How 3-D Imaging Helps Archaeologists Preserve The Past Videos

Video 16.17

How 3-D Imaging Helps Archaeologists Preserve The Past

Archaeologists Luis Jaime Castillo and Carlos Wester have been working on the north coast of Peru for decades. They’ve focused on a large complex of pyramids called Chotuna-Chornancap, which was built by the Sicán, also known as Lambayeque, around 750 AD. The pyramids were a seat of power for at least three civilizations: the Sicán, Chimú, and Inca. The latest major discoveries at Chotuna-Chornancap included the tomb of a priestess who was buried with a gold crown, silver jewellery, and a sceptre. “We found the tomb of an elite member of the Lambayeque culture who represents one of the most important rulers we’ve known in this area,” said Wester. “This archaeological site has allowed us to find a context that we had not explored about Lambayeque culture: the presence of women associated with power and religiosity.” Castillo and Wester are confident that there are decades more of archaeological discoveries to be made at the site, and there is a sense of urgency. “Are we in a hurry? Yes,” Castillo said. “Damage by water, looting and encroachment are the biggest threat to archaeological sites all around the world,” said Castillo. Hundreds of sites have already been lost. Many of these sites may be small, but Castillo explains why they are still important to preserve: “The problem is that if we go this way, we will end up only having Machu Picchu and maybe Chan Chan and a couple of other very large sites … We want to know how the peasants lived. We want to know how agricultural fields were. We want to answer questions that go beyond how the rich and powerful were enjoying life.” Today, technologies such as drones make it possible to survey large areas in a short amount of time, and even build models to assess possible site damage. “I can fly many, many hectares around this site and develop a map in probably 20 minutes,” said Castillo. “By tonight, I will have my three-dimensional model, and tomorrow morning I will have a completely developed assessment of what to do to prevent damage produced by water.” The models can help researchers make strategic decisions to prevent destruction of sites by flowing water, earthquakes, or El Niño flooding. “The technical pictures that we can produce can help us do things we've never done before,” Castillo explained. Not only are they able to lay out their excavation units to get a useful bird’s eye-view and produce 3-D models of the excavations themselves, Castillo said, “But then we realized that the models and the pictures could actually allow us to help preserve the sites much better.” Castillo received a grant from the National Geographic Society to use aerial photography to document El Niño's impacts on archaeological structures such as Chotuna-Chornancap on the north coast of Peru. Using high-resolution-photogrammetric 3-D models to create digital topography allows him to record and assess the extension, duration, and pace of El Niño's heavy rains and floods. Predicting how the water is going to flow makes it possible to try to divert it to protect archaeological sites. At a number of those sites, the Ministry of Culture in Peru has developed proactive measures to prevent destruction. There are many reasons why it’s important to study and preserve the past. “Our society has come to think that we made ourselves, we are self-made cultural products. We developed and invented everything. We owe nothing to the past,” reflected Castillo. “For an archaeologist, that is funny. We are only the continuation of a process that started a long time ago. Many of the problems that we have today can only be solved if we look back at how we came to be the way we are.” Both Castillo and Wester are motivated by the larger purpose of their work and how archaeology can contribute to present and future society. Wester expressed, “The past must become a tool to improve the present, and if we don’t do this, then we are only looking for treasures, and that is not the purpose of archaeology,” said Wester. GlobalXplorer° is a cutting-edge platform that empowers citizen scientists around the world to help reduce looting and encroachment at important archaeological sites—as well as discover and protect unknown sites—using satellite imagery. Find out how you can become part of the GlobalXplorer° community and make a difference, beginning with our first expedition in Peru, at


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