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North Dakota: Legendary. Follow the trail of legends

Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota’s natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Archaeology in the Digital Age: 3D Artifact Imaging

Sometimes the methods archaeologists use to preserve artifacts stand in stark contrast to the objects themselves. Using modern three-dimensional (3D) scanning technology to create digital models of ancient stone technology is one of those instances. This type of image capture is becoming increasingly popular in archaeology and museum labs for its relative ease of use and the affordability of commercially available scanners, not to mention the highly detailed models produced. We purchased a 3D scanner in 2011 to aid our staff and researchers in artifact analysis, and to provide the public with better access to our collections.

NextEngine Scanner

NextEngine Scanner ready to create a 3D model of a stone knife in the Archaeology and Historic Preservation division of the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum.

In addition to creating a digital record of an object, archaeologists and others working in cultural heritage fields can use the models to take high-resolution measurements, create exact replicas using a 3D printer, and share high-precision digital data with colleagues.

One of the benefits of digitizing artifact collections is the ability to share those objects in a way that encourages the public to interact with the past. An artifact’s minute features are captured in greater detail with a 3D scanner than with traditional digital photography. There are about 12 million objects in the state archaeology collections. Most of these will not be on display in the galleries, but with 3D scanning, anyone with an internet connection can get a behind-the-scenes look at these collections. From the comfort of your home, you can appreciate the craftsmanship of an artifact that 3D scanning brings to life.

3D scan of stone knife

Screen grab of the finished scan in NextEngine StudioScan software prior to uploading the model to Sketchfab.com.

Sketchfab.com is an open source, free hosting site for 3D models. With a mouse, trackpad, or finger, the user can move and turn the object, zoom in and out, and copy the link to share with others. A user can also “Like” the model and leave a comment. The object can even be observed in virtual reality if the user has VR headset.

Sketchfab.com directions

Navigation directions for the Sketchfab.com viewing window.

This artifact is a stone knife from Griggs County in eastern North Dakota; it was donated by a private collector. The knife was hafted, meaning it was fit into a handle that could give its user better leverage while cutting. We don’t know how old the knife is, but we do know it’s still usable and has only a small break on the base. Why do you think someone left it behind? Was it lost?


Like photographs and videos, 3D scanning is a digital medium that helps us engage with the past. Unlike those types of media, 3D models invite you to interact with an object in an almost tangible manner. So go ahead—give it a spin and feel like you’re holding history in your hand.

Web-based ND History Curriculum: Your Feedback is Welcome

When we published the web-based curricula for North Dakota Studies including The Civil War in North Dakota and North Dakota People Living on the Land, we hoped to receive comments from readers that would lead to corrections, new approaches to organizing the material, and perhaps ideas for new sections. We thought that a web-based curriculum, unlike a paper textbook, could be easily changed and we welcomed the dialog that we might have with students and teachers.

Well, we have heard from nary a student nor a teacher. However, we have heard from a good number of readers who have been out of school for a long time. Their comments have brought smiles to our faces, but also some work that led to careful thought and corrections. The whole-community method of writing history is new and inspiring, but also a little worrisome and frightening at times. We take our responsibility to write accurate, thorough, and interesting history very seriously, but sometimes a nudge in a different direction is just what we need.

I will not reveal the names of the people who wrote, but we want to share a few of their comments with you.

A descendant of Siegmund Rothhammer wrote to tell us we had his name and some other details wrong. Rothhammer traveled to North Dakota in 1864 with General Sully. His assignment was to observe and take notes on plants, animals, soil, minerals, and climate.

Our correspondent’s email sent us on a search for the errors. Certain that I had copied his name carefully, I returned to the archival source. Indeed, my spelling matched the documents. But one cannot easily dismiss the family knowledge that our correspondent had, so I carried on. Finally, I found the source of the error. The microfilm copy of Rothhammer’s report had come to us from another state with the error already embedded. A further search in other resources confirmed the error and we made the correction.

Portrait of Two Bears

Two Bears was a Dakota leader who defended his peaceful hunting camp at Whitestone Hill in 1863.  Our Civil War piece on Whitestone Hill was criticized for calling the conflict a battle, instead of a massacre. SHSND 1952-5644a

Another comment came to us from a descendant of Two Bears who defended his hunting camp from an army attack at Whitestone Hill in 1863. This correspondent asked that we reconsider the use of the word “battle” in the title of our story about the conflict at Whitestone Hill. “Massacre” was more appropriate, he argued, and gently scolded us for this error. I agreed with him, and made the change to the website. Again, using words found in original resources had led to our error.

Some correspondents have praised these educational websites, and we are proud as peacocks when we hear from happy readers. Recently, a British woman wrote to tell us how she had found North Dakota: People Living on the Land and read through much of it. She said, “I want to thank you for such a beautifully written, informative and stimulating website.”

And that’s why we love our web-based curriculum: widely read, easily corrected.