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Spring 2005

Vol. 05, No. 2


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Technology: A new discovery in archaeology

Let's play a word association game.

Stroll the NDSU campus and ask the first five students you see to blurt out what pops into their minds when you say the word "archaeologist."

"Dirt," "digging," "bones," "history" and "Indiana Jones."

Except for Indiana Jones - who had yet to leap onto the big screen of swashbuckling, fictional archaeology - the words are not wildly divergent from the scenarios that populated Jeff Clark's mind when he began his career as an archaeology professor twenty-two years ago.

Clark anticipated teaching some classes, sifting some dirt and digging for bones and artifacts in the conduct of research, and then publishing his findings in research journals. In his mind's eye, the younger Clark envisioned what he thought would be the typical life of an archaeology/anthropology professor.

As he and his wife, Ann, moved from Illinois to Fargo to embark on what was supposed to be a brief resume-starting stint at North Dakota State University, they were thinking what most young couples think. Establish a career, get the paychecks rolling in, find a comfortable home and begin filling it with children. Jeff and Ann Clark did those things.

Little did the mild-mannered Clark know that today, at 54, he would emerge as the Superman of futuristic, high-tech archaeological and anthropological research-sharing technologies. Little did he know that he would become an international leader in a Digital Archive Network for Anthropology and World History, known as DANA-WH. Little did he know that he would build and oversee a million-dollar Archaeology Technology Lab on the NDSU campus and become a global beacon for using computers to share artifacts.

Clark wholeheartedly believes that technology can be used so scientists around the world may share access to artifacts, and that technology will play a vital role in presenting archaeological interpretations to the public in easy-to-understand, even whimsical, ways.

His work has not gone unnoticed. He received NDSU's Waldron Award last year for outstanding faculty research on campus. Next year, Clark and his team will host the Conference for Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology. It's the first time the conference has been held outside Europe, largely because European archaeological researchers want a firsthand glimpse at the innovative happenings in North Dakota.

New tools, new possibilities

Like a swooping, soaring hawk, the "virtual" camera assumes a birds-eye view for the opening scene of the "On-A-Slant" video.

The camera, like a curious bird, takes viewers for a lilting ride far above the simulated Mandan earth lodge village. The aerial view begins from afar, scanning the sweeping vistas of the Heart and Missouri river landscape. As it nears the earth mound village, the camera flits and floats from the river, where a man paddles a bullboat, to the roof of an earthen lodge where children loll on the timbers. It pauses to examine votive poles, corn-drying racks and the exterior accoutrements of several lodges.

With the music of Native American flutist Keith Bear setting the tone, the camera alights on the ground and ushers guests inside select earth lodges. Once inside the lodge, the pace slows. Viewers have time to take in details such as the central fire pit and cooking area, sleeping quarters lined with animal skins and makeshift corral area where horses were kept indoors in case of harsh weather or Sioux raids.

The "On-A-Slant" video producers labored to give viewers a true sense of being inside a cluster of Mandan earth lodges in 1776. The video was produced on two separate digital recorders - one for the right eye and one for the left eye. Thus, the video projector incorporates two DVD players, one for the right eye and one for the left. That means people who watch the movie need those funky black plastic-rimmed 3-D glasses.

The "On-A-Slant" video is perhaps the most high profile of the NDSU Archaeology Tech Lab's work thus far. Other projects in the works include:

* Development of a computer game tentatively called "Virtual Archaeologist" for high school and college students. The game allows students to experience an archaeologist's world while on a dig - excavating, analyzing and interpreting artifacts.

* Development of "Virtual Dancer," an interactive archaeological/aerobic dance video to help curb the growing problem of diabetes among Native Americans. The computer game was the brainchild of elders from the White Earth Band of Chippewa. They wanted to keep alive traditional dances, and encourage vigorous exercise for children. The game would meld demonstrations of traditional dances, archaeological information, native music and diabetes prevention education. Completion of the project hinges on whether the lab receives a $3.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

* Development of a program that would allow visitors at national parks or historic sites to use their PDAs to view a digital simulation of what once existed on the very spot they are standing. The technology would bring artifacts out of museums and onto handheld computer screens, allowing park visitors to relate the artifacts to the present-day environment around them. Data also would be available about the region's flora, fauna and geology. Production will start this summer, contingent on a National Science Foundation grant.

