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Introduction, Aims and Learning Outcomes

The Boston Fingerprints Project: Enriching object biographies and tracing human-thing networks through analysis of digital 3D scans

The Parker-Harris Pottery Site and Three Cranes Tavern Site in Charlestown, Massachusetts, were excavated in the early- and mid-1980s in advance of Boston’s Big Dig as part of the Central Artery North Area and are now listed in the National Register of Historic Places as part of the City Square Archaeological District. The Parker-Harris Pottery Site was the location of early coarse earthenware (redware) ceramic production in Boston. It was destroyed on June 17, 1775 by British troops who burned Charlestown as part of the Battle of Bunker Hill. The Three Cranes Tavern was founded in the former Great House of Governor John Winthrop in the centre of Charlestown, only 100 meters from the Parker-Harris property. The tavern passed through a series of owners resulting in a near-continual use of the property as a tavern for 140 years. During archaeological investigation, numerous privies and features were identified with tightly-dated ceramic assemblages, including numerous coarse earthenwares with the distinct decorative elements of the Parker or Harris pottery. The Boston Fingerprints project, set up as a SPARC Collaboration in 2014 by Joseph Bagley and Jennifer Poulsen (Boston Landmarks Commission) and Rachel Opitz (SPARC researcher), aimed to use a structured light scanner to create detailed 3D models of ceramic artefacts featuring finger- and hand-prints, potentially enabling the team to directly connect pottery from consumption sites to production sites. The context, with known sales between production and consumption sites, tightly dated deposits that limit association of pottery to specific potters, and a limited number of potters producing these vessels, was an ideal opportunity to explore this approach to investigating previously-unknown associations and commercial networks of domestic redware potters across the eastern United States. The unique, personal fingerprints and handprints evoke the human connections represented in these significant assemblages, helping us to appreciate these forgotten and sometimes nameless potters through the intimate association of their hands.

In this lesson you will explore a collection of 3D models of ceramics with fingerprints and handprints and learn to:

When you have completed this lesson you will be able to:


Throughout these exercises, in boxes labelled as ‘Try it yourself!’ or ‘Reflect and Write’, you will be prompted to take a screenshot of your progress and add it to your ‘gallery’. Whether this gallery is simply a Word document where you have pasted the screenshot or something more is up to you. You will then be asked to reflect on the exercise and to summarise your reflections in a few sentences as a ‘long caption’ for your screenshot.

Research in the digital archives

What kinds of digital data are widely available in archaeological archives?

After an excavation, the archaeological archive consists of more than just physical boxes of artefacts and pages of excavation records in a storeroom. Much of the archive has gone digital; this can include photographs, spreadsheets listing contexts and their associated artefacts, word-processed reports, digitised maps and drawings, and, increasingly, three-dimensional (3D) models. Virtually anything can be recorded as a 3D model, whether it is a landscape, an excavation trench, a monument, or an artefact.

What is a 3D model?

Essentially, a 3D model is made up of a point cloud (below left) and polygons generated between those points (below right). The point cloud is captured when the digital imaging technique measures and records the surface of an object as calculated points in three-dimensional space; each point is defined by a set of coordinates on the X, Y and Z planes. Triangular polygons are then generated between these points until a ‘solid’ mesh is created. If the colour of the recorded object is also captured by the digital imaging technique, this will be stored with the point cloud and transferred to the mesh. Depending on the technique used, it may also be possible to create a photorealistic texture, a flat image that can be ‘draped’ over the 3D model to give it a more realistic appearance. A texture can also be created independently and applied to a 3D model with no colour information. 3D models can be saved in a variety of file types, including .stl (stereolithography), .ply (Polygon File format, or Stanford File Format), or .obj (Wavefront Object, or just Object file), to name a few. If a 3D model has an associated texture, it will be saved as a separate image file, like a .tif or .jpg file, or an .mtl file (Material Template Library).

On the left, a close up image of a point cloud from one of the Boston
Fingerprints ceramics. On the right, triangles have been generated
between these points to create a

What kinds of questions can be addressed through the analysis of archived 3D models?

Because 3D models record the geometric surface of an object, 3D models are particularly well-suited to visual analysis. The option to ‘remove’ the colour from an object allows researchers to better observe and record the subtle creases and worn marks of the surface that might otherwise go unnoticed when viewing the real, physical object. 3D models also allow for different types of metric analysis. This might include anything from simple point-to-point measurements of length or width, calculations of surface roughness, or automated or repetitive measurements that would otherwise be impractical to measure from the physical object. A more comprehensive understanding of the archaeological material can be achieved by incorporating both visual and metric analyses in our interrogation of their digital 3D representations.

