Thames rock stars are going global with the completion of a project to digitise the rare rock and mineral specimens at the Thames School of Mines making them publicly available online, and accessible to people around the world.
Auckland University of Technology Master of Science graduate Vanessa Cocal-Smith used photogrammetry for the project.
Photogrammetry involves taking a series of overlapping images, which are then "stitched" together using software designed for the task, producing a 3D rendering of the scanned object – complete with colours and textures captured in the images.
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"The collection at the School of Mines is highly valuable – both scientifically and historically, and the school itself demonstrates the strong connection between geology and society," says Vanessa.
"Many of the existing materials were collected and used as educational tools when the school was operational in the 1900s, and some even earlier. The school presents the progression of educational, technological and scientific advances in the 19th and 20th centuries which is something I hope to continue into the 21st century with this research."
The 3D images have been uploaded to the open-source website Sketchfab, allowing for a new form of cataloguing and the ability to share the collection virtually.
Vanessa undertook the painstaking task of capturing the images last year. The process involved setting up a purpose-designed temporary studio within the school that is cared for by Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga. It also involved, surprisingly, a cake turntable. Each item was placed on the turntable and rotated at 10-degree intervals then photographed to manually capture the images via Bluetooth connection to Vanessa's phone.
"Nothing can replace the real deal, but with many specimens being very fragile – like epsomite, which has tiny fibrous crystals formed by the evaporation of mineral water – these images allow the minerals to be 'handled' without causing degradation," she says.
"They also allow people to look at the minerals from different angles and to zoom in to identify features that may not be clear when they're on display. In years to come, the images of the specimens could even be linked to 3D mine cross-sections and maps."
As well as close details, the collection also tells a big-picture story. "It's a beautiful story," Vanessa says, explaining how the rocks inform us of the knowledge of the first iwi and their relationship to the whenua; the Pākehā settlers who came from a global gold rush to settle in the Coromandel and make Thames, briefly, bigger than Auckland.
"It also helps tell the story of how mining helped New Zealand gain its wealth for nation building – as well as the stories of women and men who made the mines and settlements possible. In more recent times it's also about how the school educated miners and the wider community, and how today it is the guardian and custodian of these natural treasures," she explains.
The specimens are part of the rich geo-heritage of the area, linked to its 50-plus epithermal gold deposits as part of the Coromandel Volcanic Zone.
The Thames School of Mines will continue to feature in Vanessa's masters project, incorporating both geological science and social history.
"My research aims to establish links between local geology and mineral samples to specific mines and the stories that emanate from them, looking further into the connections with tangata whenua and women – two historically underrepresented groups," she says.
"It will also look at developing strategies for public outreach to create an accessible museum experience while also disseminating and integrating the photogrammetric models in ways that can enable them to be used as an educational tool."
Vanessa is particularly keen to look at links between rock specimens and the mine locations they came from – and from there, the families who supported the miners, the relationship between iwi and Pākehā settlers, the wealth mining generated – and how it shaped modern New Zealand.