Dr. Jeffrey Frost always has taught his students about a skull found in North America that included the upper portion of a wolf’s jaw stuck inside the mouth of the skull.
These days, his Stanislaus State archaeology class is getting a different perspective. They get to hold a replica of that wolf’s jaw, thanks to the three-dimensional printer the anthropology department is using.
“I thought it was one of the most interesting artifacts, that this person was buried with a wolf jaw in their mouth,” said Frost, an assistant professor who has taught at Stan State since 2010. “Why? This person had some affiliation with the wolf.”
The lesson was just one in which Frost, fellow anthropology faculty member Sari Miller-Antonio and others are supplementing their classes with 3D objects that are helping to bring archaeology alive.
“It gives us one more layer of teaching … being able to put something in somebody’s hand,” Frost said.
Most of Frost’s students will never experience the thrill of excavating buried treasures in North America, Costa Rica and Peru. Few will become a research associate at Harvard’s Peabody Museum, as Frost is, or be interviewed for a BBC documentary because of an expertise on ancient Costa Rica.
Now, though, they can experience just a bit of what working archaeologists discover.
Frost is mostly printing recently excavated findings, including a full mandible from South Africa, but he’s also printed more established items, including the Venus of Willendorf, a 20,000-year-old carved statue of a woman from Europe.
“It’s one of the world’s earliest art works,” Frost said. “This isn’t a very good print. It’s one of the first ones, but it’s still useful in the classroom, because it gives students a chance to hold it, to look at it from different angles, to see how big it is.”
That, Clovis points (spear points) and a harpoon hook are just some of the items that surpass photographs, drawings or a verbal description. And, Frost points out, even if the actual items were available to show students, they couldn’t be passed around because of their fragile nature.
Antonio-Miller, associate dean and professor of anthropology, advocated for a 3D printer, Frost said, and Frost taught himself to operate it. Small pieces may take 40 minutes to print. Large ones, like a full skull, a couple days.
Frost, whose office shelves includes a miniature figure of Indiana Jones, then paints them in an effort to replicate what a piece carved from clay or stone or ivory would look like.
He’s already seen an impact of 3D items on students.
“It changes the interpretation of the students and the questions they have,” said Frost, who earned his undergraduate degree at Ripon (Wisc.) College and his Ph.D. at University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“They often propose their own hypothesis. They put it in their hand and say, ‘it fits in your hand’ or ‘you don’t have to see it. It’s tactile. You can imagine the shape of it.’ They’ve come up with some interesting interpretations because they’re experiencing the object firsthand rather than through a lecture or a photograph.”