The Digital Journey of an Oyster: Trying to understand meaning through replication by means of 3D printing (Carson Collier)


In this paper, I deconstruct the replication process of a symbol by means of 3D printing. I do this hoping to try and improve our understanding of the meaning making process. Using archaeological remains, I observe the relationship between the symbol and it’s meaning across various platforms of hardware and software that are used in the 3D printing process. I have also provided a list of the hardware and software mentioned in this paper with a few sentences providing a description of main functions.

Hardware and Software:

NextEngine 3D Laser Scanner
The NextEngine 3D Laser Scanner is a table top scanner used to create raw mesh of different 3D objects.

ScanStudio HD
ScanStudio HD is the application that comes packaged with the NextEngine HD Laser Scanner. This application is used for maintaining the scanners hardware, as well as editing and aligning the raw mesh outputs from the scanner.

Meshmixer is a free software application for creating and editing triangle meshes.

MakerBot Replicator+
The MakerBot Replicator+ is a desktop 3D printer. MakerBot provides their own software for all of their printers. The software is used to resize the object if needed and prepare the object for print.

Bongo- Rhino
Rhino is a design software for creating animations.


“Objects made by humans can always be copied by humans” – Benjamin, W. (2010)

Creation and replication have always been key components in human culture. Humans can create things that are physical or abstract, and apply meaning to them. In turn, creating a symbol. Once a symbol is created, it can be replicated repeatedly throughout different mediums. One means of replication is through the use of technology, more specifically, 3D printing. In his thesis, “3D Printing: Convergences, Frictions, Fluidity” Robert Ree explains 3D printed objects as “ technological reproductions of an original digital artifact by means of the process of layerization” (2011, p.69). Layerization is the process of slicing digital models and building them back up one layer at a time. The process that the symbol as a whole goes through to achieve this replication is complex. Therefore, I am applying Alan Kay’s idea of utilizing doing, images, and symbols to build and learn more about the meaning making behind certain symbols (Kay, 1977, p. 230-244). In the following pages I will try my best to take apart the process of replication of archaeological remains by the means of 3D printing and look at each step individually. I believe doing so would not only give a clearer picture of the 3D replication process itself, but support the idea that 3D printing promotes interaction with symbols and can improve the understanding of the meaning making process.

The Replication Process

Selecting an Object: An Introduction to the Eastern Oyster

This process begins with choosing physical objects that someone would want to scan. These objects could range from artifacts, things created by humans, to faunal remains, bones leftover from various animals. This first step of choosing an object brings up a few questions. What is going to be scanned? And why is X object going to be scanned? The “What” portion of this step does not only refer to what the object literally is, but also, what does this object represent. For example, many oyster shells have been found at multiple archaeological sites around the historic Jamestown Settlement located in Jamestown, Virginia. At first, this seems like an obvious find, considering that Jamestown is located on the Chesapeake Bay, home to the Eastern Oyster, Crassostrea virginica. However, these oyster shells hold meaning. Since oysters were so abundant when the Jamestown settlers arrived, they quickly became known as a poor mans meal. During times of political and economic crisis people were “reduced to eating oysters.” Therefore, layers with more oyster shells are associated with times of hardship (Wennersten, 2007).


Before the scanning process even begins, the object (the oyster shell) holds multiple meanings. Peirce’s triadic model distinguishes three ways in which a sign can refer to any object: the relation can be iconic, indexical, or symbolic. The iconic signs represent their objects by virtue of a relation of similarity. Indexical signs refer to and are influenced by the objects with which they share various qualities. Lastly, symbolic signs are bound up with their objects by virtue of a convention. To the Jamestown settlers the whole oyster is a symbolic sign, representing a lower standard of living. Meanwhile, to the archaeologists working at Jamestown the oyster shell alone holds the symbolic value. They are some of the only remains leftover from years of decomposition that have the ability to share a story (Jorgensen, 1993, p. 92).

Preparing the Object for Scanning:

Now that the object is selected, the next step is preparing the object for scanning. This step is where the meaning of the object starts to become separated from the object itself. At this point, we are not looking at a “symbol of hardship”, but an actual oyster shell. It becomes a question of practicality. What is the best way to set t up the oyster shell on the scanner to receive the best output? Is the oyster shell shiny enough to where it would reflect the scanner’s laser elsewhere, causing a poor scan? Fortunately, oyster shells are relatively easy to work with. However, preparing a small icon for scan may have been more difficult. If it is made out of a reflective material, like metal or some type of gemstone, this can cause the scanner to do a poor job. In order to resolve this problem, it is recommended that a light powder is applied to the object to give it a matte texture that is much easier to scan. The new challenge that arises from this is whether or not powdering the icon takes away from its cultural significance or cause staining. Again, this is where the meaning associated with the object and the object itself gradually start to separate from one another.

Scanner Output:

Using the NextEngine HD Laser Scanner, the oyster’s scan data was captured as sets of XYZ points and converted to a hollow triangle mesh. Without this mesh generating surface technology, all of the XYZ points collected during the scan would just be points placed on a grid with no relation to one another. In “Computation Is Symbol Manipulation” Conery addresses the need for agents in computing, “clearly there must be some structure to the computation, otherwise one could claim any connection of random symbols to a constituted state” (2002, p. 814-816). I believe that the automatic meshing of the XYZ points is a very literal example of what Conery is talking about. The software takes an extra step in order to ensure the 3D object can be recognized by the user, keeping the relationship between the object and the user intact. If the XYZ points did not share this relation with one another not only would it have been hard to see the oyster shell, it would have been very difficult to edit. Also, to ensure all of the scan data is captured, multiple scans are executed. Therefore, producing multiple copies of the oyster shell.