From NDSU to the world

Before the digital archive network was born, researchers had to travel to far-flung museums or artifact repositories to conduct research. Today, the digital archive network makes artifacts accessible via a mouse click and computer screen. At the NDSU Archaeology Technology Lab, artifacts are scanned from all sides with a digital laser scanner and entered into the database, enabling users to rotate and view objects from many angles.

Clark draws inspiration from the paradox of using emerging technology to bring alive artifacts from the buried past. "If museums around the world were to digitize their artifacts, you could create a database that any archaeologist could access without leaving his or her computer," Clark said. "It pulls together a vast amount of data that is actually scattered around the globe. We can't travel back in time, but using computer applications ... we can create this world the way it may have looked ... and give you the feeling of being in that time and place."

The NDSU Archaeology Technology Lab has been featured on CNN, BBC, MSNBC and in the national magazines American Archaeology and Animation Magazine.

A childhood dream goes high-tech

"Archaeology is what I wanted to do since the sixth grade. My career has changed since then, with the technology," Clark said.

That he is today known for archaeology technology rather than his love of research on the coast of Samoa surprises Clark's colleagues - and Clark himself. After all, he makes no claim to be the office techie in NDSU's Department of Sociology and Anthropology. To be sure, he is quite competent on his office computer on Minard Hall's fourth floor. Down the street in the Archaeology Technology Lab, he can name every piece of equipment and its uses, but he can operate very few. In fact, his staff - who revere him as a visionary - sniggle and sneak sheepish glances at one another, then finally admit that Clark can't operate any equipment in the lab except his desktop computer.

And that's just fine with Clark. His role is to dream, gather grant money and hire computer wizards to enable the operation to soar.

"I do this for the challenge of doing new things," Clark says, "doing it differently, coming up with new things that other people haven't done before and the challenge of starting and funding a new project."

Besides Clark, seven graduate and under-graduate students work in the lab; three are full-time employees whose salaries are paid by grant money, largely from the National Science Foundation, and from proceeds of contract work for firms and historical entities who desire the lab's expertise. The three full-timers - archaeology graduate students Aaron Bergstrom and Jim Landrum and 3-D cultural architect Doug Snider - have been with the lab since the get-go in 1998. Brian Slator, a computer science professor, is co-leader on most projects, and William Perrizo, also of computer science, played a role in the beginning of the tech lab's projects.

With a lab full of "gee-whiz" equipment, Clark has never had to recruit student workers. "They pretty much find me," he says. Perhaps the lab's greatest student draw is $200,000 worth of Maya software. Maya software has been used for special effects and animation in movies such as "Shrek," "Star Wars" and "Lord of the Rings."

Construction without lumber

Snider, the lab's 3-D cultural architect, spent the better part of 2004 and 2005 building Mandan Indian earth lodges. However, he didn't move a speck of dirt or a stick of timber. In fact, he didn't move out of his office chair. But he clicked thousands of computer keys - and voila - earth lodges and the families who lived in them became the setting and characters for a 3-D movie set at what is now Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park Museum near Mandan, N.D.

Snider's construction occurs in the "virtual" world, amid a cluster of computers, laser scanners, digital visual recorders, projectors and high-tech gadgetry that most people couldn't identify or dream of operating.

Snider and his colleagues created a 3-D simulation video that allows viewers a virtual tour inside the Mandan tribe's On-A-Slant earth lodge village. The video was shown during the Circle of Cultures event, Oct. 22-33 in Bismarck and Mandan, commemorating the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition into the American West. Part of the mission of Circle of Cultures was to renew bonds of cooperation between the earth lodge people - the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara nations - and the Lewis and Clark expedition. Those bonds were forged during the winter of 1804-05, when Lewis and Clark and their men stayed among the Mandan and Hidatsas along the Missouri River north of Bismarck.

