This summer, three members of the Virtebra team (graduate students Kathryn Patterson, Jane Holmstrom, and myself, Mariana Zechini) have been scanning artifacts from various sites across Northwest Florida for the University of West Florida’s Archaeology Institute. The goal of this summer-long project is to digitize important artifacts from archaeological sites such as the recently discovered Luna settlement, the Emanuel Point shipwrecks, the Wernicke site, and Hickory Ridge. We have already been working nonstop for four weeks scanning, printing, and painting 3D objects.

We employ one 3D scanner and two different 3D printers in the laboratory. A NextEngine Desktop 3D scanner is used to scan artifacts, which are edited using the associated ScanStudioHD software. We use a Fusion3 3D printer and associated Simplify3D software to print olive jar necks (see below) and we use the MakerBot Replicator 2 printer to print most of the other artifacts.  The Fusion3 printer uses both PLA and ABS filament, while the MakerBot only uses PLA. Using both printers, we are able to move forward on multiple projects at one time.


The Fusion3 printer (left) and the MakerBot Replicator 2 printer (right). The Fusion3 is printing an olive jar neck in black plastic and the MakerBot is printing a ceramic sherd in white plastic.


Mariana Zechini (left) and Jane Holmstrom (right) wait patiently for the MakerBot to begin printing.


Our painting station.

Once the artifacts are printed, the final step is to paint them. Since the filament only comes in solid colors, painting the plastic artifact allows them to look more realistic to the viewer, giving them a better idea of what the object truly looks like. Using Liquitex acrylic paint, we apply a thin layer of a light beige color to each object first. Doing this provides a nice base layer which creates richer and more even color and will cover the original color of the filament, which looks less natural. Once the base layer is done, we paint the object with 1-2 layers of paint, in mostly varying shades of browns, blacks, and whites, and then wait patiently for it to dry.

Our first objective this summer was to print 60 plastic replicas of an olive jar neck found at the Luna settlement. The printed replicas were then painted to look like the real artifact with the goal of allowing viewers to handle a realistic plastic version of the object to better understand it. This olive jar was critical in the interpretation of the site because it was one of the many sherds of 16th century Spanish ceramics that link the site to Luna’s expeditions.  In 1559, Tristan de Luna y Arellano brought 1,500 soldiers, colonists, slaves, and Aztec Indians from Veracruz, Mexico to Pensacola, making this settlement the oldest in the U.S. and predating St. Augustine by 6 years and Jamestown by 48 years.


The real olive jar neck found at the Luna settlement.


Plastic replicas of the olive jar neck that have been 3D printed and painted.

The olive jar neck presents a wonderful example of the many applications of 3D scanning to public archaeology. The olive jar artifact is an important part of the archaeological site and through 3D scanning, printing, and painting the object to look more realistic, we are able to showcase this special artifact creating a more intimate relationship with archaeology and the public. Since three different people are painting 60 olive jars over the course of the summer, each plastic model is unique, which is representative of the variation one would see in a larger collection of ceramics. This project is ongoing and as of early June, more than two-thirds of the olive jars have been completed.

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The real artifacts (left) next to the painted replicas (right).

Another major task for this summer was to scan ceramic sherds from the Wernicke site. There were a total of 14 ceramic sherds with various incisions. Some bared incisions such as a stylized skull with teeth, linear and circular designs, or punctations. Some of the pieces still have small nodes or handles that were originally attached to the vessel. This project took about three weeks to complete from scanning each sherd to painting them. We ran into a few difficulties during the scanning process, mainly file issues associated with loss of color on the objects. While scanning an artifact, the NextEngine scanner takes photos of the object and uses those to import color onto the digital model. While it is not necessary for the file to have color in order to print it, the color is useful when using the 3D model in presentations, showcasing it online, or sharing it on various media platforms. During the first week of scanning the artifacts from the Wernicke site, we managed to scan about half of them before most of the files lost color, resulting in us having to re-scan each damaged file. While this took extra time and prevented us from scanning other artifacts, we were able to produce high-quality, colorful digital images and 3D plastic models which will be shared with other researchers and archaeologists.

We also worked on six other artifacts uncovered from the Luna site. These included a spindle whorl (or bead; archaeologists are not completely sure yet), a lead weight, a crossbow tip, an ear spool, and two ceramics: one Aztec piece and one Spanish majolica piece (Columbia Plain type). These were scanned in conjunction with the pieces from the Wernicke site and took about two and a half weeks to scan, print, and paint. These artifacts showcase the other groups living in the area during the time of Luna’s expeditions and are a great example of Pensacola’s rich history and cultural heritage.


A piece of undecorated Spanish majolica from the Luna site scanned and edited by Kathryn Patterson.

Our next two projects involve two different ways of mending plastic models without glue: with magnets and with wooden pegs. Graduate student Janene Johnston is looking to magnetically mend the three plastic models of a Civil War case shot recovered from the Natural Bridge Battlefield Historic State Park. The model will be given to the Park Service to allow visitors a hands-on learning experience. Our other project involves mending a small Apalachee ceramic jar from the Mission San Joseph de Escambe without using glue or tape, per graduate student Jennifer Knutson‘s request. Jennifer is working on creating lesson plans that highlight 3D scanning and its use in teaching archaeology to K-12. We are helping her to find creative ways to mend the broken vessel to use in upcoming lessons and activities.

Stay tuned for upcoming posts about our other adventures with 3D scanning and printing!