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December 19, 2013

Digitizing the Dead

December 19, 2013 | By | No Comments

Recently, a joint effort between the Royal College of Surgeons of London, the University of Bradford, and the Museum of London Archaeology announced the creation of a collection of digitized pathological skeletal specimens for study by osteoarchaeologists and bioarchaeologists.  Digitised Disease, which is currently in beta version, will provide high resolution 3D models generated by laser scanning, CT models, and radiography.  According to the project description, “Of major interest to many will be high-fidelity photo-realistic digital representations of 3D bones that can be viewed, downloaded and manipulated on their computer, tablet or smartphone”

As a bioarchaeologist, I cannot help but geek out over this project.  There are many levels of interest in developing work such as this project.  As the collaborators have noted, many of the specimens which were digitized are extremely fragile.  Skeletal material being finite and utterly irreplaceable and subject to easy and irreparable damage makes handling certain pathological specimens off-limits to many.  This project will allow greater access to material previously restricted because of its fragility.

In the broadest scope, what a project such as Digitised Disease does is provide global access to raw materials (not even so much data.  Data will be generated upon examination of the digital material) in virtual form.  Yes, it preserves the material in digital replication.  Yes, it allows fragile specimens to be studied without the threat of damage.  Before any of that can happen, however, access needs to be provided.  Travelling around the world to examine skeletal collections, while it may sound glamorous to some, can become tedious and draining (and very expensive!).  Having the ability to study skeletal material in three-dimensional form anywhere in the world from the convenience of a personal computer or tablet is a major coup for bioarchaeologists who would otherwise have had to commit the time, energy and funding to physically going to view collections.  In particular, this would be a major game-changer for students on extremely limited budgets.

Now, I have been singing the praises of this project to this point, and don’t get me wrong, there are many praises to be sung, however it is not perfect.  This project represents what can be done in the most perfect of circumstances.  They have used stable museum collections in controlled environments with readily-available and extremely capable technology.  Many bioarchaeologists, however, do not work with stable museum collections; we work in the field.  Translating this type of work into a field situation can be extremely convoluted, and in many cases impossible.  CT scanners, x-ray machines and laser scanners are complex, expensive pieces of equipment, most of which are not portable.  While the scenario created by Digitising Disease is ideal, it is not easy to replicate and does not work in all conditions.

This leads me to the tease for my next post.  “What do we do?” you ask?  Come back in January and read about the next step!

Happy Holidays, everyone!

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