Dec 15, 2015 | By Kira

Bernard Means, an archeologist and anthropology professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of World Studies, has used 3D scanning technology to scan and preserve two of Virginia’s oldest and most culturally revealing historical artifacts: a peanut dating back to 1890, and the world’s oldest Smithfield ham, which, you could say, has effectively been preserved for porksterity.

History museums are home to some of the most important and revealing cultural artifacts of previous generations: fossils that reveal how our ancestors looked, tools and dishes to show us how they lived, outfits, furniture, political documents, weapons, art…everything from the mundane to the astounding. For Means and the Virtual Curation Laboratory where he is director, no matter the shape, size, or smell of the artifact, he understands their cultural importance to individual communities, and is dedicated to helping museums preserve them and share their stories through 3D scanning technology. By capturing 360-degree imagery of the surface, shape, texture and other integral aspects, the 3D scanned objects can be replicated through 3D printing for educational purposes, and safeguarded from the damaging effects of time.

In his work, he has been asked to 3D scan George Washington’s brother’s wing curler, a 19th century glass nipple shield, and a piece of the Space Shuttle Discovery—however his most recent assignment makes those artifacts look somehow boring in comparison. The world’s oldest preserved Smithfield ham, dated to 1902, and potentially the world’s oldest peanut, dated 1890, are currently on display at the Isle of Wight County Museum in Virginia. Though their respective dates are enough to make them ‘historical’ artifacts, what makes these food items the stuff of Virginian legend is their importance to the agricultural and commercial history of the state.

Virginia is well-known for its salted peanuts and salted pork, as both local foods were manufactured and then heavily commercialized by Pembroke Decatur Gwaltney, Jr. and his father, P.D. Sr—also known as the Peanut King and head of the family pork-processing business (now popularly known as Smithfield Foods). The Gwaltney’s started their own version of ‘viral marketing’ the early 1920’s by first promoting their ‘oldest’ peanut, grown in 1890, and then a particular ham that had been cured in 1902, forgotten in a packing house, and then rediscovered perfectly intact twenty years later.

As the story goes, Gwaltney Jr. called it is ‘pet ham’ and even outfitted it with a brass collar, taking it to expos to show off just how good his company was at preserving pork meat. The pet ham made it into Ripley’s Believe It or Not on three occasions, and is now proudly on display at the County Museum, where a 24/7 ‘ham cam’ gives visitors round the clock access to the sensational swine.

Museum curator Tracey Neikirk happened to be in attendance at a presentation given by Means on 3D printing technology, and immediately saw how it could be used to protect and preserve the peanut, ham, and some of their other bizarre yet historic artifacts.

“We would love a 3-D printing of the ham to use as a teaching tool or for other programming,” said Jennifer England, museum director. “Since guests can’t touch the ham and other artifacts now, they’d be able to get a little closer [and] examine it. This [would give] guests a better experience at the museum. Since the world’s oldest ham is one of our main attractions, anything we can do to get folks to be more involved and more excited about the museum is always wonderful.”

Means was happy to take on the job, though even he had to admit it was an out of the ordinary assignment. He began by using two different handheld 3D scanners (at least one of which appears to be the Occipital Structure Sensor) to digitize the ‘pet ham’, and then a tabletop NextEngine 3D scanner for the peanut.

The 3D scan of the 125-year-old peanut is already available on Sketchfab, and both the peanut and the ham’s 3D scans will be preserved by the Wight Isle Museum and used to 3D print models for educational purposes or to enhance museum visitors’ experiences—because no trip to Virginia is complete without getting your hands on a pet ham.

Means routinely gives talks and tours of the Virtual Curation Lab, and is dedicated to bringing 3D printing and scanning technology to all archeological professionals, museum staff, and educators. Though he probably won’t start a ham-scanning business anytime soon, he noted that both artifacts were “clearly important to the people of Isle of Wight County,” and that he was happy to have had the opportunity to help them tell their story on a global, not just local, scale. As the price of 3D scanners and 3D printers continues to drop, more and more individuals will be able to use these technologies to their advantage—be they archeological professors or parents wanting to preserve their child’s macaroni art.


A recent VCU grad with a 3D printed replica of Virginia's oldest peanut

And in case you were wondering what it’s like to 3D scan a 113-year-old cured ham? Means commented that although it looked like it was cured just this year, it had a “powerful smell” that he couldn’t describe. Even when a small piece flaked off during the 3D scanning process, he truly could not be tempted: “While it was certainly a size that could be easily consumed in a single bite, there was simply no desire to eat this desiccated piece of pig.”

 

 

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Bob Loblaw wrote at 12/18/2015 1:59:29 PM:

Prove it. I bet they get a new ham every year- that's why it's off limits to the public :D



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