San Diego, February 9, 2018 – PBS Nova has featured work by a team of researchers at the UC San Diego Qualcomm Institute in a recent article in its NOVA NEXT online publication.

Diver Alberto Nava in the SunCAVE.

In the article, titled “How VR Helped Archaeologists Excavate a Fossil-Rich Submerged Cave,” QI Research Scientist Dominique Rissolo describes his team’s work at the QI Cultural Heritage Engineering Initiative (CHEI) to visualize – in high-resolution 3D – ancient human and animal remains found in Hoyo Negro, an underwater cave on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula.

The remains were discovered by lead diver Alberto Nava and his colleagues on the floor of a flooded pit 130 feet from the surface. Among them were parts of more than 30 animal skeletons, including the nearly intact skull and skeleton of a teenage girl of around 16 who had fallen to her death in the pit at the end of the last Ice Age some 13,000 years ago. Also found were fossils of Ice Age megafauna such as saber-tooth cats and huge Shasta ground sloths.

The researchers used the state-of-the art SunCAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment) at QI, which allowed scientists associated with a NOVA documentary to interact with, map and measure the fossils, as well as plan future diving missions. QI and CHEI  are an integral part of the Hoyo Negro Project – working with the technical dive time to develop optimal image acquisition strategies, creating the high-resolution digital models, and powering the visual analytics necessary to bring this remote site to the scientific community.

The QI effort is being led by Rissolo, an archaeologist who has been working in the Yucatan for 25 years, as well as cultural heritage engineering specialists Falko Kuester, Vid Petrovic and Eric Lo. Many of the researchers studying the site’s diverse Ice Age fauna will never have a chance to go there. Not only has the virtual “twin” of the site enabled paleontologists to study the bones remotely, but they are making discoveries in the data – bones and tell-tale features that have eluded detection by divers at the bottom of the deep dark pit.

Exploring an environment that only few have seen before, yet to be the first to see it as a whole and in its full beauty, combining site-scale context with the finest possible details captured by its digital twin for in-depth analysis, is truly transformative, says Falko Kuester, Professor for Visualization and Virtual Reality at CHEI.

“Not only is the virtual cave essential for a comprehensive fossil inventory,” writes NOVA Next writer Evan Hadingham, “it enables the team to take measurements and print accurate 3D replicas of specific bones, including Naia’s skull.” Explorers on the most recent National Geographic-funded mission to Hoyo Negro used the virtual SunCAVE to plan their excursion in detail, which ultimately allowed them to bring up parts of eleven ancient animals, some of them previously unknown.

To watch a documentary film about Hoyo Negro, visit

And to see QI’s Hoyo Negro website, visit

San Diego, February 6, 2018 – “Lost Treasures of the Maya Snake Kings,” a new one-hour National Geographic special premiering today at 9/8 p.m. central, shows how LiDAR laser imaging technology is revolutionizing archaeology and features the WAVE data visualization  technology created by researchers at the University of California San Diego Qualcomm Institute (QI). Albert Yu-Min Lin, an affiliate of QI, is the host of the program.

The documentary explores what’s being hailed as a “major breakthrough” in Maya archaeology: the identification of ruins of more than 60,000 houses, palaces, elevated highways, and other human-made features that have been hidden for centuries under the jungles of northern Guatemala. The work was conducted by researchers of the PACUNAM LiDAR initiative.

Using a powerful technology known as LiDAR (short for “Light Detection And Ranging”), scholars digitally removed the tree canopy from aerial images of the now-unpopulated landscape, revealing the ruins of a sprawling pre-Columbian civilization that was far more complex and interconnected than most Maya specialists had supposed.

“The LiDAR images make it clear that this entire region was a settlement system whose scale and population density had been grossly underestimated,” said Thomas Garrison, an Ithaca College archaeologist and National Geographic Explorer who specializes in using digital technology for archaeological research.

Garrison is part of a consortium of researchers who are participating in the project, which was spearheaded by the PACUNAM Foundation, a Guatemalan nonprofit that fosters scientific research, sustainable development, and cultural heritage preservation.

Working closely with National Geographic Explorers, QI’s Cultural Heritage Engineering Initiative (CHEI) was launched in 2007 and has since created a comprehensive toolbox and talent pool that brings the power of student-driven science and engineering to the study and preservation of archaeological sites, monuments, historic structures and other artifacts. QI researchers have a history of working on various ground based and drone based LiDAR imaging projects in Guatemala. Lin, along with his collaborators in the QI Engineers for Exploration program —co-directors Ryan Kastner and Curt Schurgers — collaborated with Garrison to lead teams of students on expeditions over the past four years to the jungles of Guatemala to test out various platforms for mapping and imaging. QI Staff Engineer Eric Lo and Ph.D. student  Dominique Meyer were also instrumental in these field expeditions.

Two of the CHEI visualization displays used to visualize the LiDAR imagery
Researchers examine LiDAR imagery from Guatemala on two of the visualization displays (including the WAVE, at right) in the lab of the QI Cultural Heritage Engineering Initiative.

“Engineering and exploration go hand in hand — National Geographic was co-founded by the Alexander Graham Bell who invented the telephone,” said Lin. “The things we create allow us to go further, and with the exponential rate of innovation today this truly is the new golden age of exploration.”

The Qualcomm Institute is a leader in visualization technologies that make it possible to look at data at a massive scale. Researchers at CHEI — including Falko Kuester, Vid Petrovic, Eric Lo, Christopher McFarland, Jurgen Schulze, Greg Dawe, Joel Polizzi, Joe Keefe and Tom DeFanti — played a primary role in developing CHEI’s hardware and software toolbox, including the 70-megapixel Wide Angle Virtual Environment (WAVE), which is featured heavily in the documentary. The team at CHEI also developed the VisCore visual analytics engine that allows archaeologists to use virtual reality to literally walk into the arena of data-enabled scientific discovery, as featured in the “Lost Treasures of the Maya Snake Kings.”

“Turning big-data into insights and action is one of the truly transformative elements that our team enables,” says CHEI Director Kuester. “Lots of data is being acquired and simulated these days, but making sense of it all is a completely different story. The opportunity to work in highly interdisciplinary teams that change to state of knowledge is where it gets truly exciting.”

An advanced civilization

The PACUNAM project mapped more than 800 square miles (2,100 square kilometers) of the Maya Biosphere Reserve in the Petén region of Guatemala, producing the largest LiDAR data set ever obtained for archaeological research.

The results suggest that Central America supported an advanced civilization that was, at its peak some 1,200 years ago, more comparable to sophisticated cultures such as ancient Greece or China than to the scattered and sparsely populated city states that ground-based research had long suggested.

In addition to hundreds of previously unknown structures, the LiDAR images show raised highways connecting urban centers and quarries. Complex irrigation and terracing systems supported intensive agriculture capable of feeding masses of workers who dramatically reshaped the landscape.

The ancient Maya never used the wheel or beasts of burden, yet “this was a civilization that was literally moving mountains,” said Marcello Canuto, a Tulane University archaeologist and National Geographic Explorer who participated in the project.

“We’ve had this western conceit that complex civilizations can’t flourish in the tropics, that the tropics are where civilizations go to die,” said Canuto, who conducts archaeological research at a Guatemalan site known as La Corona. “But with the new LiDAR-based evidence from Central America and [Cambodia’s] Angkor Wat, we now have to consider that complex societies may have formed in the tropics and made their way outward from there.”

