Shovel-free archaeology dig

USF archaeologists use laser scanners to create 3-D images.

Published June 6, 2007

TAMPA - Two archaeologists from the University of South Florida are using technology of the future to help preserve priceless pieces of the past.

Travis Doering, and Lori Collins, have traded in picks and shovels for lasers and computers, helping pioneer a new way to learn about ancient sites without having to dig them up.

With global positioning satellites and laser scanners like those used by surveyors, they are creating three-dimensional images of fading artifacts and vanishing historic sites.

So far the two have studied the design of the Miami Circle, the minute details of vast stone carvings scattered around Mesoamerica and nearby historical gems like the Yulee Sugar Mill and the Crystal River Archaeological State Park in Citrus County.

Now captured forever in the virtual world, the sites are assured of an immortality of sorts.

"It's a way to totally visualize the past, " Collins said.

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Laser scanning can capture the details in everything, from a tiny artifact to an entire site, which researchers say can help quickly determine the significance of an archaeological find.

It provides such detail that even fingerprints can be captured. In a recent site in Mexico, scanning showed details of a potter's fingerprint swirls.

"Everyone says dig, " said Collins, who will earn her doctorate this summer. "But we don't have to dig to understand things. Not that I'm saying this will replace that, but it is something that we can do to understand cultures in the past in a way that's totally nondestructive."

The 3-D laser scanning techniques are the wave of the future, says Robert Austin, whose firm evaluates archaeological sites and historic structures as part of land development surveys.

"What they are doing is real cutting-edge with the three-dimensional laser technology, " said Austin, a private consultant with Southeastern Archaeological Research Inc. "I don't know of anybody doing that, at least at the level they are, and certainly no one is in Florida."

At first, not everyone was convinced laser scanning made sense. Classically trained USF professor Brent Weisman was among them.

"First I wanted to know if it was feasible, " he said. "Was it practical? Could this really do something? But I was very impressed with how quickly and accurately it worked."

Now Weisman is excited about the possibilities for USF and its students. The techno approach has galvanized interest.

"When I show this in my class, the students are just following me back to my office, " Collins said. "It's something they can really, really understand."

USF senior J. Bart McLeod was hooked the moment he took Collins' archaeology class. Since then, he has been on every field trip she has offered.

"I think as the technology develops becoming more user-friendly and affordable, archaeologists and people involved with historic preservation and documentation will realize the benefits these technologies have to offer, " McLeod said, "and it will dramatically change the way archaeology and historic preservation are done."

Speedy mapping

Such new technology isn't cheap.

Collins estimates that with university backing and in-kind support, the scanning so far has cost several hundred thousand dollars.

The equipment alone is worth more than a half-million dollars. The university has purchased much of it, but the team also has benefited from industry partnerships that have provided access to hardware.

State grants, including $46, 000 for the Crystal River project and $3, 000 for the Yulee Sugar Mill, also have helped. The private Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies Inc. also gave the team $25, 000 to do work in Mesoamerica.

Collins said another $2-million is being sought from the Legislature to develop USF's Center for Integrated Spatial Technologies.

Although the laser scans and other new technology have been used in Europe and Egypt for some time, its application as an archaeological tool in the United States has blossomed within the last few years.

It is fast and precise.

"We're able to map in a day what would normally take months to do, " Collins said.

That speed can be the difference between saving an archaeological feature virtually or losing it forever to a bulldozer.

In 1998, next to the Miami River, a condo developer unearthed an archaeologist's dream, an ancient Tequesta Indian site known as the Miami Circle.

The state spent $27-million to preserve the 2.2 acres, and in 2003, Collins brought in laser scan equipment. A two-week conventional survey mapped 3, 000 points and produced a hand-drawn map. In contrast, it took 2 1/2 days to collect 3-million points with laser scans that also corrected flaws in the original drawings.

The laser scan images allowed researchers to draw new conclusions and even analyze the structure's original construction.

A short while later, a similar smaller site was found on the other side of the Miami River. Because it would not be preserved, Collins and the team scanned it in one day.

Now that site, known as the Royal Palm Circle, is just a memory - but it is preserved forever in the virtual world.

Virtual visits

Florida is not the only place where ancient relics and sites are in danger. Doering does much of his work in Mesoamerica.

When larger sites are scanned, they can be "visited" through a computer simulation.

"It's something that no one ever thought was possible, " said Doering, who recently completed his doctorate. "You can walk through the site and see it pretty much as it was."

Thanks to the level of detail, any object or site captured by laser scans can be reproduced for educational purposes.

"As we scan more artifacts, more archaeologists will have access to these detailed computer models and will be able to study the artifacts without actually having to possess the items, " said Daniel L. Stephens, a USF senior.

Collins and Doering recently presented their work at a meeting of the Society for American Archaeologists.

"You can see how cool it is and how accurate, " Austin said.

Whether they learn about ancient peoples by viewing a re-creation of an inscribed stone tablet or examine it on a computer screen, those who come next need to learn the lessons artifacts can teach, Collins said.

"All our shared, collective culture - we need to preserve it into the future, " she said.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or 352 848-1434.