New Technologies Applied to Ancient Sites at Mesa Verde

by John Loomis
February 1, 2007
Orinda, Calif. - The Kacyra Family Foundation has received a grant from the U.S. National Park Service's National Center for Preservation Technology and Training for the purpose of advancing archaeology documentation methods in Mesa Verde National Park. Advancing these methods will further serve the preservation of the many historic sites known as America's Vanishing Treasures. CyArk will achieve these objectives with a team of collaborators from Texas Tech University by applying new survey and imaging technologies and methods known as High Definition Documentation.

It is a tragic fact, but according to the U.S. Department of the Interior, thousands of prehistoric and historic ruins, some UNESCO World Heritage Sites, in 44 U.S. National Parks in the West alone, are threatened by deterioration and collapse. Known as America's Vanishing Treasures, these important historic sites face imminent demise as a result of many years of inadequate funding, backlogged preservation plans, and declining numbers of caretaker staff. At present these historic sites are deteriorating faster than they are being documented.

This unfortunate loss of historic cultural sites is not unique to the United States, but is in fact a situation that is prevalent through much of the world. Unlike cultural artifacts safely housed in museums, cultural heritage sites are far more at risk, exposed to the harsh elements of sun, wind and rain and in many cases to corrosive acts of human beings that can range from uncontrolled tourism to the extreme cases of looting and acts of war. In the worst case scenario, documentation may be the only form of preservation. It is imperative that these cultural heritage sites be well documented before they deteriorate any further. However, in the best case scenario, proper documentation can be the first step toward responsible preservation and site management.

To address this challenge that is global in scope, CyArk began at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, a national leader in the Vanishing Treasures program and home to the great Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwelling civilization. CyArk is a nonprofit project of the Kacyra Family Foundation (a 501c3 charitable trust), with the mission of preserving World Heritage Sites through collecting, archiving and providing open access to data created by laser scanning, digital modeling, and other state-of-the-art technologies. Mesa Verde was chosen because its park superintendent, Larry Wiese, had a keen interest in the potential of new technologies to address today's challenges facing archeological documentation and preservation. And Mesa Verde indeed presents significant challenges. The park contains over 4,381 archaeological sites over 800 years ago. Of those sites, over 600 have architectural structures mostly located in the dramatic cliffs carved into the mesa. Of these 600 sites, only 135 have received some level of survey documentation in the 100 years of the park's existence.

In 2005 and 2006, using the historic site of Spruce Tree House at Mesa Verde as a case study pilot project, CyArk collaborated with faculty and students from Texas Tech, UC Berkeley, and with the staff of Mesa Verde National Park to initiate the development of technological procedures that would advance, and improve the speed and efficiency of archeological documentation methods. Lead by Professor Glenn Hill of Texas Tech, the team developed High Definition Documentation (HDD), an integrated method that combines surveying, 3D laser scanning, and high definition photography processes that in this pilot form delivered a 60% time/cost savings over traditional archaeological documentation methods.

The technological core of HDD is high definition surveying (HDS) which utilizes a laser scanner to capture the physical features of a site and displays them in 3D as a point cloud model where each point represents the precise location of the laser's contact with the site. The process becomes HDD when high resolution and dynamic range photography is integrated with the laser scanning, providing additional material and chromatic information to the 3D point cloud model.

Point cloud models are typically accurate to .5cm, but when fused to photographic pixels of higher accuracy, can assume that higher accuracy. These digital models can be used to generate a wide range of documents useful for preservation and heritage site management. For example they can generate documents such as architectural drawings, condition assessment documents, and finite element method models for structural analysis. These are of great value to heritage site managers, archaeologists, and conservation professionals. But much visually rich HDD data can also be of great use for education and of interest to the general public. Such data from cultural heritage sites from around the world, including that of Spruce Tree House, can be viewed at the CyArk 3D Heritage Archive at

Given the success of Spruce Tree House pilot project, the U.S. National Park Service's National Center for Preservation Technology and Training made a grant to CyArk to further collaborate and further refine and develop HDD as a tool to potentially be adopted for use in the Vanishing Treasures program. To this end CyArk and its collaborator on the project, Texas Tech, this spring and summer will be documenting the Mesa Verde site of Fire Temple, advancing both field and lab procedures, training Mesa Verde staff, and developing a manual for HDD. Subsequently, workshops will be conducted at other sites for the Vanishing Treasures program, and there are plans under discussion for further dissemination of HDD within the U.S. National Park Service.

Bringing advanced technologies and new methods to archaeological documentation serves not only heritage site managers and conservation professionals. They also serve the general public. Certainly the public benefits when sites are better preserved and better managed, but there is another aspect to this. Of the over 600 cliff dwelling sites at Mesa Verde, only 4 are accessible to the general public. And for a variety of good reasons, there are no plans to allow visitors on any of the other sites. However, through HDD other sites can be rendered virtually accessible, and will be over the CyArk 3D Heritage Archive, And by extension, America's Vanishing Treasures can potentially all be rendered accessible to the public at large, fulfilling this important public mission of the National Park Service.
Related Projects:
Mesa Verde