Surprising insights

“LiDAR is revolutionizing archaeology the way the Hubble Space Telescope revolutionized astronomy,” said Francisco Estrada-Belli, a Tulane University archaeologist and National Geographic Explorer. “We’ll need 100 years to go through all [the data] and really understand what we’re seeing.”

Already, though, the survey has yielded surprising insights into settlement patterns, inter-urban connectivity, and militarization in the Maya Lowlands. At its peak in the Maya classic period (approximately A.D. 250–900), the civilization covered an area about twice the size of medieval England, but it was far more densely populated.

“Most people had been comfortable with population estimates of around 5 million,” said Estrada-Belli, who directs a multi-disciplinary archaeological project at Holmul, Guatemala. “With this new data it’s no longer unreasonable to think that there were 10 to 15 million people there—including many living in low-lying, swampy areas that many of us had thought uninhabitable.”

Virtually all the Maya cities were connected by causeways wide enough to suggest that they were heavily trafficked and used for trade and other forms of regional interaction. These highways were elevated to allow easy passage even during rainy seasons. In a part of the world where there is usually too much or too little precipitation, the flow of water was meticulously planned and controlled via canals, dikes, and reservoirs.

Among the most surprising findings was the ubiquity of defensive walls, ramparts, terraces, and fortresses. “Warfare wasn’t only happening toward the end of the civilization,” said Garrison. “It was large-scale and systematic, and it endured over many years.”

The survey also revealed thousands of pits dug by modern-day looters. “Many of these new sites are only new to us; they are not new to looters,” said Marianne Hernandez, president of the PACUNAM Foundation. (Read “Losing Maya Heritage to Looters.”)

Environmental degradation is another concern. Guatemala is losing more than 10 percent of its forests annually, and habitat loss has accelerated along its border with Mexico as trespassers burn and clear land for agriculture and human settlement.

“By identifying these sites and helping to understand who these ancient people were, we hope to raise awareness of the value of protecting these places,” Hernandez said.

The survey is the first phase of the PACUNAM LiDAR Initiative, a three-year project that will eventually map more than 5,000 square miles (14,000 square kilometers) of Guatemala’s lowlands, part of a pre-Columbian settlement system that extended north to the Gulf of Mexico.

“The ambition and the impact of this project is just incredible,” said Kathryn Reese-Taylor, a University of Calgary archaeologist and Maya specialist who was not associated with the PACUNAM survey. “After decades of combing through the forests, no archaeologists had stumbled across these sites. More importantly, we never had the big picture that this data set gives us. It really pulls back the veil and helps us see the civilization as the ancient Maya saw it.

A team of researchers from across UC San Diego is developing a new approach for detecting damage to buildings during earthquakes and other extreme events.

UC San Diego researchers are using lasers and drones to create a digital record of Geisel Library. Photos by Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego

They came together at the Geisel Library recently to use lasers and drones to create a digital record of the structure that will serve as a baseline health assessment. In the event that a sizeable earthquake hits nearby, the team will reconvene to retake the digital measurements and assess any damage to the building such as tilting or cracks. (View photo gallery.)

The information is intended to provide both researchers and emergency responders with more detailed information on how structures respond during the earthquakes—beyond the simple visual inspection of buildings currently in use—prior to allowing them to reopen.

According to researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego who are spearheading the project, the iconic library is the perfect location to begin what they hope will become an effort to digitize the entire campus.

“We are using this culturally significant building on campus as a reference model to help detect structural changes over time,” said Falko Kuester, a professor of structural engineering who serves as director of the Qualcomm Institute’s Cultural Heritage Engineering Initiative (CHEI) and DroneLab.

Falko Kuester’s team took thousands of 2D photographs captured by drones and used structure-from-motion techniques to create a 3D computer model of Geisel Library and its surroundings.

For Yehuda Bock, a distinguished researcher and director of the Orbit and Permanent Array Center at Scripps Oceanography, the primary motivation for the recent survey of Geisel Library was to integrate structural monitoring into his early-warning prototype system for earthquakes and tsunamis.

“Our system tracks ground motions at a millimeter level of accuracy,” said Bock. “This allows us to detect large earthquakes within the critical first minute before the shaking begins.”

Six months ago, Bock equipped the Geisel Library with sensors that continuously measure ground motion from the many faults that crisscross Southern California. The technique he helped pioneer, called seismogeodesy, relies on a combination of GPS receivers and accelerators to very rapidly pinpoint the location and magnitude of strong earthquakes—6.0 magnitude or greater—before the hazardous trembling begins.

The late-July project involved nearly two hours of drone flights led by CHEI researcher Eric Lo, capturing more than 1,000 high-resolution images of the Geisel Library that will be turned into a photorealistic model of the structure. Lo’s drone survey was accompanied by a several-hour ground survey by professional land surveyor Richard Maher using lidar (light detection and ranging), an instrument that sends pulsating laser lights at an object to provide a precise 3-D model. By combining these techniques, the team will create a geometrically as well as visually detailed and accurate final model.

Drone flies by Geisel Library while creating the digital model.

Bock’s GPS sensors provide a precise 3-D reference to tie together the high-resolution drone and lidar imagery, allowing for the accurate detection of subtle permanent displacements of the structure’s outer shell as a measure of its integrity after an event.

Kuester currently leads research teams developing drone technology for crisis management and response, as well as applying the work to study and help preserve ancient Mayan structures in Mexico, Neanderthal caves in Italy, and shipwrecks and coral reefs in Bermuda. For him, this project is a first step to create a digital surrogate or as he calls it, a “cyber-twin” of the campus, before new buildings and bridges transform the campus’s physical appearance in the future.

Although Kuester often looks at ancient buildings and ruins, he points out that “it’s important to also document modern buildings before the perils of time or extreme events cause them to deteriorate or create an even less fortunate outcome.”

The digital record on the condition of buildings as they exist today provides a baseline for comparison in the future as a building ages, or in the case of a fire, earthquake or other natural hazard, actionable data, according to the researchers, to swiftly respond and mitigate risks.

QI researcher Eric Lo from the Cultural Heritage Engineering Initiative ran the drone photography project.

Within a few minutes of completing the drone flights, Lo had a quick 360-degree rotating view of the geometrically shaped building from the images collected during the flights for view in 3-D.

Another important motivation for Bock and Kuester is to have students involved in real-world research projects, both on site and as classroom teaching tools.

“As an educator, it’s important that I expose my students to real-world conditions,” said Falko. “The contribution to science needs to be useful and usable.”

Kuester and Lo will also be turning the drone imagery into a virtual reality experience for those interested in flying themselves around the outside of the library.

Bock and Kuester are hoping the project will attract more interest and funding to seismically monitor and digital archive all buildings throughout the UC San Diego campus.

Meanwhile, at Bock’s lab at Scripps Oceanography, the seismic monitoring data is continuously streamed back in real-time. When the next powerful quake strikes, the system will alert him first of the primary signal, called a P-wave, which indicates an earthquake has taken place, and that the destructive S-wave, the one responsible for the strong earth-shaking, is seconds to minutes away. The GPS and seismic sensors on the Geisel Library will quickly indicate whether it has suffered significant shaking and displacement.

