Innovating research and learning resources with digital stone

Posted by | August 16, 2021 | Humanities, Research | No Comments

With 90% of the archaeology and history cohort at UNE being online, during these times of COVID, digital methods of research and learning are more important than ever.

Luckily staff members of the Department of Archaeology, Classics and History at UNE have recently been engaging in research based learning to better teach the students of tomorrow.

One of the staff members that has been taking part in these innovations is UNE’s Professor Mark Moore. We recently spoke to Professor Moore about a fantastic on-going project within the department relating to digitising teaching and research artefacts.

Over the past 5 years the Archaeology discipline at UNE has been involved in a 3D visualisation project with the goal of bringing useful and usable virtual artefacts to external UNE students in a way that accurately simulates the experience of studying, researching and seeing artefacts in person.

“We made scores of 3d models of stone tools and bones,” said Professor Moore when discussing the history of the project, “and uploaded them to a popular hosting platform on the internet.  The models looked great, and the ‘wow’ factor was high, but when I started using the virtual stone tools in teaching, I was disappointed.  I found it necessary to use static photos to guide students to the important features on the models, and I discovered that some students just looked at the photos in the topic notes and skipped the models altogether.  Further, the platform we used at the time lacked the measurement tools internal students use in face-to-face teaching with actual artefacts.”

However these problems were solved when UNE shifted to use a new platform – Pedestal 3D – which provided better virtual tools for viewing and measuring the digital artefacts. This new platform allowed students to take precise artefact measurements in all dimensions and to cut the model and look at cross sections.

“Rather than serving as digital window-dressing, the models can now be fully integrated into teaching.  We are busy moving our models to Pedestal 3D and writing content directly into each model’s metadata.”

To provide further context Professor Moore discussed an iconic and archaeologically significant artefact that has been digitised for student learning and research- an Acheulean handxe.

“An important breakthrough in hominin cognitive evolution was the ability of Homo erectus to simultaneously impose symmetries in three dimensions in making this type of tool.”  The 3D handaxe model is an excellent example of symmetry in three dimensions, which can be more easily grasped using the virtual artefact than with photographs: the object can be rotated and sectioned along all three axis of symmetry (plan view, long section, and cross section). Take a look at the link above to get an even better idea.

What’s more is that these digital artefacts, as Professor Moore puts it, ‘gives students some ammunition for critically assessing what researchers say about this important topic’.

Not only is this initiative great for student resources, it is also assisting with UNE’s archaeology and history reputation at an international level.  “The collection is by far the largest of its type on the internet, with nearly 300 models so far. Initially we focused our efforts inward, towards value-adding and pedagogical development within UNE units, but during Covid restrictions in 2020, we began building an outward-facing website as a platform to disseminate our efforts internationally.  This has long been a passion of mine, to promote the fascinating history of stone tools to learners of all ages.”

While this virtual Museum is still under construction, there are plans for it to be publicly accessible once complete, with UNE’s Dr Melanie Fillios also planning a similar venture as an online comparative collection of 3D bone models for zooarchaeology students and researchers. 

This project provides an exciting glimpse into the possible future of research and learning resources, however making 3D models is rather expensive. So to further expand the number of resources on UNE’s Pedestal 3D, Professor Moore began searching the internet for Open Access models. 

“There are a surprising number of artefact models on the internet, often made and uploaded by other universities or museums.  A chance discovery of dozens of online Open Access 3D models of stone tools excavated in North Carolina provided a good example of how we can closely align our research expertise with teaching, on the back of UNE’s Pedestal 3D license.  The North Carolina models are of the actual artefacts used by a researcher in the 1960s to reconstruct the seminal archaeological sequence of First Nations prehistory for the Piedmont area of the United States.  I uploaded the 3D models to UNE’s Pedestal platform, and they can now be measured, analysed, discussed, and compared to the original researcher’s results; using these artefacts, our students can be fully engaged with the primary empirical dataset, and they can even extend the analyses conducted by the original author.  This is not possible for the actual artefact assemblage.”

When discussing the significance of certain digitised artefacts Professor Moore noted how useful this project will be, not only for teaching, but for his own research purposes.

“I do research in cognitive archaeology, analysing how humans and hominins in the past structured their thought processes, as reflected in working memory and expert performance displayed in stone tool manufacture.  For that reason, I am a generalist, albeit in an arcane specialty: all stone tool assemblages world-wide, and from the whole of prehistory, are germane to my research.  The scope of the website we are creating—and the Open Access philosophy behind it—provides a perfect foundation for presenting the results of my research, plus my research methodology, to university students and the public more generally.  This will be the major public outreach aspect for my recently funded grant from Australian Research Council.”

The benefits of this project don’t simply end at research and teaching through digital models as there are also future plans for object-based educational websites for archaeology and Aboriginal keeping places.

“Led by Dr Mick Morrison, Archaeology has successfully landed funds to purchase of a top-end scanner that can produce 3D models of buildings and sites, and we can also make 3D models of landscapes using Archaeology’s drone, so we intend to follow a similar pathway for these future models: first integrate them into UNE teaching, then build a platform for pushing the models internationally.”

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