Winter Research: Scanning Skulls

Vindolanda Trust - Tuesday, January 08, 2019

The excavation season may well be over, and the coldest months of the year may be upon us, but work does not stop during the winter at Vindolanda. Research continues even when, like in January, we are closed to the public for essential maintenance and re-displaying of cases.

 

A number of specialists visit the Vindolanda Trust every year during the winter season, in order to conduct research on our artefacts. One of them is Rhys Williams, a graduate tutor and PhD candidate at Teesside University studying the processes of preservation in bone, and specifically the chemical and microbiological reasons for which certain bones buried in certain conditions are better preserved than others. While you can learn more about Rhys' PhD research on the TUBA blog here (https://blogs.tees.ac.uk/tuba/page/2/) today we will be talking about Rhys' other research interest: three dimensional visualisation of artefacts to enhance outcomes of public engagement.

 

One of Vindolanda's unique attractions is that, if you visit us during excavation time (in 2019, this will be Monday to Friday 8th of April to 20th of September) you may witness an artefact being excavated before your very eyes. If you are part of the volunteer crew, you will get to hold shoes, brooches and other artefacts which have been buried in the ground, untouched, for more than a thousand years. For many, it is the thrill of such discovery and the possibility of touching it with their own hands that brings them back to Vindolanda again and again.

 

However, certain artefacts are extremely fragile. You may have visited us during excavation season, and the archaeologists may have shown you an artefact fresh from the trenches, but you were not allowed to hold it because of its delicate state of preservation. Rhys works with us to find a solution to this problem, and to further our research in the way some of our bovine skulls were used as target practice.

He uses a 3D scanner to capture multiple digital images of the same skull, which he then merges into one model that can easily be manipulated, printed in different materials and even forwarded across the world in digital format.

 

Fig.1 : Some of the skulls selected for scanning. The white board is a calibration board. The scanner uses the dots on it to adjust position and prepare to capture the images.


The implications of Rhys' work, and the work of many researchers in the field of 3D imaging, are potentially immense. 3D models not only allow the public to manipulate objects which are usually kept inside cases, but allow specialists to study artefacts remotely in ways previously unthinkable. For example, thanks to Rhys' scanning, we can attempt to match projectiles to the holes they produced in skulls and learn more about the physics of each shot. In other fields pottery specialists could be able to access databases of shapes and stamps which have been digitised and are ready to download. Extremely delicate artefacts could be scanned in order to minimise handling and maximise interpretation. Collections could be made available to schools who would not otherwise had access to any archaeological materials.

 

Here, today, by producing 3D models of  bovine skulls which have been subject to trauma and target practice shooting we are taking a small step towards making all of this possible.

Fig 2: Rhys shows us how a model looks after several scans of the same skull have been taken and overlapped

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