Using Lasers to Map Mysteries of the Past
by Chris Branam
It started with a cold call in the dead of winter. Adam Barnes, a researcher in the Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies in Fulbright College, was headed into a meeting on Jan. 14, 2013, when he got a phone call from a London-based television producer who was interested in hiring a technical expert for a new documentary series on ancient structures.
“She was looking for someone who could laser scan,” Barnes said, referring to the center’s specialty, geospatial analysis and modeling. “After hearing what it involved, it was clear that she needed a team. We had several conversations over Skype within the next few days, and things really moved quickly.”
Soon, researchers from CAST were traveling to historic locations around the world, including the pyramids in Egypt, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and the ancient desert city of Petra in Jordan. They were filmed doing what they do best, using their advanced remote sensing technology to collect and analyze billions of measurements to form what is known as a point cloud, which provided a 3-D perspective of these structures but also solved some of the enduring engineering mysteries surrounding them.
The three-part documentary series, Time Scanners, made its United States debut on PBS in July. According to PBS, the series “reveals physical and forensic history, allowing viewers to reach out and touch the past.”
“Our role in the series is portrayed strongly as the technologists, experts and analysts in gathering and interpreting the data,” said Malcolm Williamson, a research associate at CAST who collected and analyzed data in Egypt and Jordan.
The Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies, established in Fulbright College in 1991, is dedicated to research and applications in geospatial analysis and modeling, remote sensing and digital photogrammetry. Remote sensing is the measurement or acquisition of information about an object without direct contact, such as by satellite imaging, aerial photography or radar. Photogrammetry is the science of recording, measuring and interpreting photographic images or other two-dimensional, remotely sensed data.
Four other current or former CAST researchers participated in the series: Eileen Ernenwein, Rachel Opitz, Katie Simon and Caitlin Stevens. Barnes, Williamson, Ernenwein and Simon are all Fulbright College alumni; Ernenwein joined the faculty at East Tennessee State University in 2012.
Overall, the researchers at CAST have diverse backgrounds. There are anthropologists, archaeologists, computer engineers and landscape architects.
“A lot of what we do is more science than art, but then there is some that is more art than science,” said Barnes, who holds a Master of Arts in geography from Fulbright College. “We can speak to an archaeologist or a classicist but we can also speak to a scientist. There is a marriage between disciplines. We speak all of those languages.”
For instance, Simon graduated from Utah State University with bachelor’s degrees in anthropology and art and had experience in cultural resource management in the western United States before coming to Fayetteville for graduate school.
“CAST is a fantastic place to work because it is a team-oriented environment,” Simon said. “We’re constantly using one another as resources to help augment our projects and our research. It’s fantastic to be surrounded by all the experts you could possibly need to help you make the best of whatever you are working on. In addition to being able to travel a lot, which is fun, it is amazing to be able to work with so many excellent people in the field.”
Steve Burrows, executive vice president of WSP, a global engineering and design consulting firm, is the featured expert in Time Scanners.
“The laser scanning technology meant that we could analyze the ancient structures in a way that no one ever has before, and some of the things we found were incredible,” Burrows said.
Time Scanners premiered July 1 with “Egyptian Pyramids.” For the episode, Stevens and Williamson traveled to Egypt to scan the pyramids—the tombs of the mighty pharaohs—to find out how they evolved from simple mud-brick structures to the most impressive buildings in the ancient world.
“One of my high points on the show was scanning the Great Pyramid of Giza,” Williamson said. “I thought that was really cool. How many people in the world get to do that?”
The production schedule for the series was tight, so the CAST researchers had to collect and analyze data in a couple of days. The process typically takes at least two weeks, said Simon, a research assistant at CAST who holds a master’s degree in remote sensing applications in archaeology from Fulbright College.
“These were some pretty unique circumstances, so we were always thinking about making things work properly because we weren't going to get a second chance,” she said.
The second and third episodes in the series premiered on July 8 and 15. Check your local PBS listings for encore presentations.
Encore presentations of Time Scanners on AETN include:
- 07/17/2014 - Petra - AETN-1 HD
- 07/18/2014 - Petra - AETN-1 HD
- 08/04/2014 - Egyptian Pyramids - AETN-3 PLUS/WORLD
- 08/04/2014 - St. Paul's Cathedral - AETN-3 PLUS/WORLD
- 08/04/2014 - Egyptian Pyramids - AETN-3 PLUS/WORLD
- 08/05/2014 - St. Paul's Cathedral - AETN-3 PLUS/WORLD
- 08/09/2014 - Egyptian Pyramids - AETN-3 PLUS/WORLD
- 08/10/2014 - St. Paul's Cathedral - AETN-3 PLUS/WORLD
- 08/16/2014 - St. Paul's Cathedral - AETN-3 PLUS/WORLD
- 08/23/2014 - Petra - AETN-3 PLUS/WORLD