Begley Develops 3-D Technology, Uncovers Past
March 29, 2011 1 Comment
by Erica Clark
He could give the adventurous Indiana Jones a run for his money. He experiments with pioneering technology, dives off the coast of Caribbean islands and camps in Honduran jungles for weeks at a time. He’s Dr. Chris Begley, archaeologist and professor of anthropology here at Transylvania University.
For 21 years, Begley has worked in Latin America, exploring unknown areas and using methods like examining artifacts and studying such aspects of the culture as its architecture and historical documents.
His goal is to answer questions like “Who lived here?” “When did they live here?” “How did they make a living?” “Whom are they related to and how did they interact with everybody else?” His studies focus most specifically on elites in a culture and how they gained and maintained their power.
“I love working in the rainforest, the kinds of questions that I’m asking and the sense of discovery,” said Begley. “You’re walking through the rainforest upon these ruins in the jungle, and it’s exciting to see what’s there and to document it.”
According to Begley, the most interesting things are not the artifacts, but aspects they discover about the grand scheme of the cultures. Aspects of the “big picture” include getting a sense of how people were spread across the landscape, how large the political units might have been and how the ancient groups relate to modern indigenous groups in the area.
Recently, during his research with University of Kentucky graduate student Eli Crane and Larry Hassebrook, Begley has been working on developing 3-D imaging technology that helps collect data. Begley called Hassebrook the “professor behind it all.”
“A couple of years ago (Crane) was working on these 3-D scanners for fingerprints that used visible light to, essentially, cast shadows or project a pattern onto something,” said Begley. “This then allowed him to see what the pattern looked like bent, compared to what it looked like on a flat surface.”
From this, they could extrapolate the shape of the object.
Using this sort of technology in the field allows archaeologists like Begley to spend time collecting data in very remote areas and to process the information at a later time. Begley and Crane, joined by several current and former Transy students, took a prototype of the scanner into the jungle for two weeks and scanned ancient sculptures and rock carvings known as “petroglyphs.”
The scanner, which resembles a camera, produces a detailed map of whatever object is scanned, down to submillimeter accuracy. The map allows the users to precisely measure between two points, something that cannot be done by looking at a photograph.
They are trying to use the scanner in different environments.
This summer, Begley is taking a version of the technology to the mountains of Peru, where he will do high-altitude tests at about 18,000 feet.
“We are also working on an underwater version, which is the really exciting thing for me,” said Begley. “It’s completely different though, because light and water interact in interesting ways sometimes.”
The underwater environment creates two challenges for the scanner. The first is constructing a watertight machine that will still function in deep waters. The second is correctly producing images, since light interacts differently with water. Begley has tested versions of the underwater scanner in Spain and in Kentucky.
Begley will further his underwater archaeology experiences in Spain this summer when he explores Roman-era shipwrecks.
Of course, after working in the jungles of Honduras for years, Begley already knows what being underwater feels like.
“After three weeks in the jungle, it feels like you’re just wet, all the time,” Begley said. “And since I mostly go in our summertime, that’s the rainy season. So I’m never there when it’s dry.”
Living in the jungles for up to three weeks at a time can lead to moderately uncomfortable and scary situations. Begley has experienced a range of such events, “from almost stepping (on) or getting bitten by poisonous snakes, to armed bandits I’ve had to escape from during the night,” he said.
Once, Begley had been traveling with a group on foot for six days when they saw some men illegally clearing forest in the area.
“Basically we were in as remote a part of the jungle as you can get,” Begley said. “Everyone you meet out there is armed, but one of the guys was like a ‘Jesse James’ figure — everyone knew who he was, that he was a murderer.”
The murderer happened by Begley’s camp one night, and the locals that Begley was traveling with recognized him.
“(The locals) felt confident that he was going to come back to our camp during the night because he had made some threats before he had left,” Begley said. “In their culture, you don’t make threats lightly. So to avoid that, as soon as he was gone, we packed everything up in silence and walked all night with flashlights to get out.”
Later, the group heard gunshots back at the camp, proof that the murderer had returned after they had escaped.
“It was just scary, frankly,” Begley said.
By the time they returned to safety, the story had quickly spread. It was heard on the radio, and reporters even approached Begley to ask him about the situation.
“The whole time I kept thinking, ‘I could have gone to law school,’ ” said Begley.
To view a documentary that Begley took part in making with the BBC and Ewan McGregor (known for his role in “Star Wars” as Obi-Wan Kenobi), search “Trips Money Can’t Buy” on YouTube.