A Virtual Armoury!

Virtual Armoury

Virtual Armoury

Recently a new reconstruction project has gotten underway. No, we have not begun rebuilding another site in town, but instead we have started reconstructing the Armoury Site…virtually. Using skills that would be foreign to our 18th-century predecessors, computer modelers from Colonial Williamsburg’s Digital History Center are hard at work creating a “Virtual Armoury” to complement the ongoing physical reconstruction.

Why build a virtual model when “the real thing” is currently under construction? While our physical reconstruction will depict James Anderson’s Public Armoury at the height of its use (between 1778 and 1780) a virtual model can show multiple time periods to convey how a site grew and changed. Through the virtual model, rendered on a computer screen much like a video game, guests will be able to explore and learn about the development of James Anderson’s property from supporting a small blacksmith shop in 1776, to a bustling industrial complex three years later. In the virtual world, buildings may be added or dismantled, aged, and renovated based on what we know from a wealth of documentary, architectural, and archaeological research. Best of all, none of these virtual changes requires a building permit!

Virtually modeling the site is also an important research tool for the reconstruction project. By visualizing the site on a computer, we can analyze evidence and test hypotheses before any bricks are laid or posts put into the ground. We can use computer modeling to examine the evidence about where tin-smithing was taking place and to learn more about the site’s landscape. For example, the ongoing excavations around the “Mary Stith Tin Shop” have revealed that the building was literally built in a ravine and that the ground level to the west and north of the building was at least five feet lower than it is today. This new landscape evidence is raising intriguing questions about the location of the door and the building’s height in relation to the Armoury, only 1 1/2 feet to the east. Using 3D modeling we will be able to visualize various scenarios to determine which ones are more plausible and which ones can be conclusively ruled out.

The images below show the kitchen—the first building to be virtually reconstructed—in the preliminary stage of modeling, in which a building is reproduced to scale using computer drafting software. The second stage will involve applying appropriate textures, colors, and lighting to make the computer model appear as realistic as possible. The virtual reconstruction of James Anderson’s Blacksmith Shop and Public Armoury is part of a larger undertaking to create Virtual Williamsburg, an interactive 3D computer model of the town in 1776.

As the physical reconstruction of the site continues, we will post periodic updates about the virtual modeling of the site to show how it is progressing, so stay tuned!

-Contributed by Peter Inker, Digital Architectural Historian.

Virtual Williamsburg and the Foundation’s new 3D Visualization Lab have received funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. We are extremely grateful for this support.



  1. Joshua Muse says

    Hi, all, and thank you for the well wishes. The Armoury project continues to fascinate – I wish I could see it in person.

    Rick, I’m still in Vermont, which has finally escaped a rainy and cold spring for a sunny and warm summer. It’s nice here, though I certainly miss my easy access to the Historic Area, and all of the staff and guests at CW.

    Hope everyone is doing well!

  2. Joshua Muse says

    I’m glad to see that the Armoury is progressing so well, both virtually and in the historic area. These images are great – I can’t wait to see the final rendering.

    • CW Archaeology says

      Wonderful to hear from you. The blog has not been the same since your departure! Yes, there has been lots of progress on the Armoury…both real and virtual. Glad you’re enjoying watching it!

  3. Kerry Lancaster says

    During our recent visit I had a chance to look at the brick work up close and my question is when we built a reproduction CW house the masons told me to use buff mortar but your mortar used looks grayish white.Is this something that has been changed after research or does the age of time make the change? Thank you

    • CW Archaeology says

      There is a great deal of variability in the color of mortar, largely due to different colors of sand and clay used to produce it. Jason Whitehead, of our Masonry Trades, quotes George Mason as saying that the best sand for making mortar is “pit sand” dug from cellars or wells. Less acceptable was river shore sand, and finally, the sand from road which was “very foul and full of dust.” ( A letter to Alexander Henderson July 18th, 1763 found in The Papers of George Mason, 1725-1792Vol. 1. 1749-1778, p. 56-57Robert A. Rutland ed. Chapel Hill, 1970).”

      According to Jason, “The sand we used at the Armoury and for much of our brickwork is excavated pit sand. It has been washed and is very white. I believe that the sand used traditionally would have included a bit more of a clay content which, due to the color of local clays, would have given some brickwork a more buff appearance. Where the sand was cleaner in the ground you would have made a brighter white mortar.”

      • CW Archaeology says

        Matt Webster adds a bit more to the answer above:

        “The color is dramatically impacted by the lime burning process, as the rick produces a much dirtier product because of the high ash content. We definitely see historic mortar color impacted by the presence of ash. The color of the sand and amount of clay also impact color. The mortar analysis for the kitchen showed very fine sand that was largely on the light side. You are correct that there is great variation in color dependant on local materials. Colors can range from pink to white to gray.”

  4. says

    This virtual stuff is pretty cool. I work with it daily and it does help to visualize in advance what a project will look like…..or NOT look like. Yes, and thanks Mr. Mars. Great reason to “eat more candy “!

    • CW Archaeology says

      I agree! We are all VERY grateful to Mr. Mars for his generous support of both the Coffeehouse and the Armoury reconstructions!

      So glad that the blog entry on virtual reconstruction has gone over well. We wondered how this would be received. While you can expect more from our blacksmiths and carpenters in the near future (we have a stash of entries ready to post!), we plan to include some of these modeling blogs, for variety.

  5. Ronald Heberle says

    Thanks for the info, that makes alot of sense to create a virtual model. The Armory is coming along real well.

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