“Artec Goes Arctic” with Dundee’s 3DVisLab

For the past two years, researchers from 3DVisLab have been working with the Nunalleq Archaeology Project near the Alaska Native village of Quinhagak to develop a digital educational resource to help teach local children about the excavations as well as their Yup’ik heritage.

3DVisLab at the University of Dundee is home to a small, but diverse group of practice-based researchers engaged in projects ranging from a sub-sea survey of shipwrecks to archaeological excavations and aerial reconnaissance. Data collected on these projects varies in scale from entire landscapes all the way down to individual sites and artefacts, so having reliable and adaptable methods in place is essential. The team has been using an Artec Spider scanner for a number of years. The first was shared with the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification (CAHID), also at the University of Dundee, but it didn’t take long for the scanner to become an essential part of 3DVisLab’s heritage work, so in 2018 the lab purchased their own Artec Space Spider.

Using the Artec Space Spider to document WWI and WWII maritime artefacts as part of 3DVisLab’s work on the Scapa 100 project.

The lab approached the university’s preferred supplier Patrick Thorn & Co, Artec’s UK Gold Partner, to acquire the new equipment, and Patrick himself made the journey north to Dundee for a couple of days to deliver the scanner as well as to provide some invaluable one-on-one training for the team. Dr Alice Watterson, archaeologist and post-doc research assistant at 3DVisLab, said, “Patrick’s training was enormously helpful. I’d been using the scanner we shared with CAHID for a year or so and was quite familiar with the process, but the extra training was very comprehensive and brought my skills up another level.”

Since arriving in the lab, the new Artec Space Spider has led a jet-setting life, most notably spending a summer out on an archaeological excavation in the Alaskan tundra. For the past two years, researchers from 3DVisLab have been working with the Nunalleq Archaeology Project near the Alaska Native village of Quinhagak to develop a digital educational resource to help teach local children about the excavations as well as their Yup’ik heritage. In partnership with the village-run organisation Quinhagak Heritage Inc, archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen, led by Dr Rick Knecht and Dr Charlotta Hillerdal, have been digging at the site nearly every summer since 2009, to investigate the remains of a large sod house dating back to the 15th century or earlier. During that time, they have uncovered an unparalleled collection of more than 60,000 artefacts related to the everyday life of Yup’ik Eskimo people – hunting equipment, slate knives, carved dolls and figurines, bentwood bowls, wooden dance masks, and grass baskets, just to name a few.

Illustrative video of the interior of the sod house, showing the clickable Artec-scanned artefacts and character design by Tom Paxton.

The educational resource allows children to explore a reconstruction of the sod house built from interpretations from the excavation and traditional local knowledge. As the user moves around the interface, they can click on selected objects to bring up 3D scans of artefacts found at the site and hear the voices of village elders, archaeologists, and craftspeople to find out more about the roles they played in the lives of their ancestors. Using the Artec scans in this way, where each 3D object is partnered with multi-vocal soundbites, respects the traditional ways of Yup’ik storytelling and oral histories.

The artefact viewer which allows children to interact with models made from the Artec Space Spider scans.

Co-design has been central to this project, and as such, material for the resource was developed while working alongside the village community to ensure that the content reflects Yup’ik beliefs and values. The carved wooden dance masks are among the most captivating objects to come from Nunalleq. They certainly stir up the most excitement amongst the archaeologists and local community alike whenever one is unearthed during a dig. Masks like this were used for traditional Yup’ik dancing or yuraq. Some of the Nunalleq masks still retain traces of red, white, and black paint, a hint towards their former brightly painted designs.

Dr Rick Knecht and PhD researcher Anna Mossolova carefully lift a mask from the excavated boardwalk of the sod house at Nunalleq.

One feature the team in Dundee have been developing with programmer John Anderson is an interface within the educational resource which allows children to form their own interpretations by painting on the Artec Space Spider scans of some of the Nunalleq masks using the same colours their ancestors would have used. “It has been fantastic to see children who have played with early versions of the educational resource form new contemporary engagements with the artefacts,” says Alice. “Allowing the kids to look at the 3D models is one thing, but to have developed something where they can actually paint directly onto the digital models gives them a more meaningful interaction with the artefact.”

Using models created from the Artec Space Spider scans, the team at 3DVisLab have developed a mask painting activity for the educational resource.

The village of Quinhagak has a population of around 750 people and lies in the remote Yukon-Kuskokwim region of Alaska. In 2018 the village made headlines when the collection of over 60,000 artefacts made the long journey home from the conservation lab in Aberdeen, Scotland, to be housed in the new village-run-and-owned Nunalleq Culture and Archaeology Centre. This represents a huge step in the right direction towards decolonialising indigenous archaeology, but it also means that outreach to allow access to this remote collection, the largest ever recovered in Alaska, is essential. Alice notes that, “The logistics of fieldwork in Alaska can be challenging at the best of times. Being able to bring the hand-luggage-sized Artec scanner and a laptop all the way from Dundee to Quinhagak over numerous flight connections on smaller and smaller planes made things a lot less stressful. Once the scanner had made it to the village, it captured over 150 artefacts during the field season, artefacts which can now be digitally curated by the archaeologists and the community and shared with the wider world. This scanner with the latest Artec Studio 13 software has become an invaluable tool for this project; it makes scanning easier with the 3D radar view, faster processing, and the colour is much more realistic. Now on to our next project, hopefully in a warmer location!”

Using Artec Studio 13 to view a walrus transformation mask from the Nunalleq collection.