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Researchers create a virtual version of Chimney Rock in S.W. Colorado

Laser-based technology uncovers new archaeological details

Researchers want to make it possible for everyone to virtually walk through the ancient dwellings at

“We’re going to try to recreate the experience of how they perceived the archaeological site,” said associate anthropology Professor Gerardo Gutierrez.

Gutierrez and his team of students from the University of Colorado, Boulder this week collected data at the national monument, on Colorado Highway 151 west of Pagosa Springs, to help make that possible.

Their work is part of Project Map, an effort to model ancient and historic monuments across the state. Chimney Rock is one of their first projects because of its archaeological ties to Chaco Canyon National Historic Park, and for decades researchers from CU Boulder have worked at the site, which was mainly inhabited between 925 and 1125.

“This is one of the most important national monuments of the Chacoan culture in the state of Colorado,” Gutierrez said.

Overlooking the developments, on a ridge line near the park’s famous rock, the team demonstrated a light-detection and ranging system called LiDAR. The laser scanner can send out 122,000 pulses per second, enough to collect a data point every 3 millimeters.

It is detailed enough to capture dust, insects and rain, he said.

The team will filter out unneeded information, including vegetation, to create a 3-D color model of about 1.5 square miles of the area that will reveal details about the site that would otherwise go unnoticed, he said.

“We’re using LiDAR because it is a way to see what you can’t see with your eyes,” said Tessa Branyan, a graduate student in anthropology.

For example, the modeling has uncovered details that have been missed even though the site has been surveyed many times.

“We actually located a path into one of the sectors of the site that hadn’t been reported,” he said.

The researchers also found that very few people would have had access to a ridge near Chimney Rock because it is blocked by pit houses, Gutierrez said.

The team plans to make the model accessible to the public as an all encompassing virtual reality experience so people will be able to walk the ancient paths themselves, Gutierrez said. Transferring the data to a video gaming platform will likely start in the fall.

The model also creates a permanent record of the site, so that future researchers and site managers will be able to tell exactly how it changes over time.

Gutierrez’ team could tackle archaeological sites with ties to Chaco Canyon next. Work on other historical sites will be dependent on future grant funding, he said.

This portion was funded through CU Boulder’s Grand Challenge, aimed at implementing new technology in research across all disciplines.


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