For Bock and Kuester, how these buildings and others respond to outside influences is an important component to how we better prepare as a society for extreme events in the future.

San Diego, Calif., April 13, 2017 — Together with their colleagues, researchers from the University of California San Diego have announced new findings about a skeleton nicknamed “Naia,” the earliest mostly complete human found so far in the Americas.

Alberto Nava recovers a vertebra from Naia's skeleton. Photo by Roberto Chavez Arce.
Alberto Nava recovers a vertebra from Naia’s skeleton. Photo by Roberto Chavez Arce

Various studies and analyses carried out in laboratories in Mexico, the United States and Canada have revealed that the remains are those of a girl between 15 and 16 years old who lived almost 13,000 years ago in what is now Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. Multiple lines of evidence, including pubic bone features, suggest that Naia may have given birth months before she died after falling into the 50-meter deep hole known as Hoyo Negro, a site near Tulum, Quintana Roo.

James C. Chatters, a principal investigator and one of the co-directors of the Hoyo Negro Underwater Archaeology Project, announced  the results at the 82nd annual conference of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA), which took place earlier this month in Vancouver, Canada. Chatters’ collaborators include fellow co-director Dominique Rissolo, a UC San Diego archaeologist and Special Projects Coordinator at the UC San Diego Qualcomm Institute Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3) and its Cultural Heritage Engineering Initiative (CHEI). The lead director of the project is Pilar Luna Erreguerena of the Sub-Directorate of Underwater Archeology of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). In addition to INAH support for the Naia study, the project has received funding from the National Geographic Society and the Strauss Family Foundation, and has also partnered with Seattle Children’s Hospital.

“Only five individuals in the Americas have been securely dated to this early period, more than 12,000 years ago,” says Rissolo. “Such studies are important since skeletal evidence of the First Americans is so rare and elusive. What makes Naia unique is that her skeleton is nearly complete and relatively well preserved. This has enabled our international and interdisciplinary team to perform a range of analyses that are revealing more about the life of a young Paleoamerican woman than we ever thought possible.”

Alberto Nava and Alejandro Alvarez recover bones from the lower portion of Naia's skeleton. Photo by Roberto Chavez Arce
Alberto Nava and Alejandro Alvarez recover bones from the lower portion of Naia’s skeleton. Photo by Roberto Chavez Arce

Between 2014 and 2016 and in coordination with Mexican and international experts, a team of underwater cave explorers with training in underwater archaeological site documentation recovered 98 fragments of Naia’s skeleton. From each of these remains, X-rays and CT scans were taken at the Hospital de Especialidades in Mexico’s Campeche City.

Specialists in Campeche perform a CT scan of Naia's cranium. Photo by James C. Chatters.
Specialists in Campeche perform a CT scan of Naia’s cranium. Photo by James C. Chatters

In 2014, Chatters and his colleagues were able to confirm, using Naia’s DNA, that both the earliest American settlers and modern Native Americans are genetically linked to a single group of Asian emigrants. Scientists working on this project, including Chatters of Applied Paleoscience and DirectAMS in Washington State, and Vera Tiesler and Andrea Cucina of the Autonomous University of Yucatan, have revealed that Naia measured 152 centimeters and weighed a maximum of 50.4 kilos when well-fed, as the study of her teeth and long bones proved that she often went through periods of extreme nutritional stress.

According to experts, these findings suggest that the lives of the first settlers of the Americas, or at least some of these groups that came across the Bering Strait region of Siberia on modern day Alaska, were not idyllic. On the contrary, life was extremely challenging.

The Naia skeleton, which also bore evidence that Naia had healed from a previously broken arm, was discovered in 2007 by Alejandro Álvarez, Alberto Nava and Franco Attolini, members of the Tulum Speleological Project (PET), who together with Roberto Chávez Arce and other members of the PET have been key in the discovery not only of human remains but also of a large assemblage of extinct Pleistocene fauna, including gomphotheres (elephant-like creatures), saber-toothed cats, giant ground sloths, canids and bears, and other still extant animals such as tapirs, pumas, and bats, among others.

Andrea Cucina and Julio Chi Keb, of the Autonomous University of Yucatan, x-ray teeth from Naia's mandible. Photo by James C. Chatters.
Andrea Cucina and Julio Chi Keb, of the Autonomous University of Yucatan, x-ray teeth from Naia’s mandible. Photo by James C. Chatters

Much of the work that has led to a better understanding of Naia’s fate was done far from Hoyo Negro in UC San Diego’s Atkinson Hall. Computer science Ph.D. student Vid Petrovic – a member of the Center’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program in cultural heritage diagnostics – used two-dimensional photographs taken by the scientific dive team to ‘stitch together’ and reconstruct digitally 3D structure-from-motion (SfM) models of both the cave site and Naia’s skeleton.

“Our CISA3-CHEI team at UC San Diego, led by Falko Kuester, has extensive experience using photogrammetric techniques to document cultural heritage sites around the world,” noted Rissolo. “Hoyo Negro was especially difficult, given the depth, darkness, and complexity of the site. Alberto (Beto) Nava and Roberto Chavez led an extraordinary effort to image the site in the most challenging of conditions. They were the astronauts collecting imagery from inner-space, while we were the ones back at mission control transforming those data into information for the scientists to evaluate.”

In their Digital Heritage conference presentation published last year, the researchers wrote that “the implementation of different image acquisition methodologies at different scales (site, feature, and object) has resulted in geometrically accurate and complementary models of cave features as well as individual skeletal elements. These 3D digital (and printable) models have proven critical to current and ongoing morphometric and taphonomic analyses [i.e. the quantitative analysis of form and the study of the processes affecting organisms as they become fossilized], as many of the bones have not been removed from the cave.

“These data,” they continued, “will not only serve as documentation of the site, but will enable project researchers from across disciplines to evaluate and annotate the imagery remotely while guiding subsequent sampling and recovery activities.”

Curators at the San Diego Natural History Museum have enlisted University of California, San Diego archaeolo- gist Dominique Rissolo as a content expert for a new exhibition offering insight into the ancient Maya.

The limited-engagement exhibition, “Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed,” opens today at the Balboa Park museum and will be on view through Jan. 3, 2016. The 10,000 square foot exhibition – the largest of its kind to be presented in the United States – delves into the history of the ancient Maya, who thrived in regions of Belize, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador from A.D. 250 to A.D. 800. It features more than 200 authentic artifacts, dozens of interactive components, life-size replicas of temples and the iconic sculpted monu- ments known as stelae. “This exhibition gives an unprecedented view of the kinds of artifacts and Maya pottery that you would never be able to see outside the country of Belize, and some of these pieces are on view for the first time,” says Rissolo, who is Special Projects Coordinator for the Cen- ter of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3) at the UC San Diego Qualcomm Institute.

Rissolo, who has been conducting research in the Maya area for nearly 25 years, says the exhibition offers “a sweeping view of a civilization and its contributions to humanity in a way that’s never been done before.”


(left) Maya mosaic mask and (right) Maya Huipil, both from “Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed”. All photos courtesy of the San Diego Natural History Museum

Rissolo was recruited by The Nat to work with staff on textual and outreach materials for the exhibition. He’ll also give a lecture in Sep- tember on his work at CISA3 to digitally document and visualize coastal caves that were frequented by the ancient Maya in the Quintana Roo region of Mexico.

