UCLA makes Mayan architecture and artifacts available as digital records with 3D scanning and Geomagic software

In the nation of Belize, ancient Maya temples dot the landscape. But while these architectural ruins can be seen everywhere, the civilization's cultural artifacts have not been accessible to the native people.

Two new developments will change this situation: A national museum is being created to display the thousands of artifacts excavated by archeologists, and, officials are working with The Cotsen Institute of Archeology at UCLA to create a "virtual museum" of ancient artifacts that the schools, the people of Belize, and archeologists will be able to study.

Using 3D reverse engineering software from Geomagic UCLA researchers are capturing, processing and storing 3D models of artifacts and historical sites for the virtual museum.

Preserving the Past in 3D

The Belize project is the one of the many in UCLA's Digital Archaeology Lab, which is creating new ways to document archeological research, artifacts, and data.

Traditionally, archaeological information is published in a monograph or book. But this kind of documentation cannot be distributed economically and doesn't adequately depict the complex visual and technical data needed for the study. The goal of UCLA's Digital Imprint project is to make archeological data more accessible, to preserve visual and technical components, and to develop standards for documenting high-quality digital representations of the items and information collected.

"Each year the ratio of available-to-published material worsens and without a new approach to archaeological publishing, years of investment and volumes of irreplaceable information are forever lost," says Louise Krasniewicz, director of the Digital Archeology Lab at UCLA. "Archeologists are just starting to think about 3D. So we have a unique lab in that respect. Through a series of grants and alliances we've been able to test some of these new ideas."

Maya Culture on CD

For the project in Belize, UCLA archaeologists are working to preserve artifacts and sites from one of the world's most renowned ancient cultures, the Maya. This classical civilization originated in the Yucatan around 2600 B.C., settling in southern Mexico, Guatemala, northern Belize and western Honduras. The culture is famous for utilizing astronomy, calendar systems, hieroglyphic writing, and elaborate and highly decorated ceremonial architecture and artifacts.

UCLA plans to create two CD-ROMs - one with 3D images of the artifacts in the Belize national collection and the other with interactive panoramas of ancient Maya sites. On their most recent trip, Krasniewicz, archeology students, and staff digitally reproduced 75 Maya tools, pottery, jewelry and other objects that are between 1,000 and 3,000 years old.

Krasniewicz accurately reproduces the Maya artifacts through a process called 3D reverse engineering, which entails automatically capturing a physical object and turning it into a 3D digital model for design, engineering, mass customization and the web or CD-based presentation.

The first step in the process is scanning an object with a Lightscribe white-light scanner from Geometrix. A 3D point cloud is then generated from the scan data. The resulting file is exported to Geomagic Wrap software to clean up the point cloud data and accurately align the textures of the 3D model to within .010 of an inch of the original object. According to Krasniewicz, Geomagic Wrap is the first 3D software capable of easily adjusting both the geometry and the textures of the artifacts.

"It cleans and aligns the textures perfectly for 3D printing," Krasniewicz says. "For a researcher, it's important that the textures are in the right place or it's not worth doing it. This is also a very precise and unique way of measuring objects. It's something archeologists have always tried to do but never had the technology to do it."

The final models are then used to create the "virtual museums" for CD-ROMs or display over the Internet. Models from Geomagic Wrap can also be output directly to 3D printing devices that can reproduce the objects for educational and display purposes.

"It's very important to the Belize government to have these 3D archives," Krasniewicz says. "Some of these schools are literally out in the jungle. Students can't travel hundreds of miles to visit a museum to look at these ancient artifacts from their own culture. This will give them access to objects they've never seen before."

The Past Meets the Future

The concept of digitally storing artifacts and sites from ancient cultures carries a lot of promise for the field of archeology, Krasniewicz says.

"This is so exciting to us. For the first time the past can actually meet the future as technology progresses to allow us to preserve these cultures in a visual and physical way; in a way that we've never been able to preserve them before."

Krasniewicz says the UCLA Digital Archeology Lab wants to create a new standard for archaeologists to record ancient objects for use worldwide.

"While archeologists have always made maps and taken photographs, now they can easily and accurately create computer graphics, three-dimensional models, and searchable visual databases storing thousands of maps, photographs, and drawings," Krasniewicz says. "Digital publication also makes possible the inclusion of video records, audio comments and explanations, animations, virtual reality simulations, and architectural reconstructions."