Mastodon fossils make a trip to VCU 3D printing lab

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — For the past six years, Dr. Bernard Means has worked in VCU’s Virtual Curation Library bringing history to life with scanners and 3D printers.

On Tuesday, Means was scanning the fossils of a possum and other artifacts that are being 3D printed. Not too long ago, Means got a call from someone at Jamestown about a former William and Mary professor.

“One of their old geology professors has these mastodon fossils,” Means said.

That professor, Dr. Jerre Johnson, actually identified the fossils as a mastodon in 1983. A brick layer discovered them and contacted Johnson, but the property owners wouldn’t allow him to excavate.

When the property was sold in 2015, Johnson got permission from the new owners. This year, Johnson agreed to let them be scanned. The fossils were placed on a stand as lasers mapped out the shape and size of the artifacts. The scans are then uploaded into a computer where they can be printed.

A mastodon tusk that’s 18,000 years old met modern technology. It’s now helping researchers around the world get a firsthand look at it.

The scans will allow anyone, anywhere, to 3D print and study the fossils found in Virginia.

“To understand how a Virginia mastodon might be different from, say, a Tennesse mastodon or a Florida mastodon, and maybe get clues as to why the mastodon went extinct,” Means explained.

Beyond researchers, Means says this will also allow anyone to get a feel for real artifacts without fear of destroying them. If it breaks, it can just be printed again.

“One of my goals here is to take things that are kind of unique and hard to handle or might be sort of in obscure locations and make them publicly available,” said Means.

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