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New Technologies Bring Old Bones to Life

This summer OEC’s Model Shop began a collaboration that uses cutting-edge technology to learn about early European settlers at Jamestown, Virginia, 400 years ago.

Douglas Owsley, curator and department head of the Division of Physical Anthropology in the National Museum of Natural History’s Department of Anthropology leads a research team studying Colonial-era skeletons from sites throughout the Chesapeake Bay region. From the condition of these bones and teeth, and how they were buried, Dr. Owsley is often able to determine the age, sex, social status, health, trade, and cause of death.

One such find is the skull of a young man, aged 15 years old and one of 
the original 1607 settlers from Jamestown fort. This skull will be featured in an upcoming exhibition and will be used to create a facial reconstruction. However, given the delicate nature and historic value of the skull, Dr. Owsley sought the aid of the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute (MCI) and the Office of Exhibits Central to digitally document and replicate the skull in exacting detail.

With new digital 3D imaging technology and CNC (computer numeric controlled) machinery, the Smithsonian is able to create exact replicas of fragile artifacts for further study and exhibition. MCI scanned the skull and provided the digital information to OEC.

OEC modelmaker Chris Hollshwander reviewed the digital information for any issues that could negatively impact the machining process and created a series of programs that produced machine commands for the CNC milling machine. The complex skull replica had to be machined from six different directions, each requiring explicit instructions from the CAD/CAM (computer aided drawing and manufacturing) software.

One of the focus cultures at this year’s Folklife Festival was Virginia Roots, which featured a series of programming about researching history. Sculptor Amanda Danning used the replica as an armature to reconstruct the face of the young man who died about 400 years ago.

Later this fall, OEC modelmakers will make a plastic cast of Ms. Danning’s sculpture to use in an upcoming exhibit at NMNH.


top photo: Screen shot of the digital tool path for the CNC milling machine, based on the 3D scan from MCI.

middle photo: Replica skull in production on the CNC milling machine.

bottom photo: Sculptor Amanda Danning begins modeling the musculature on the replica skull as OEC modelmaker Chris Hollshwander observes.

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