How to identify a reusable dataset that is appropriate to your research aim – A guide to metadata

What is metadata? – Metadata is information that describes other data. In this case, metadata is information that describes the 3D dataset. The basic metadata for a 3D model should, at a bare minimum, describe the file formats of the data, the creators of the data, when and how the data was created, and what is recorded in the dataset. Other types of information might be necessary, like whether the 3D model has been scaled or not, or a description of the archaeological context surrounding the artefact; these are addressed further below. Essentially, metadata should describe your dataset well enough that anyone can understand the dataset without further input/explanations from the creator. The metadata should accompany the dataset when it is archived, whether as a .txt file, a spreadsheet, or other word processed file.

Start with a Research Question – While it is always possible to explore an archive and see where your curiosity and chance discoveries take you, in this lesson we will focus on using archival data to address a specific research question: What new insights into the manufacturing processes and artefact lifeways can be achieved through visual and metric analyses of 3D models of the potsherds recovered from sites TC and PH? Having a clear research question in mind will allow you to identify and select appropriate data. What do we mean by ‘appropriate data’? There are several key considerations when choosing archival data to address a research question, which should be recorded in the dataset’s metadata:


In this exercise we will be using Zenodo, an open access repository, to obtain our dataset. However, other repositories, like the Archaeology Data Service, will also have datasets freely available that may be useful in your future research. After navigating to Zenodo, search for ‘Boston Fingerprints 2014’, navigate to the entry for the Images, download the zip file, and extract the images to a new folder. These are reference images of the potsherds that have been 3D recorded and have been labelled to indicate the location of each of the identified fingerprints on the sherd. Next, navigate to the ‘Boston Fingerprints 2014 – Processed STL meshes’ entry. Please note that you will need 7.5 GB of space if you download all of the images and all of the processed STL files. If this is not possible, download the files recommended in the first column of the table below (1.12 GB total, including all Reference Images). If a smaller dataset is necessary, download the files recommended in the second column of the table below (540MB total. This includes only the 3D meshes discussed in the exercises; PH 25 is the largest of these (344MB total), but PH 25’s folder includes six .stl files: 5 individual scans, and 1 .stl where these five scans have been merged. After extracting PH 25’s data, one could delete all but the merged .stl and save 228 MB of space).

Note that PH25 and Note that PH30 may not unzip correctly from the main archive. These files are available individually from these links.

A table that lists subsets of files that would be most useful during
the exercises, in case users do not have much storage space on their

The Archaeological Context for the Data

As you can see in the contextual metadata for the Boston Fingerprints 2014 project on Zenodo, the pottery comes from two sites in Charlestown, Massachusetts: the Parker-Harris Pottery Site (PH) and the Three Cranes Tavern (TC). The sites were 100 metres apart; tightly dated ceramics assemblages were found at both sites, and it was clear that the Parker-Harris Pottery was supplying the tavern with coarse earthenware ceramics. The potsherds and trivets in this dataset were scanned because fingerprints and handprints were visible in their fabric; if the fingerprints could be matched between these sites and pinpointed to specific potters employed by the pottery, it not only provides a more direct connection to the historical person, but it could also contribute to identifying previously unknown commercial networks across the Eastern United States.

Software Installation

There are a number of open access software packages that allow for working with 3D data. For this exercise, Meshlab and CloudCompare will need to be installed to carry out the metric analyses described in the following steps. Download Meshlab from this link; there are options for Windows 64, MacOS, Linux AppImage and Linux Snap. The application itself does not take much space (125.1 MB space is required). It is worth noting that the computer’s graphics card may limit the size of the 3D models you can work with in Meshlab; however, the datasets from the Boston Fingerprints project should be small enough to not cause any issues. If you are using a laptop with a dedicated graphics card, follow the tutorial provided by the creators of Meshlab to ensure the software is using the correct graphics card. Download CloudCompare from this link; there are options for Windows 64, Mac OS 64 bits, and Linux 64 bits. 172.0MB of disk space will be required to install CloudCompare.

Please note that the keystrokes and shortcuts in this tutorial are for Windows, and those using Mac OS will need to identify alternative keystrokes.

To Exercise 1: Familiarising Yourself with 3D Data in Meshlab

To the Reading List