Archaeology in the Palm of Your Hand

New technologies are redefining how archaeologists share the past with the present.  The thrill of discovery, our methodologies and interpretations, and the need to preserve vital, irreplaceable resources – we struggle every day with the challenge of communicating these concepts to the public.  The Fairfield Foundation launched a new initiative in 2017 to tackle some of these issues using drones, photogrammetry, and 3D printing.

The primary goal of the project is to demonstrate the process of archaeology at the Fairfield Plantation site in Gloucester County.  The 1694 manor house has been the focus of excavations since 2000 by our team of professional archaeologists involving hundreds of volunteers each year.  The process of excavation, and the historical discoveries made to date, inform and educate everyone involved and we believe it is crucial that this outdoor classroom and laboratory experience be accessible to all.

We use a DJI Phantom 4 Pro drone to photograph the surface after the completion of every excavated layer. Agisoft PhotoScan transforms the photographs into a highly detailed digital elevation model, creating a virtual landscape alongside an archaeological archive that is far more detailed than standard documentation would produce. Repeating this process after the excavation of each layer allows us to accurately portray the archaeological layers we excavate.  More important, though, is the overlay of these scans using precise locational data.  From this we can create three-dimensional polygons of each excavation unit and layer and graphically demonstrate the excavation process.

This is only half of the process, though.  Much of the interest and appeal of archaeology is derived from tactile experiences.  3D printing technology now allows us to take the individual polygons and print, paint, and assemble them like a puzzle.  This can be achieved with older field documentation as well, although some additional manipulation is necessary to compensate for fewer excavation photos and less elevation data.  The result is stunning and our preliminary outreach programs suggest that it not only connects users with the space, but also provokes discussions regarding archaeological methods and interpretation. 

Our initial prototype, displayed here, combines older and current excavation areas for the south gable of the manor house.  As our excavations continue, we will expand the printed area to cover the entirety of the 60’ x 80’ foundation.  We are also designing and printing the manor house, which burned in 1897 and was dismantled shortly thereafter.  Six photographs and the archaeological evidence provide us with a blueprint for this stage of the project, and the benefit of 3D printing is that we can easily redesign and reprint any mistakes.  Printing the missing architectural elements as individual elements (ie. windows, doors, walls, etc.) rather than complete units, will extend the educational potential of the entire project. 

The digital and physical models will be made available to the public at no charge and updated with each excavation season.  Students and teachers across the globe will be able to download and print the Fairfield archaeological site and the Manor House and use our lesson plans to teach about archaeology, architecture, history, and public engagement.  We hope that the project will also encourage the public to visit the Fairfield Plantation Archaeological Park and participate in the ongoing excavations.

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Authors: Ashley McCuistion, Dr. David Brown and Thane Harpole (fairfield@fairfieldfoundation.org)

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