Pieces of Virginia history made here

| March 1, 2014

Jamestown Rediscovery senior staff archaeologist David Givens works carefully to remove excess material from an artifact produced using three-dimensional digital imaging and printing. Photos by Meridith De Avila Khan.

David Givens’ fingers worked carefully at the object in his hands, attempting to separate one kind of plastic stuck to another.

“Why do I feel like it’s my birthday?” he joked.

For Givens, a senior staff archaeologist at the Jamestown Rediscovery Archaeological Project, the jagged white hunk — a reproduced piece of a 400-year-old Virginia Indian-English artifact — was a gift of 21st-century technology. Made of ABS plastic and still warm from a 3D printer, it was bonded to a brittle plastic material that prints along with the object to support it as the layers build into the final product. He was trying to remove the support pieces.

It took 24 hours in the printer to physically produce the piece. It was a six-month process to go from excavated ceramic shards found at James Fort to seeing the technology unfold before a gathering of collaborators on Feb. 28 at Sweet Briar College’s Margaret Jones Wyllie ’45 Engineering Program.

Engineering instructor Bethany Brinkman led the printing process for Sweet Briar, which donated the use of the printer. GoMeasure3D, a company based just 3 miles from the College in Amherst, offered its expertise and equipment to digitally scan pottery shards found at the site of the first permanent English settlement in America.

Bethany Brinkman explains how the 3D printer works.

President Darryl Motley says his company used a high-definition imaging white light scanner to capture the images of the existing fragments at Jamestown’s lab. GoMeasure3D then processed the data to generate 3D computer replicas of the pieces the archaeologists didn’t find — so the missing parts could be physically replaced, in other words.

By filling the voids in the originals, conservators aim to display whole examples of 17th-century English and Virginia Indian ceramics — rather than difficult-to-visualize pieces or artificial reproductions.

It’s all part of a new exhibit at the Voorhees Archaearium, the archaeological museum at Historic Jamestowne.

Michael Lavin, a senior conservator at Preservation Virginia, the century-old private non-profit organization that operates Jamestown Rediscovery and the museum, says roughly one-fifth of the archaearium’s displays will change to focus on Virginia Indians. Called “World of Pocahontas,” it will open in June, two months after the 400th anniversary of Pocahontas’ marriage to John Rolfe on April 5, 1614.

Some 48,000 shards of Indian pottery have been found within James Fort since its footprint was discovered in 1996. Combined with the historical record, they reveal how the colonists incorporated Virginia Indian identity, objects and technology into their material culture, Givens said. It offers a new perspective on Jamestown that will be seen for the first time through the exhibit.

Rolfe’s marriage to Pocahontas smoothed relations between the English and the Indians led by her father, Powhatan, ushering in several peaceful years. But the bounty of excavated material shows that the two peoples had always cooperated more than once thought, Givens said. He held the proof in his hands.

The fragment, about one-sixth of the whole, came from an insulated ceramic “muffle” made by pipe maker Joseph Cotton to fire his clay pipes. Without a pottery wheel, Cotton made these small kilns by hand. In this example, he pressed clay inside a thrush basket — a native technology — to serve as a form. The basket’s weave impression remains on the outside of the pot.

The artifact still in the 3D printer. The smooth-edged pieces support the object as it is formed and will be removed.

“When he fired it, the basket burned away leaving the negative on the outside,” Givens said. “So through this [imaging and printing] process here, we’re going to end up creating a positive of the only Virginia Indian basket that’s ever been seen.”

If other examples exist, he said, Virginia archaeologists aren’t aware of them. Even better, they know its provenance, including that it was discarded by June 1610.

“In archaeology, context is everything,” Givens said. “I can’t tell you that this basket was with Pocahontas but she, John Smith and John Rolfe were walking around when this basket was used. Certainly one of them laid their hands on it or their eyes. … So if I look a little nervous while I am holding that plastic thing it’s because I’m holding something that hasn’t been seen [in over 400 years]. It’s pretty cool.”

During their visit to Sweet Briar, Givens and Lavin took film and photographs for a YouTube video and a companion book for the “World of Pocahontas.” As the group left for a tour of Sweet Briar’s engineering labs, the 3D printer was spooling out layers of melted plastic that quickly hardens. In 16 hours it would be another chunk of Robert Cotton’s 400-year-old pot.

Jennifer McManamay

 

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Category: Engineering Science