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Crystal River site giving up its secrets
By BARBARA BEHRENDT
Published June 6, 2007
CRYSTAL RIVER - Spread beneath the towering oaks and magnolias is a lush rolling lawn that backs up to the sparkling Crystal River.
But a grassy hill tucked away in one corner hides what could have been an upscale neighborhood for royalty hundreds of years ago.
For 16 centuries American Indians trekked to what is now known as the Crystal River Archaeological State Park. They traded goods, held ceremonies and buried their dead.
Soon many of those ancient secrets could be revealed thanks to technology previously reserved for architectural, engineering and manufacturing.
In recent months, University of South Florida archaeological researchers Lori Collins and Travis Doering have used computers, a Global Positioning System and laser scanners to create a virtual map of the Crystal River site.
"While Crystal River is a really important site, very, very little work has been done on it, " Collins said.
During one visit, she sat in a truck watching as the results of a laser scan unfolded, filling her laptop screen with a blizzard of dots. As the minutes ticked by, the dots assembled into the shape of the adjacent landscape. Doering adjusted the equipment on the nearby mound to make the next laser sweep.
The laser scan provides the texture of the landscape while the high-definition GPS plots the geographic features in their global location.
Every indentation and slope of the land appeared on the screen, creating a virtual blueprint of the knoll. Where the naked eye sees a rolling field, laser scan images showed walkways, foundations and mounds.
The scanning also protects elements of the site. One of the most popular features at the Crystal River park are two limestone markers known as stelae. One, which was erected about 440 A.D. shows the crude outline of a man's face.
But time is threatening to wipe it out forever. By laser scanning it, "at least we'll have it preserved, kind of a time freeze of it the way it is now, " Collins said.
"The laser scanning itself is a very good interpretive tool and, more than that, an archival measurement of the structures themselves because over time they change, " said state park manager Nick Robbins.
He knows. Years ago his father managed the site, and he has in his own lifetime seen the deterioration in features of the stelae.
On another recent weekend, Collins and Doering brought a short-range scanner to the Crystal River site again, training it on the stela with the face carving. Doering explained to students helping with the project how to adjust the scanning device to measure each section of the large rock.
Nearby, Collins sat on the pavement with other students gathered around her. Piece by virtual piece, the details of the stela displayed onto her screen. Then she began assembling the pieces correctly - like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.