“We’ll be sharing with folks some of the work we are doing here at CISA3 to use laser scanning and structure-from-motion imagery to create digital fly-throughs of some of the cave sites we’re documenting through our project on Maya cave architecture,” he said, adding that the lecture will also feature some of the research conducted by CISA3 undergraduate Dominique Meyer, graduate student Michael Hess, the Qualcomm Institute’s Eric Lo and CISA3 alumna Aliya Hoff.

Rissolo’s research isn’t the only Maya-related work being pursued at the Qualcomm Institute: QI research scientist and National Geo- graphic Emerging Explorer Albert Lin, UC San Diego Professor of Computer Science Ryan Kastner and QI Principal Design Engineer Curt Schurgers recently returned from the Mesoamerican archaeological site – formerly an ancient Maya city – known as El Zotz. Their research into the early iconography of buried temples, as well as the footprint the an- cient city had on the landscape, is focused on building a better understanding of how an ancient dynasty established itself as a seat of power within the complex milieu of ancient Maya city-states. A peek into that history is also on display in The Nat’s exhibition, which was created by the Science Museum of Minnesota, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and the Museum of Science, Boston. It features interactive elements that offer visitors the opportunity to decipher ancient symbols, explore tombs and investigate the Maya approach to technology.

The Maya, for example, lacked wheeled vehicles, beasts of burden or easily trav- eled rivers, but developed an entirely unique written language using more than 800 heiroglyphs and built reservoirs and extensive road networks. They created a dental technique for drilling precise holes into teeth and were also – to use a phrase from the exhibition – “relentless renovators,” layering new buildings over old ones.


Maya funerary urn

“They also developed the concept of zero independently of the Old World and were astute sky watchers,” adds Rissolo. “They created a concept for permutating calendars and were able to reckon notions of cyclical time and linear time in ways that still fascinate us and are still the subject of scholarship today. They were also keenly aware of the movements of the sun, moon, and planets and were able to very accurately predict eclipses in different parts of the world that they couldn’t see.”

Featured throughout the exhibition are replicas of ancient monuments and temples bearing the the famous iconography of the Maya, which often depicts mythological and narrative subjects like serpents, birds and jaguars. The exhibition notes that the Maya burned 1,000 acres of forest for every building coated in stucco – deforestation that might have influenced rainfall and caused water shortages that (combined with mutually destructive warfare) led to the civilization’s downfall. But the Maya also showed a capacity for sustaining themselves and thriving in otherwise marginal landscapes, says Rissolo.

Maya crocodile effigy

Maya crocodile effigy

“The Maya were probably more astute and disciplined managers of their environment than we give them credit for, and there were pe- riods of Maya history where they were doing things right,” he adds. “These are the people who first cultivated some of the most impact- ful domestic plants in the world. Think about all of the food Meso- americans gave us: Chocolate, tomatoes, chili peppers. Corn was developed by the Mesoamerican cultures, and now the entire planet has been impacted by corn. These are people for whom the word industrious is an understatement.”

The exhibition and Museum will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (closed on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day). Tickets to the exhibition range from $11 to $29 and advance purchase is recom- mended. For additional information about the exhibition, visit sdnat. org/maya or call 877.946.7797

Media Contact

Tiffany Fox
(858) 246-0353

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Maya: Hidden World Revealed

San Diego, Calif., May 12, 2015 — Given that the motto of this year’s Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology (CAA) Conference was “Keep the Revolution Going,” it’s fitting that three of the most well-received presentations at the event were by some of the leaders in this “revolution” – representatives from the Qualcomm Institute’s CISA3.

Samantha Stout
CISA3 graduate student Samantha Stout traveled to Aci Sant’Antonio to carry out x-ray fluorescence (XRF) analysis on the pigments of 18th-century wall frescoes. 

CISA3, or the Center for Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology, is based at the University of California, San Diego division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, also known as the Qualcomm Institute (QI). Researchers there are known for being early adopters of ‘cyberarchaeology’ and the use of digital technologies at archaeological field sites.

Representing CISA3 at the conference – which was held March 29 to April 3 in Siena, Italy – were  graduate students Christine Wittich and Samantha Stout, as well as Special Projects Coordinator Dominique Rissolo.  The trio of scholars presented on three distinct topics at the conference, showing the breadth and depth of the research pursued at CISA3.

Stout, a graduate student in materials science and engineering who has spent most of her time at CISA3 researching the development of methodologies, says that the feedback from other attendees was “overwhelmingly positive.”

“CAA offered an incredible venue to begin collectivizing and disseminating our research approach,” added Stout, who is a trainee with the National Science Foundation’s Integrative Gradaute Education in Research Traineeship (IGERT) for Training, Research and Education in Engineering for Cultural Heritage Diagnostics (TEECH). “Overall, our center is used to bringing engineering solutions to the table, but we also are comparatively close to the problem. We have a direct access into the working environments of archaeological researchers, so the collaborative effort can take into account all the nuances of the craft of the profession.”

Christine Wittich, a Ph.D. candidate in the UC San Diego Structural Engineering Department and an IGERT-TEECH trainee, presented her work on recent experimental tests on massive archaeological artifacts from Saudi Arabia as part of the Roads of Arabia exhibition organized by The Smithsonian.

CISA3 Director and UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering Professor Falko Kuester noted that “as recent events in Nepal and elsewhere have so dramatically demonstrated, extreme events such as earthquakes can severely scar or destroy cultural heritage at massive scales, almost instantaneously. Finding new engineering solutions needed to protect our cultural patrimony is one of the overarching goals of CISA3.”

In her presentation at a session titled “New Trends in 3D Archaeology,” Wittich explored ways to protect sculptures from earthquake damage. Her research was derived from tests conducted at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Due to the high seismic risk in the San Francisco area, Christine and her advisor, UC San Diego Professor Tara C. Hutchinson, conducted non-destructive modal analyses in which the vibration characteristics of sculptures are determined.

“With this information, engineers can predict  earthquake forces and determine seismic mitigation methods,” noted Wittich. “This type of testing and subsequent analyses had never been presented to this archaeological community and the archaeologists present were enthusiastic about collaborating with structural engineers on the new frontier that science and engineering are creating.”

Dominique Rissolo shared the team’s research on underwater structure-from-motion (SfM) image acquisition and processing in a session entitled “Digital Frontiers in Maritime Archaeology.” SfM is a method for generating 3D reconstructions from 2D photographs and has been widely adopted as an accessible and powerful technique for rapidly documenting and visualizing archaeological objects, features and sites. However, its application in underwater environments presents certain physical and methodological challenges. CISA3 students – including Michael Bianco, Eric Lo, Perry Naughton, Vid Petrovich and Antonella Wilby – are developing new tools and advanced protocols for underwater SfM documentation and visualization of underwater cultural heritage sites.

“It was great to attend the conference along with Dominique because he has an accomplished background in archaeology, but he knows deeply about the engineering research at CISA3,” said Stout. “He could introduce us to colleagues and facilitate conversation, highlighting the true value and importance of our work to the field. We found that people were pleasantly surprised to learn of our research directions and innovations, both hardware- and software-based, as well as the unique incubator that is CISA3.”

