Archaeologist 3D Scans the 'World's Oldest Ham' for Science

Isle of Wight County Museum
Isle of Wight County Museum / Isle of Wight County Museum

In the late 19th century, a businessman named P.D. Gwaltney Jr. brainstormed a bizarre way to publicize his salt-cured pork business. He took a 20-year-old cured ham, which had somehow never been sold, and affixed a collar and leash to the hunk of meat. Gwaltney toted his “pet ham” along to food expositions, and used it to boast about his company's skill at pork preservation.

Today, the 113-year-old delicacy sits in the Isle of Wight County Museum in Smithfield, Virginia, in homage to Gwaltney’s eccentric legacy. Over the years, the ham has transformed into something of a local celebrity. In 2014, museum officials threw it a 112th birthday party. A recent “Pan Ham” competition offered travelers the chance to photograph themselves at tourist attractions with a picture of Gwaltney and his ham. You can even catch a glimpse of the wizened relic via the museum’s Ham Cam, which live-streams the prized attraction sitting in a specially designed display case.

Nobody wants to eat what's purported to be the world’s oldest edible cured ham—but academics do want to 3D print it. According to, a curator at the Isle of Wight County Museum recently invited archaeologist Bernard Means to scan several artifacts, including the ham. Means, who teaches at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of World Studies, heads the school’s Virtual Curation Laboratory, where researchers and students create 3D images and prints of archaeological artifacts and remains. He digitized the antique meat using two different handheld scanners. 

The museum plans to post the ham images on its website and social media accounts. They might also 3D print the ham, since museum patrons who want to feel the heirloom aren’t allowed to touch the original.

Of course, no 3D-printed meat is complete without a side dish of legumes. The Isle of Wight County Museum also owns “the world’s oldest peanut,” which was unearthed on Gwaltney’s father’s farm in 1890. (As with his ham antics, Gwaltney used the aging food to peddle peanuts to the masses.) “How could one resist 3D scanning the world’s oldest ham and world’s oldest peanut?” Means asked.