost melt and a crumbling coastline. The site dates from between 1570 and 1675, decades before Yup’ik first came into contact with Russian and European traders.
The excavations, led by a team from Aberdeen University in Scotland, were well underway by the time I joined in 2017. The project has recovered some 100,000 artefacts which were put on public display for the first time in August 2018 at the Nunalleq Culture and Archaeology Centre in Quinhagak.
As a reconstruction artist, it is my job to translate archaeological findings into renderings of life in the past. In Quinhagak, I was tasked with collaborating with the local community to co-design a digital resource for schoolchildren. It tells the story of the excavations in a way that makes space for the traditional Yup’ik worldview and contemporary parallels in subsistence, dance and crafts.
Within this resource, 3D-scanned artefacts and animated reconstructions of village life at Nunalleq can be explored on a computer screen, accompanied by soundbites, videos and interactive content co-curated by the Quinhagak community and the archaeologists. It will be available to the public here from July 2019.
The purpose of my trip in April 2019 was to test the resource on school computers in the village. This trip was outside the usual dig season so I stayed with a local family. My host was schoolteacher Dora Strunk, who was raised in Quinhagak and whose children belong to a generation in the village who grew up with the archaeology project.
Whether it was bouncing across the tundra on Dora’s four-wheeler to collect kapuukuq greens, or sitting in her daughter Larissa’s bedroom listening to her explain the meaning behind her traditional dance regalia, these friendships have gradually reshaped my own understanding of what it means to be Yup’ik in the 21st century.
What heritage means
I’ve heard objections to the collection being housed in the village: shouldn’t it be in a big museum in Anchorage or New York where more people can see it, “for the greater good”?
What I have learned during my visits here is that there is a need to maintain heritage within a community – and to allow it to be part of the here and now. Heritage is often seen as being focused on fragmented artefacts and ruinous buildings, but for many people, particularly indigenous and descendant communities, it can be intrinsically connected to a sense of social identity and cohesion.
Like many indigenous communities across the world, Yup’ik are still dealing with the effects of deep historic trauma from centuries of colonisation, exploitation and misrepresentation. Yet unlike the majority of Native Americans in the lower 48 states, Alaska Native land isn’t compacted into Indian reservations. People still traverse the vast expanse of tundra and coastline like their ancestors did thousands of years ago.
That said, maintaining this connection to land and tradition does not constitute a bygone era. Yup’ik is a living culture fully part of the modern world, with Snapchat and drum dances, microwave pizza and walrus ivory carving, snow machines and subsistence practices – even Facebook feeds filled with Yup’ik memes. Culture persists.
Establishing the Nunalleq centre in Quinhagak and helping to create the digital resource with the Yup’ik community is part of the same mindset that is prompting a handful of museums to repatriate artefacts and remains to descendant communities – while others come under mounting pressure to do so.
Here and now
My latest trip coincided with the district’s annual dance festival, which brought together schools from across the region. I had worked with young people from the local group the previous summer, who had chosen to interpret the excavation of dance regalia from Nunalleq by writing a new traditional drum song or yuraq about the site. They performed it again at this year’s festival.
During the festival, many youngsters came to the museum to see the artefacts. I witnessed teenagers pulling open drawers containing wooden dance masks, drum rings, ivory earrings, bentwood bowls and harpoons with trembling hands. Big kids lifted little kids up to peer into the cabinets and gasp, asking: “These all came from down there? From our beach?”
The “greater good” is right here: not only the collection being housed in Quinhagak, but also the work the village is doing to take charge of its story and share it with the wider world through outreach like the Nunalleq Educational Resource.
For Quinhagak, the past is not a place which is independent from the present. For the younger generation especially, the past is becoming a space for engaging with their heritage which they are continually transforming and reimagining in the present.