For her paper at CAA, Stout transferred her work on the theory of diagnostic practice for cultural heritage artifacts to the realm of the archaeological field site, interviewing several members of the Levantine Archaeology Lab, which is directed by UC San Diego Prof. Thomas Levy, the associate director of CISA3.

“The question proposed by the section was: Do we need a theoretical framework for applying digital technologies in the field? And I tried to answer that through a rational thought process based on the practice I had discovered in the Levantine Lab,” said Stout.

She said her critique provoked many nods around the room, as well as questions from ‘purists’. “I would say that as it stands now, we are getting by OK without a well-defined theory, but the future best practice will be to rigorously evaluate technologies and assess their impact from a variety of angles, implement them to their fullest and use the extra time on-site to capture intangibles in the so-called old-fashioned way, so as to decrease the risk of instrumental bias.  This approach will most-certainly rely on communication between the engineers and developers and the archaeologist/anthropologist users.”

After the group returned to UC San Diego, a ScanLab exhibit, titled Autonomous Sensing, opened in the Calit2 gallery, providing an artistic illustration of some of the themes discussed at the conference.

“After all, sometimes laser scanners make ‘mistakes’,” said Kuester, referring to the LiDAR laser scanners cyberarchaelogists use to document cultural heritage sites. “It’s all the more reason to understand how and why we use them to document and preserve sites. Bringing members of the Visual Arts department, who confront sometimes abstract conceptions of theory on a more regular basis, can work to spur new developments of the theory of methodological practice for archaeology as well.”

Society for American Archaeology 

The CISA3 IGERT team also had a strong presence at the 80th annual meeting of the Society of American Archaeology, the largest annual gathering of archaeologists in the Americas. Eleven participating students, faculty and associates were represented at the conference, which was held April 15-19 in San Francisco.

Dominique Rissolo co-organized a special session on the Hoyo Negro Project, where 21 researchers – including CISA3 visiting scholar, Alberto Nava – shared recent results from their work at the submerged Late Pleistocene cave site in Mexico. Prof. Thomas Levy’s Edom Lowlands Regional Archaeology Project was well represented, with five IGERT-TEECH trainees attending the conference, including Kathleen Bennallack, Mathew Howland, Ian Jones, Kyle Knabb and Brady Liss. A paper on Rissolo’s Maya cave architecture project was presented by Aliya Hoff, Michael Hess, and Dominique Meyer. Finally, Meyer, along with Prof. Kuester and Eric Lo, took the lead on a well-received paper in a first-ever SAA session on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for archaeological survey and recording.

TECHNART 2015 – Non-Destructive and Microanalytical Techniques in Art and Cultural Heritage

Samantha Stout represented CISA3 late last month in Catania, Italy, at TECHNART 2015 in three presentations taking place in two different venues. The first was in the small town of Aci Sant’Antonio, where a cycle of wall paintings was discovered in 2012 in a chapel of the Mother Church. A diagnostic campaign was organized by CISA3 collaborator, Antonino Cosentino, to assess the state of conservation of the paintings, their materials and technique and eventually plan for a restoration project. After nearly two years of bringing several international collaborators to the site, the results were presented on April 26 to the members of the city and the church, including the mayor.

Stout traveled to Aci Sant’Antonio as part of a CISA3 NSF-IGERT contingency to carry out x-ray fluorescence (XRF) analysis on the pigments of the frescoes. She recounted her research findings in Italian to the attendees, as the research group sought to advocate for fundraising in support of the restoration – a restoration that can now be carried out using the knowledge obtained from the diagnostic exams.

The XRF results have also been published in the journal Archeomatica, and the article was selected for the cover image and as the featured English language article in the primarily Italian journal. More information about the project and ongoing collaboration can be found on Cosentino’s blog.

CISA3’s automated, robotic imaging system with a Nikon D810 full-spectrum SDLR mounted to the scan head. The system, which will eventually become the WAVEcam, was used to capture high-resolution images of 12 Chinese watercolor paintings by Huang Binhong for Calit2 Composer-in-Residence Lei Liang’s “Hearing Landscapes.”

Throughout the rest of the week, Stout attended the Technart conference on non-destructive and microanalytical techniques in art and cultural heritage, first presenting a poster on the work from the Aci Sant’Antonio wall paintings, and then presenting a poster on the on-going project at CISA3 to develop an automated, robotic multispectral imaging platform. Also presented were the preliminary results and performance of the WAVEcam imaging system created to capture ultra-high resolution imagery for the Hearing Landscapes  project conducted by Composer in Residence, Lei Liang and funded by a Calit2 CSRO grant.

“The conference was able to illuminate for me the research direction and where we can really innovate with the next capabilities of the imager,” said Stout “I found that there are not many engineers working on this problem – mostly chemists and other scientists – so we can really bring a different approach that is valuable. It was great that the Calit2 Strategic Research Opportunity project was able to spur us into building the first prototype.

Eventually, the system will be adapted to gain its full capabilities as the WAVEcam, a project developed by CISA3 Director Prof. Falko Kuester with assistance from Stout as well as James Strawson (IGERT-TEECH), Eric Lo (QI Robotics Engineer).

San Diego, Calif., April 27, 2015 — One might say Dominique Rissolo’s specialty is digging things up – be they artifacts, research funds or human potential.

Dominique Rissolo
Dominique Rissolo

As a lifelong archaeologist with a fascination for the sea, Rissolo has explored the Yucatan’s coastal sites and caves in search of Maya antiquities related to seafaring, commerce and ritual practice, as well as evidence of the strategies the Maya developed to thrive.

Now, as the newly hired Special Projects Coordinator for the Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3) at the University of California, San Diego, Rissolo has embarked on a new search for funding and collaborations that will ensure the Center’s many cultural heritage projects not just survive, but thrive.

Rissolo’s research background makes him especially suitable for the job. Before coming to UC San Diego’s Qualcomm Institute – the home of CISA3 – he earned his PhD in anthropology from UC Riverside and then spent eight years at the Waitt Foundation and National Geographic co-designing and co-managing a grants program that supported a broad range of field-based disciplines as well as developing science communications. Rissolo also has years of experience coordinating expeditions and managing other aspects of field-work, and spent four years teaching anthropology at San Diego State University, where he says he developed a passion for teaching and mentoring.

“I’ve been working with students in the field,” he says, “ever since I started going to field.”

While at Waitt, Rissolo was also involved in a marine robotics program with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to develop autonomous and remotely operated vehicle systems capable of doing deep-water archaeological surveys – something that also happens to be a primary research focus for CISA3.

Rissolo on a dive with the Waitt Institute
Rissolo on a dive with the Waitt Foundation

“One of the more challenging frontiers for cultural heritage diagnostics is submerged cultural heritage,” says Rissolo, who developed an interest in the sea as a child while growing up landlocked in Georgia (“nowhere near the coast, but fantasizing that every pond, swamp, creek and river was some amazing frontier to explore”).

“We have terrestrial and aerial documentation systems pretty well underway,” he continues “and a number of students, like Michael Bianco, Perry Naughton and Antonella Wilby, are working on underwater tools and techniques, but these students are engineers and computer scientists, not necessarily archaeologists.” Bianco, for example, is a Ph.D. student at the UC San Diego Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Naughton is a Ph.D. student in the university’s Electrical and Computer Engineering program and Wilby is a graduating senior in Computer Science and Engineering (CSE).

