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OU, Oklahoma Archeological Survey researchers helping digitize ancient Mesoamerican city

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Monte Alban (copy)

OU and Oklahoma Archeological Survey researchers are making strides to digitize discoveries made at the Monte Alban site in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Marc Levine, assistant curator and assistant professor of Anthropology at OU, headed the Monte Alban project and cites the digital aspect of it3D modeling and virtual realityas a “spin off” of the original research project into the Monte Alban site in Oaxaca, Mexico. The focus of his project was on the Plaza of Monte Alban.

Monte Alban is one of the oldest Mesoamerican cities, located in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. At its height, it had a population of around 17,000. The city flourished from the middle-to-late Preclassic  period (around 500 B.C.) till the end of the Postclassic period (around 1521) according to the Monte Alban research website.

Levine said that by using photogrammetry, they are able to measure the volume of each building. They can quantify how many baskets of soil it took to construct the solid buildings, which can tell us the “labor investments” of the people involved in the construction of the ancient site. It is “a look into how commons and elites cooperated to create this monumental effort that is the main Plaza,” said Levine.

Digital mapping, conducted via drone, can help researchers chart the topography – the measurements of elevation in a particular area – of the site.

This information, according to Levine, can help figure out “more practical things,” like drainage. Being able to detect the “subtle undulations” on the ground through topography can even help detect something buried beneath the surface.

“The biggest challenge right now is trying to justify visualizing archaeological data in how they add to our understanding of the ancient city,” Levine said. “That's a hard nut to crack. We have to try to leverage the data to increase our understanding of the city, which is kind of like coming full circle.”

This work on Monte Alban can be compelling to students, because OU researchers are involved with it, working in Mexico and making brand-new discoveries. Getting to share these new discoveries firsthand with the students makes a huge difference, Levine said.

Alex Badillo, a professor at Indiana State University, has been Levine’s research partner since 2017. Badillo had a major role in the digital aspect of the research within the last year as a “geospatial and photogrammetry specialist.”

Photogrammetry is the use of photographs to create 3D models. Badillo used a drone to take photographs of the Plaza surface and various buildings at the Monte Alban site. He then used the 2D photographs in a process called structure-from-motion photogrammetry to create 3D models.

Full area can be determined from these models, according to Badillo. The models are to scale and can provide a “highly accurate estimation” of the composition of the buildings and even the volume within the buildings.

Once 3D models were obtained through Badillo’s technological work, they were placed into MAVRL (Monte Alban Virtual Reality Laboratory). Badillo’s main job within this past year was to “optimize the models” for exploration in virtual reality. 

“It was a great experience to compare traditional methods with newer cutting edge techniques.

We can use the (Monte Alban) site to highlight these newer methods,” Badillo said. “Photogrammetry is catching fire and revolutionizing archeology. Virtual reality is pioneering new places in archeology, and I’m interested in seeing where that takes us.”  

Scott Hammerstedt, senior researcher at the Oklahoma Archeological Survey, used three different technological methods for his role in the geophysical survey of Monte Alban.

According to Hammerstedt, The first was a gradiometer, a device that detects magnetic variations in the soil. The second was an electrical resistance meter to detect moisture levels in the soil. The final technological method utilized was ground penetrating radar, which can tell an observer what something under the surface would look like and the depth of the object.

“The reason we use those three technologies is that they’re complementary to one another,” Hammerstedt said. “Each have different strengths and weaknesses.”

This geophysical survey technology led to the discovery of a previously unknown underground temple, according to Hammerstedt.

While there are hopes to explore other parts of Monte Alban besides the Plaza, geophysical research of the Plaza is finished for now.

“In terms of the archaeological use of these machines, we have more technology than other places have. Having that much capability for geophysical survey here at OU is pretty nice,” Hammerstedt said. “It's nice for us to get involved and provide some international recognition for both the survey and for OU in general. That's been pretty huge for us.”

“People are out there making discoveries and thinking up new ideas about things that matter in the world, and we're not done, it's not over,” Levine said. “Discovery is out there in the world and out there for you to discover.”

There are hopes to develop the virtual reality capabilities in the project into augmented reality. According to Levine, virtual reality is when you are immersed into a computer-based model of something, whereas augmented reality was when images are projected into real world.

Levine said the 3D modeling of Monte Alban’s Plaza has very clear teaching applications.

“My dream is to someday be able to download an app on your phone at the site and have an AR experience,” said Levine. “It would be a way of returning that technology to Mexico. The barriers of this technology are very high right now. I think it'd be really cool to have something on the phone to really deeply enrich their experience at the site.”

For more information on the Monte Alban project, check out the Monte Alban website or the 3D models of the full site.

(The photo for this story is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License)

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