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Museum mastodon bones 3D-scanned for virtual reconstruction

August 9, 2018

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) — For now, the mastodon is in pieces.

A mighty tusk is held together by plastic wrap. A first rib lies on a table near a shiny, well-worn fossilized tooth.

Plastic bins hold more of the beast, marked with note cards of the contents: right half of right jaw; right rib proximal; lower right jaw teeth, four fragments; thoracic vertebra; a tub full of foot bone fragments; and loads more.

Archaeologist Bernard Means is intrigued by all the bits and pieces and the stories they could tell. So on July 31 he was using high-tech 3D scanners to try to give the old mastodon a second life, this time digital.

And with those digital images, the mastodon that died a violent death some 16,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age in what is now York County might one day be rendered as a virtual reconstruction — maybe a computerized, interactive creature or perhaps a 3D printed reproduction. Or who knows? Maybe both.

“Understanding science and sharing it with the people — it’s what we do. It’s our mission,” said Rebecca Kleinhample, executive director of the Virginia Living Museum in Newport News, where the mastodon is expected to become the crown jewel of its exhibits in a few years.

“If we can get our artifacts scanned and to a point where they are able to be manipulated and we can share them and share what they are . then perhaps there’s a way for us to digitally reconstruct this,” Kleinhample said. “Technology’s advancing so fast, we’re not even sure where we’re going yet.”

A digital or 3D cast exhibit is likely the best the public can hope for, since these mastodon bones are far too fragile, too valuable ever to be on public display.

“They’d never be able to be out where kids could see them and touch them,” said Fred Farris, the museum’s senior director of exhibits.

But Means and his scanners could help provide the next best kind of access.

As director of the Virtual Curation Laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Means has scanned about 4,000 objects over the years, from a Triceratops horn to the upper arm bone of an extinct giant sloth, a mummy’s sarcophagus to a 17th-century steeplechase cup, an iron key found on Edgar Allan Poe’s body to the World’s Oldest Ham in Smithfield.

But Means is especially keen to scan the fossilized remains of Ice Age animals.

With funding from a VCU grant, he has traveled the country, visiting museums and science centers, scanning and printing, employing artifacts to spark the imagination of students.

“I’m sort of interested in science education because I think we desperately need better science education,” Means said. “And people really react to being able to hold an object. They really react, even though they know it’s a replica. It’s not like somebody designed it on a computer screen — it’s a replica of a real thing.”

And so in the museum’s collections storage room, Means went to work with both a desktop 3D laser scanner targeted on the mastodon’s left hyoid bone, which is found in the throat, then picked up a hand-held scanner that works using pulses of light to tackle a giant rib.

Before the day was out, he expected to scan about a dozen fossilized bones. The museum has hordes more — about a third of the mastodon was recovered, including both of its tusks, making it the most significant mastodon remains found east of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Mastodons aren’t mammoths — they’re a bit smaller, standing about 8 feet tall at the shoulder, and roamed only in North and Central America. Mammoths, meanwhile, were found on many continents.

It’s incredibly rare to find mastodon remains in Virginia, mostly because the bones disintegrate in the wet soil. But the York County beast happened to fall on a pile of shell that helped preserve its fossilized remains. Only one other mastodon has been discovered in this state, in Saltville near the Tennessee border.

The York specimen has been dubbed the Hart-Fiscella Mastodon, in part after the man who discovered it back in 1983. He was a brick mason named Lawnell Hart out hunting game when he stumbled across a fossilized tooth the size of a spiral ham jutting out of a creek bed.

Except for a few random pieces, the rest of the mastodon wasn’t retrievable until decades later, when Jerre Johnson, then a geology professor at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, assembled a motley crew and excavated it. The last of it was delivered to the Virginia Living Museum last year.

Farris estimates it will take another three to five years to stabilize and chemically preserve the bones, which continue to deteriorate now that they’re exposed to the air.

Meanwhile, museum experts are brainstorming on the best and most novel way to exhibit their showpiece. The goal is to raise as much as $200,000 for a proper display.

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Information from: Daily Press, http://www.dailypress.com/

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