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Centuries old meets high tech

Carolina researchers and students are building a "virtual museum" of North Carolina archaeology that is scheduled to go live in 2017.

Archaeology is often associated with objects that are hundreds of years old — and older. But a new technique being used by Carolina researchers is bringing the field firmly into the 21st century.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s Research Laboratories of Archaeology, part of the College of Arts and Sciences, is one of only a few university programs in the United States to use 3-D imaging to showcase artifacts in its collection. With support from a C. Felix Harvey Award and the Kenan Creative Collaboratory, its researchers and students are building a “virtual museum” of North Carolina archaeology that is scheduled to go live in 2017.

Undergraduate students have been trained to take digital photographs of each object from dozens of angles, then run them through special software that combines the images into a 3-D model. The finished model is then uploaded to the web, allowing viewers to move the object around on-screen and study it nearly as closely as they could if they were viewing it in real life.

“It’s actually, in a way, much more engaging to be able to move the object around on the screen, to be able zoom in, zoom out, as compared to having it in an exhibit case behind glass,” said Vin Steponaitis, professor of anthropology and archaeology in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Researchers have uploaded more than 300 3-D models so far and hope to expand the effort in the future, allowing the public full virtual access to artifacts through their smartphones or computers. To view the collection, please visit: http://sketchfab.com/RLA-archaeology.