“By bringing everyone together, the archaeologists can articulate those most pressing challenges to the individuals who have the skills, creativity and knowledge to meet those challenges and develop solutions.”

As their work progresses, Rissolo says the CISA3 researchers are finding that “a lot of off-the-shelf tools really aren’t appropriate for scientific field research, which speaks to the expertise of our students and the unique contributions to cultural heritage research that are possible through computer science and engineering.

“Another big challenge,” he continues, “is the integration of sensors with the aerial or underwater platforms. This is not just about creating pretty visualizations of objects and sites, but collecting data – in a variety of modes – that have real diagnostic and analytical value.”

Rissolo and a colleague extract sediment cores at the ancient Maya port site of Vista Alegre

Underwater systems, Rissolo notes, must be particularly robust. “If it gets wet and goes deep,” he says, “you’re eventually going to lose it. In the world of underwater systems,’two is one and one is none’ because the failure rate is so high and the loss rate is so high. A big part of what we must do is try not to lose the vehicles, which means they need navigation systems that allow us to control the vehicles remotely.”

The problem, says Rissolo, is that the overwhelming number of systems out there, drone wise, are built for hobbyists.

“Our students are really focused on developing the kinds of systems that are designed for scientists,” he continues. “I am working with Michael Hess (a Ph.D. in structural engineering), Dominique Meyer (an undergraduate in physics), and Eric Lo (a CISA3 engineer) on multi-modal aerial survey and mapping in Mexico , for example. There are always challenges with stabilization and automation, as well as aerial prospecting and remote sensing, more accurate site recording and the extent to which we can use these vehicles for site discovery. We want to identify the priorities of the scientific community in terms of data capture and build solutions.

“At the same time,” adds Rissolo, “we don’t want to recreate what folks in the oil and gas industry are doing, which is building and using massive systems that are too costly and beyond the reach of most scientists. Researchers, especially archaeologists, are often on the periphery of this industry-driven world. One question at CISA3 is: how do we make things faster, lighter, cheaper and ultimately better without assuming the burden of cost? The only place this kind of innovation is going to happen is on campus because a lot of what we want and need, we either can’t afford or it simply doesn’t work for us in the field. The students themselves are filling this gap through the process of developing creative solutions. They go in consumers, and come out makers, and those skills are going to put them in a much better place.”

Rissolo climbs out of a cave near the Maya site of Xcaret

A number of CISA3 students, including CSE Ph.D. student Vid Petrovic, are assisting Rissolo with documentation of the underwater Mexican cave site known as Hoyo Negro, where underwater explorers discovered the remains of several species of extinct megafauna as well as a Paleoamerican girl nicknamed “Naia.” The discovery presented, for the first time, hard evidence to support the theory that Native Americans descended from Siberians who crossed into America via a land bridge over the Bering Strait. Rissolo and his colleagues published the results of their study in the journal Science last May.

Rissolo and the CISA3 students are in the midst of a digital in-depth post-expedition analysis of the site in the form of 3D models that can be studied interactively and collaboratively, as well as precise physical replicas created on CISA3’s 3D printers. Rissolo is currently working with National Geographic and the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City to showcase the work.

Rissolo is also in the early stages of working with Qualcomm Institute Director Ramesh Rao to develop a campus-wide collaboration with San Diego’s Balboa Park in the hopes that UCSD student and faculty projects will be shared through the park’s museums.

Rissolo on a dive to 1000 feet with Substation Curacao

“The idea is to tap into a lot of the interesting things we’re doing that have broad appeal across museum communities,” he says. “We want to play a more active role in telling stories across campus to support our campus-wide mission, not just from an engineering perspective but from the perspective of all the interesting threads that connect projects and programs at UC San Diego.”

Part of Rissolo’s job as Special Projects Coordinator will be to work closely with the students to help them identify more sources of funding and understand how the world of grant writing works, as well as to help them think strategically about how to get their research published. But what he’s most excited about, he says, is providing the CISA3 students with the types of experiences he wishes he had more of while a student: the ability to work on projects that develop real-world solutions.

“I want students to know they can do good science, even as an undergraduate,” he adds. “It’s not just about going to class and taking tests; you can be doing, making and producing. How many engineering students get to develop camera traps for wildlife or crawl around in caves in Mexico? I never knew it was possible to do this when I was in school. I thought as an undergrad you were supposed to keep your head down and grind through it.

“But the experience these students are getting at CISA3 is something they will remember forever, and it’s because we give them an experience they’re not anticipating, and that their future employers aren’t anticipating,” adds Rissolo. “Employers want someone who can understand teamwork, think on their feet, be resourceful and creative. That’s what we’re turning out. I see confidence emerge in the students who start to take charge of their academic and professional careers, and it’s our job as mentors to help nurture that.”

Dominique Rissolo is the newly hired Special Projects Coordinator for the Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3) at UC San Diego, and he has embarked on a new search for funding and collaborations that will ensure the Center’s many cultural heritage projects not just survive, but thrive. Rissolo says CISA3 researchers are finding that “a lot of off-the-shelf tools really aren’t appropriate for scientific field research, which speaks to the expertise of our students and the unique contributions to cultural heritage research that are possible through computer science and engineering. Another big challenge is the integration of sensors with the aerial or underwater platforms. This is not just about creating pretty visualizations of objects and sites, but collecting data – in a variety of modes – that have real diagnostic and analytical value.” Underwater systems, Rissolo notes, must be particularly robust. “If it gets wet and goes deep,” he says, “you’re eventually going to lose it. In the world of underwater systems, ’two is one and one is none’ because the failure rate is so high and the loss rate is so high. A big part of what we must do is try not to lose the vehicles, which means they need navigation systems that allow us to control the vehicles remotely.” The problem, adds Rissolo, is that the overwhelming number of systems out there, drone wise, are built for hobbyists: “Our students are really focused on developing the kinds of systems that are designed for scientists.”

San Diego, Calif., Feb. 19, 2015 — Late last year, two University of California, San Diego students set out for Florence, Italy, to diagnose a patient that had no prior medical record, couldn’t be poked or prodded in any way, and hadn’t been in prime condition for more than 800 years.

The ‘patient’ in question is the Baptistery of St. John, a basilica that sits in the Piazza del Duomo, adjacent to the famous Florence Cathedral (known colloquially as “The Duomo”). The students, structural engineering Ph.D. candidates Mike Hess and Mike Yeager of the Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3), had been invited by the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo to conduct a structural ‘health assessment’ of the building, which was completed in 1128 and was the site where the Italian poet Dante and many other notable Renaissance figures were baptized.

Their resulting 3D digital model depicts a building that has aged gracefully, yet warrants careful and continued evaluation – not surprising considering the Baptistery has experienced several hundred years of settling and is situated in seismically active zone.

But there were indeed big surprises in store for the team, surprises that might have gone unnoticed were it not for the “high-tech gaze” of the advanced multi-spectral, high-resolution tools they used to see behind walls, underground and directly into the past.

Warmth, light and history


CISA3 students Mike Hess (left) and Mike Yeager constructed a comprehensive 3D model of the interior, exterior and facade of the 5,500 square foot Florence Baptistery as well as certain areas of the Duomo.