Cleaning & Aligning:

In order to create the completed 3D replica of the oyster shell, the multiple scans of the oyster shell needed to be cleaned up and aligned manually. This was done using ScanStudio HD software. Cleaning up a 3D object consist of taking out any noise that was unintentionally collected during the scanning process. The term ‘noise’ includes any particles of light, or objects in the background that the scanner picked up during the scan. Next, these images need to be aligned. The process of aligning consist of picking out identical features from each scan to use as reference points when combining all of the scans. During this process, the user is constantly zooming in and out of the object trying to find identical points to utilize for aligning. Zooming in and out of the oyster shell created a new kind of relationship between myself and the oyster shell. At this time, the cleaning and aligning process allowed the oyster shell to be completely removed from the meaning it has been associated with coming into this process. This may sound unfortunate, but it is necessary for completing the whole 3D replica.

Fusing & Completing:

After all of the 3D scans have been cleaned and aligned, the oyster shell needed to be fused. ScanStudio HD provides a fusing tool, however Meshmixer is my preferred platform, due to the higher quality output Meshmixer provides. Fusing an object is necessary to make the 3D replica solid and ready for print or animating. This adds a new layer to the layerization process mentioned in the introduction. When the fusing process is finished, the 3D replica of the oyster shell is now an almost identical digital copy of the original. This is where the meaning that was lost during the editing period could be restored to the digital object. Unlike the original oyster shell that will always have a pre-existing meaning, the 3D replica holds multiple possibilities for new meanings.


Once the 3D replica is complete, there are a number of possible outputs that you could utilize across multiple mediums. The outputs that I will address are, a simple STL or OBJ file, an animation, and a 3D print.


STL (Standard Tessellation Language) and OBJ (Object file) are two kinds of formats used for 3D files. Keeping a 3D replica in one of these simple file formats lets a user share, copy, or edit the file with ease. Which allows the people they shared their file with to also interact with the file by sharing, copying, or editing the file and so on.


Animations of 3D replicas provide a dynamic digital medium of the original object. Animations can be created using software like Rhino and can be shared digitally with ease.


3D Printing

A 3D print of a replica would allow a user to produce a tangible copy of the original object. This printed replica could be left as is, painted to look like the original, or turned into something completely different. Replicas can also be minimized, enlarged, or printed as actual size.


Who Am I?

The oyster shell mentioned above and other 3D printed replicas of faunal remains were used as a part of a game I created, called “Who Am I?”, to educate students about the different species living around the Chesapeake Bay during colonial times. On the front of the card is the 3D printed replica of a faunal remain, as well as some clues for guessing what kind of species the remains come from. On the back of the card is a picture of the species the the 3D printed replica is associated with. The process of playing this game and interpreting the clues in your own way can be associated with active externalism. Clark and Chalmers describe active externalism as the two-way interaction between a human organism and an external entity, creating a coupled system. This system that is created through active externalism is used to answer the question of “Who Am I?” (Clark & Chalmers, 1998; p. 7-19).







All of the steps listed above provide a setting for the user to alter the object in their own way. This agency is interesting because it could easily cause the original meaning behind the object to change. These new meanings are at then determined by the environment surrounding the new copy of the replica. This idea coincides with Simon’s thoughts in “The Sciences of the Artificial” (1996) Simon’s theories about computing discuss the idea that each function only becomes relevant once it is applied to the whole system. Understand that trying to single out one of the various steps listed above is meaningless until it is added to the larger system, is a step in the right direction for understanding the meaning making process as a whole. It is important to point out that this paper only focused on replicating an object that already held a symbolic meaning. Taking a step back and thinking about the creation of an object by the means of 3D design could be even more beneficial for researching the meaning making process.

…whereas the authentic work retains its full authority in the face of reproduction made by hand, which it generally brands a forgery, this is not the case with technological reproduction. The reason is twofold. First, technological reproduction is more independent of the original than is manual reproduction… Second, technological reproduction can place the copy of the original in situations to which the original itself cannot attain (Benjamin, 2010; p. 13).

Works Cited

Benjamin, W. (2010). The works of art in the age of its technological reproducibility (W. Jennings Trans.). (39th ed.) Grey Room.

Clark, A., & Chalmers, D. (1998). The extended mind. Analysis, 58(no. 1), 7-19.

Conery, J. (2002) “Computation Is Symbol Manipulation.” The Computer Journal 55, no.7. p.814-816.

Jorgensen, K. G. (1993). The shortest way between two points is a good idea: Signs, peirce, and theorematic machines. In P. Anderson, & (Eds.), The computer as medium (pp. 92) The Cambridge University Press.

Kay, A. (1977). Microelectronics and the personal computer. Scientific American, 237(NO. 3), 230-244.

Martin, I. (2016). The grammar of meaning systems: Sign systems, symbolic cognition, and semiotics. Unpublished manuscript.

NextEngine- ScanStudio- surface technology. Retrieved December, 2016, from

Ree, R. (2011). 3D printing: Convergences, frictions, fluidity. (Masters of Information, University of Toronto).

Simon, H. (1996). The Sciences of the Artificial. MIT Press, 3.

Wennersten, J. (2007). The oyster wars of the chesapeake bay. Follow the water Eastern Branch Press.

Zechini, M. (2014). Digital zooarchaeology: Faunal analysis in the 21st century. (Bachelor of Science, Virginia Commonwealth University).