Peeking inside long-lost earth lodges

Using Maya software's virtual creation and animation features, the video allows film watchers to see how people lived in Mandan earth lodges about 1776, a quarter century before Lewis and Clark's entourage paddled up the Missouri River.

Another key piece of lab equipment is a highly accurate Minolta laser scanner that captures images of artifacts in three dimensions and in their true colors.

Besides "building" lodges on his computer, Snider outfitted the interiors of several simulated lodges, allowing viewers to see the interior layout and furnishings of earth lodge homes. Although the process was painstaking, technical and time consuming, the end result for viewers was a true-to-life onscreen home tour. Think of it as a historical video version of the "parade of homes" that builders commonly use to showcase model homes. Anybody who likes to peek inside others' homes and imagine how other folks live will enjoy the "On-A-Slant" video, now a permanent fixture at Fort Abraham Lincoln near Mandan.

"This is very new in the world of interpreting artifacts," Clark says. "This is probably the most technologically developed archaeology-technologies lab anywhere in the country. Money is the only limitation. We want to do more. One of our goals is to be able to create virtual worlds for museums around the world. (In fact, NDSU recently made such a pitch to a local museum and to one in Germany.) Our interest is in helping people understand the past. More than seeing a few artifacts in a display case, this (3-D imaging) lets people see how people lived and interacted."

For example, as Snider "built" earth lodges on his computer, others in the lab scanned artifacts, such as tools and house wares used by Mandan Indians of the period. A number of artifacts were borrowed from the North Dakota Historical Society in Bismarck for scanning and use in the "On-A-Slant" video. One such artifact was a hoe made from a bison scapula and used in the Mandan gardens. When Lewis and Clark arrived at On-A-Slant in October 1804, they saw only the remains of the village. Decimated by a smallpox epidemic, surviving Mandans had moved north to join forces with the Hidatsa and Arikara people. Over the past year, NDSU Archaeology Technology Lab staff and students brought the village back to life for people who view the 3-D video at Fort Lincoln.

North Dakota historians dig it, too

Tracy Potter, executive director of the Fort Abraham Lincoln Foundation, said the "On-A-Slant" video finally puts the focus on American Indian people who shared their hospitality and expertise about the Upper Great Plains in helping the Lewis and Clark corps stay alive during the winter of 1804-05.

The virtual 3-D video "is timely because of Lewis and Clark," said Claudia Berg, director of the museum and education division for the North Dakota State Historical Society. "We have a great civilization here. We have a rich and deep history."

Before sitting down to their computers and laser scanners, the NDSU archaeologists conducted thorough scholarly research on the site, the native population and the era. Clark and his team worked to ensure the virtual reconstruction would be as historically accurate as possible. In addition, the team drew on related research regarding the similar Like-A-Fishhook Village, north of Bismarck. Like-A-Fishhook Village also will be virtually reconstructed by the NDSU lab.

Potter calls the 3-D video "cool." He anticipates school-age children being especially drawn to it, along with people in their mid-50s who remember donning 3-D glasses for 3-D movies during their childhoods.

Berg, who works with school children and adult visitors at the state Heritage Center on the state Capitol grounds, anticipates the virtual video will be a hit with visitors of any age. The Heritage Center plans to eventually install a kiosk in which viewers may see a virtual depiction of Like-A-Fishhook Village. Alongside the kiosk will be actual Like-A-Fishhook artifacts discovered before the Missouri River was dammed and Lake Sakakawea flooded the site.

"The technology will capture the younger visitor's attention and provide a method of interaction that children are accustomed to using," Berg said. Technology has a role to play in interpreting history, she added.

"For me, the biggest asset this virtual presentation can provide is reconstructing a site that no longer exists," Berg said. "It could provide the viewer with a look at the village - seeing relationships to homes. Were they log structures or earth lodges? How close together were they? What were the sounds of this village? How can we read the objects left by the people who lived there? By combining other resources, such as photographs and oral traditions with archaeology, what are the stories this village can tell?"

Although the lab's success keeps employees busy with a long to-do list, Clark says "thinking of the future possibilities keeps me awake at night."

-- Deneen Gilmour

Student Focused. Land Grant. Research University.