Before they could look into the past, the team’s first order of business was to create an accurate record of the Baptistery’s current condition.

Using LiDAR (light detection and ranging) laser scanning, ultra-high-resolution photography and thermal imaging techniques, Hess and Yeager constructed a comprehensive 3D model of the interior, exterior and facade of the 5,500 square foot Baptistery. The result includes stunningly realistic 3D models of the Baptistery, its marble sarcophagi and baptismal font, computed from thousands of photos using photogrammetry techniques. Those techniques are spatially referenced to the one and half billion 3D data points captured by the LiDAR scanner.

“This is a building constructed hundreds of years ago for which there are few original plans or drawings,” notes Yeager. “One of our goals was to create a record, which is an exact representation of the Baptistery as it stands today and will serve as a critical reference, tomorrow, next year or a hundred years from now.

“The point cloud data – taken from 80 LiDAR scans – becomes the geometric scaffold for the high-resolution thermal imagery,” Yeager continues. “The data can be projected into 3D space so we know exactly what we’re looking at spatially. The drawings are spatially accurate and we can now pull a measurement for any part of the building we want to look at, down to the millimeter.”

To obtain the thermal imagery, Hess built a custom mobile robotic thermal camera platform that captures thermal data at unprecedented resolution. These high-resolution images reveal, for example, that some of the tiles in the Baptistery’s mosaic ceiling – rumored to be the inspiration for Dante’s “Divine Comedy” – are separating from the structure in ways not yet visible to the naked eye.


Deviation analysis of the Baptistery’s ceiling reveals information that is critical for the understanding and long-term stewardship of the historically and culturally significant site.

Adds Hess: “It essentially stitches many images together into a big mosaic of the structure at the level of detail we need to inspect it for structural flaws, see where areas have been restored or map areas of moisture and cracks.” Hess is also a scholar in the CISA3 Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program, supported by NSF, which prepares Ph.D. scientists and engineers from a variety of disciplines to solve complex research problems of scientific and societal significance at national and international levels.

Hess and Yeager’s work was funded by CISA3 (which is based at the UC San Diego Qualcomm Institute), as well as the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Friends of CISA3 and a grant from the UC San Diego Los Alamos National Lab Engineering Institute by way of the U.S. Department of Energy. It was preceded by previous imaging done by CISA3 researchers in collaboration with its long-term local partners from Editech and Geostudi Astier. Cultural heritage engineer Maurizio Seracini, who has provided CISA3 with a home base for its research activities in Florence for the better part of the past decade, also collaborated with the team.

Their resulting digital model, says CISA3 Director Falko Kuester, allows the viewer to “literally teleport to these places at photorealistic levels and to see what otherwise cannot be seen, revealing information critical for the understanding and long-term stewardship of this remarkable site.”

Adds Yeager: “A darker shade of marble might indicate, for example, that the slab was replaced. That’s not a structural application, but it builds out the history of the structure. It’s a way of seeing underneath the surface to get the true state of conservation of the structure.”

Getting to the bottom (and top) of it


Hess and Yeager used a laser scanner to document the excavation under the Baptistery floor and also visualized, for the first time, an unexcavated portion of Roman ruins from the 5th century A.D.

Another of the team’s objectives was to take a more literal look underneath the surface of the building – right down into the dirt. Beneath the tiled floors of the Baptistery lie the ruins of a Roman temple built in the 4th or 5th century A.D., part of an ongoing excavation that began in the 1970s.

With the help of Seracini, Gianfranco Morelli from Geostudi Astier and IGERT-TEECH trainee and big-data visualization expert Vid Petrovic, Hess and Yeager used ground-penetrating radar to visualize, for the first time, an unexcavated portion of the ruins. Their data reveal what is hypothesized to be a staircase, two vaulted rooms and a series of walls and hallways.

“We’ve been able to visualize these ancient spaces in a way that’s never been done before,” says Yeager. “Now we’re able to use this technology to reference that data in space and ‘fly’ from the domed ceiling of the Baptistery down into the dirt to the ancient rooms beyond.”

In addition to the remarkable discovery of the Roman rooms, Hess and Yeager also determined from their scans that the floor above the excavation site differs dramatically from that above the unexcavated ruins – but not in the way one might expect.

“In the area that has been excavated, there now is a lot of open space, just air,” Yeager explains. “One would intuitively think the floor would be more prone to settling over the void space, but by analyzing the laser scanning data of the floor we see that’s not what’s happening.”

“There is a very dramatic drop in the vertical elevation of the floor, but it’s over the unexcavated portion,” Hess continues. “In the excavated area the floor of the Baptistery has been converted into a reinforced concrete slab, and we’re postulating that when concrete slab was placed over the excavation site, it over-stiffened that part of the structure, causing it to settle more slowly.”

Yeager holds up this counter-intuitive fact as an example of “the true power of diagnostic imaging techniques” that the CISA3 team is developing.

“These tools are allowing us to verify and validate what’s going on and provide answers we wouldn’t ordinarily be able to,” he says. “Now we can ‘fly’ around the model and visualize loading paths in a way that we could not by naked-eye inspection.”

Protecting and preserving the past

With the data from the Baptistery as a proof-of-concept baseline for doing large-scale structural health assessments, Yeager and Hess also got permission to capture data from the Baptistery’s larger and more well-known neighbor, the Duomo.


Deviation analysis shows the floor of the Baptistery is not uniformly level — but not in the way the engineers expected.

Says Hess: “The Baptistery was the testbed for the methodology, but the Duomo is a huge structure, and we want to set the foundation for documenting it. We’ve proven that this is the way to do it and now we can expand it and go bigger.”

With the data they captured from the Duomo (which required standing in the precarious far side of the plexiglass that keeps tourists from falling to their deaths), Hess and Yeager created a digital model of the dome, as well as the space between the two shells of the Dome that contains a staircase tourists climb to overlook the city from its highest point.

With 3D data they’d captured at the Baptistery, they measured structural deviations from an idealized curvature of the cathedral’s dome.

“This kind of measurement gives us an idea of how the dome is surviving,” Yeager explains. “We can see from the laser scanning analysis that the weight of the dome is causing an outward thrust at the bottom. For years, people have speculated this, but we were able to actually quantify it and visually show that there’s a definite eight centimeter bulge.”

“Our ultimate goal,” he continues, “is to take a structure and discretize it into a bunch of little bitty pieces to build a numerical model. We can then load the structure any way we like and use modeling techniques to determine real forces and stresses that are being absorbed by the structure. We could have a model of the Baptistery or the Duomo – structures susceptible to earthquakes – and see how these buildings would respond in real life, which could help us to design a potential retrofit.”


Members of the CISA3 team, including CISA3 Director Falko Kuester (in white shirt), met with Franco Lucchesi (in black jacket) to demonstrate their visualization of the Florence Duomo and Baptistery on the QI WAVE.

Franco Lucchesi, president of Opera Del Duomo Firenze, recently visited CISA3 in San Diego to see the data that the team obtained come to life in its advanced visualization environments, including the WAVE, a 70 megapixel resolution virtual reality environment that provides an unprecedented degree of presence (the feeling of ‘being there’). Remarking that CISA3’s cultural heritage engineering methodology is uniquely positioned to provide important insights into the understanding and preservation of these monuments, Lucchesi invited the UC San Diego team to further expand its collaboration with the Opera Del Duomo.

