3D computer scans may help preserve endangered archaeology

University of South Florida

3D computer scans may help preserve endangered archaeology

*For our full coverage of AAAS 2016, check out our meeting page.

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Last year, a structure protecting a two-and-a-half millennia–old Olmec altar in Chalcatzingo, Mexico, burned down, exposing the altar to the elements and damaging it in the process. Repairing the site would be full of difficult guesswork—except that researchers had scanned and digitized it 3 years earlier. Every day, historical sites around the world are damaged by natural weathering, not to mention pollution, vandalism, and even terrorism. So some researchers are developing ways to rapidly take a 3D snapshot of a site at risk. That was the plan for the Chalcatzingo altar, which researchers scanned using 3D laser scanning technology in 2012 because acid rain, agriculture, and a nearby volcano all threaten to degrade the site over time. Yesterday, at the annual meeting of AAAS (which publishes Science) here, archaeologist Lori Collins of the University of South Florida, Tampa, showed how her team and Mexican researchers working with Proyecto Arqueológico Chalcatzingo, a team of Mexican archaeologists working to preserve the Chalcatzingo site, digitally deconstructed the 3D model (pictured) of the altar into individual rocks. They were able to map out each piece—and this week, on-the-ground archaeologists are working to reconstruct the site exactly as it was before the fire. Thanks to their meticulous digitization work, the team even found details in the rock carvings that had never before been noticed. Such 3D scans will help archaeologists preserve heritage in politically unstable regions, Collins says, while also allowing students and researchers around the world to access a piece of history. 

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