“Being invited to work at this remarkable site – while bringing stakeholders, researchers, practitioners and the public together in pursuit of ‘creating a future for the past ’ through science and engineering – is truly a privilege,” says Kuester. “The diverse, interdisciplinary and highly professional student teams working on this and other CISA3  projects are our pride and joy.”


A visualization of the Florence Duomo as seen on the QI WAVE virtual reality tool, a 70 megapixel resolution virtual reality environment that provides an unprecedented degree of presence.

In the meantime, Hess and Yeager say the opportunity to play even a small role in this important conservation effort is an honor and a privilege.

“The feeling of walking in with the lights off, having the place to yourself, being in this giant amazing space – it never gets old,” says Hess.

“These structures are monuments of what human beings can create,” adds Yeager. “They are stunning and gorgeous and beautiful. Being able to play a small part in potentially conserving these timeless jewels of human craftsmanship is time really well spent.”

Media Contacts
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Museo dell’Opera del Duomo

San Diego, Calif., May 1, 2014 — A team of archaeologists and engineers from the University of California, San Diego have returned from a field expedition to Quintana Roo, Mexico, where they digitally documented two at-risk archaeological sites — a 16th century church and an ancient Maya cave shrine — using high-tech digital visualization tools.

The expedition was sponsored by the Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3) at the UC San Diego Qualcomm Institute, in cooperation with Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH). A key enabler of the project is the National Science Foundation’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program at CISA3.

ucsd_chei_hoff_cave cam_quintana roo

UCSD undergrad Aliya Hoff uses 3D CAVEcam to gather data points at cave shrine in Quintana Roo, MX.

Dominique Rissolo, a visiting scholar in archaeology who led the team, says the expedition is the first step in furthering the “tremendous potential to contribute to the digital preservation of the sites, as well as a long-term conservation plan.”

“The data will be processed, prepared, and presented to INAH,” adds Rissolo. “The results of these efforts will form the foundation for a long-term conservation plan for the sites, which will likely include a number of specific interventions to stabilize and protect the structures.”

The researchers collected data at the sites using a a 3D CAVECam, a LiDAR scan- ner and other visualization tools. The CAVECam is a device that combines two Lumix GF1 cameras that are carefully calibrated to take simultaneous right and left eye images. The LiDAR scanner creates a high-resolution 3D image by illuminat- ing a target with an infrared laser, measuring distance down to the millimeter and analyzing the reflected light. Researchers at CISA3 have documented a number of at-risk archaeological sites with the CAVECam and LiDAR, which provide a non- destructive means of documenting historical structures with the goal of better un- derstanding and/or preserving them.

The team took a two-hour boat ride to get to the church, which is located in an area called Boca Iglesias and rests on the ancient Maya site of Ecab. Conquistador Francisco Hernández de Córdoba landed at the site in 1517 and renamed it “Gran Cairo.” Sometime in the 1530s, Spaniards partially razed the site to build the church, which is thought to be the first Catholic Church in Latin America.

The church bore witness to a number of interesting events throughout Mexico’s colonial history, including an attack by the French pirate Pierre Sanfroy in 1571. The church and the curate’s house today lie half-ruined in a remote and completely empty corner of the Yucatan Peninsula. The ruins managed to survive centuries of hurricanes, including Wilma, but are in a precarious state.

To get to their second site — a miniature temple (or shrine) inside a cave near the east coast of Quintana Roo — the team had to take a 40-minute off-road adventure in the back of a pickup truck and another 30-minute hike through the jungle with a machete-wielding guide who hacked through the overgrown vegetation. The team found the shrine to be remarkably intact.

Rissolo says that most such shrines are demolished or damaged by local residents “who believe — erroneously — that ‘treasure’ is hid- den beneath.”

“Archaeologists have been racing to record these shrines for over 10 years, as regional development has led to new discoveries,” he adds. “This shrine is perhaps the best preserved in all of the northern Maya lowlands and should be laser scanned before it is impacted. Nothing like this has been attempted in the region and would assist INAH in their local conservation efforts.”

The team spent four days collecting just shy of a billion data points at the two sites. Although the LiDAR scanner can scan in 360 degrees, capturing the interior and exterior of the church required about 30 full scans to account for ‘laser shadows,’ or the shadows cast by the LiDAR machine itself. The church also had to be cleared of the trees that had grown around it and on its roof.

CISA3’s Michael Hess, a second year Ph.D. student in structural engineering, was responsible for setting up the scanner in the church’s Baptistery and Sacristy — two vaulted spaces that were filled with bats and a lot of guano.

“I basically just walked in really low, placed the scanner down, set it, and ran,” jokes Hess, who is also an IGERT trainee. “Many of the cultural heritage sites that our team is studying truly take the term ‘working in the wild’ to the next level, requiring us to tackle unique challenges that one would never face in the lab. How do you best access the site safely without disturbing it or the wildlife within it while developing and deploying technology that captures it in detail?

Rissolo and Hess were joined by CISA3’s Aliya Hoff, a graduating senior in the Department of Anthropology, and Dominique Meyer, a first-year engineering student. Also collaborating with the team were Jeffrey B. Glover of Georgia State University. Glover is co-director with Rissolo on the Proyecto Costa Escondida, which has been conducting investigations along the north coast of Quintana Roo since 2006. Fabio Esteban Amador, an archaeologist and science communicator with the National Geographic Society, was also on site. He has been working in Quintana Roo since 1996. Fred Devos, a prolific cave explorer and surveyor with Global Underwater Explorers, joined the team for the cave scan. At the church site, the team worked closely with INAH archaeologists Adriana Velázquez Morlet, Luis Leira, Enrique Terrones, and Sandra Elizalde.


Inside the cave that shelters an ancient Maya shrine

CISA3 director and Jacobs School of Engineering Professor Falko Kuester notes the importance of airbone imagery (using drones) for documenting this and other sites being analyzed by CISA3.

ucsd_chei_first catholic church_latin america

UC San Diego researchers are hoping to collaborate with Mexico on a conservation plan to preserve what is thought to be the first Catholic Church in Latin American

“2014 has seen the emergence of drones at every single one of our CISA3/IGERT-TEECH field expeditions,” says Kuester, “providing a mechanism to swiftly document large field sites at high resolution says This expedition alone resulted in nearly 20.000 photos from our airborne imaging systems (multi-rotor drones) that allow us to reconstruct 3D models of the local topography and monuments, providing a unique baseline record of the studied sites.

“CISA3 has been a leader in the development of multi-rotor drones since 2011 and has deployed them at field expeditions since 2012. The existing thing is that these drones now allow us to document sites inside and out, including airborne surveys from the sky as well as from within caves or structures, providing data from otherwise difficult to access space or perspectives”

Rissolo (a member of the team that built and flew the two drones that were deployed in Mexico) notes that both sites are also “wonder- ful, high-profile candidates for laser scanning, imaging with the 3D CAVECam, and structure-from-motion (SfM) imaging.” The church is also a candidate for thermal imaging. Rissolo adds that the team will continue to work closely with INAH as their conservation plans and priorities are formalized, and their work at the cave will also contribute to a manuscript about Post-Classic cave shrines (which will be submitted to an academic journal).