Geography students use virtual reality to recreate Mayan ruins

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Ancient Mayan civilization in Central America, which collapsed around 1,000 years ago, is being brought to life in a new Penn State project. Two doctoral students in geography, Jiawei Huang and Arif Masrur, have recreated the Mayan ruins of Cahal Pech, in Belize, using virtual reality.

This project is through ChoroPhronensis, a research unit in Penn State’s Department of Geography founded by Alexander Klippel, professor of geography. Klippel's research focuses on immersive technologies and spatial information theory.

The primary excavation of Cahal Pech began in 1988 by Jaime Awe, Northern Arizona University and Belize Institute of Archaeology, and has since then interested archaeologists in the United States and in Belize. This project builds on the work conducted by Penn State doctoral anthropology alumna Claire Ebert, now a visiting scholar of archaeology at the University of Pittsburgh. Her research in Belize examined the relationship between diet, climate change and resilience among the Maya during the Preclassic and Classic periods (1000 B.C. - A.D. 900).

Masrur holds a master’s degree in geography, specializing in cartography and spatial analysis, from the University of Northern Iowa, where he worked as a researcher at the ARCTICenter — an interdisciplinary polar research center.

He has always been interested in data-driven geographic research.  

“I wanted to apply my technical skills from virtual and augmented reality to capture the historical sites in an immersive environment. Cahal Pech has provided me a great opportunity,” Masrur says.

Huang, who holds a master’s degree in environmental informatics from the University of Michigan, found a way to combine her passion for geography and cultural heritage in this project. Originally from China, Huang was always been interested in comparative archaeology. She notes that jade masks were used during Mayan burials, similar to those in China.

“A lot of artifacts are excavated from tombs, pointing to the elite cultural practice of putting jade masks on their dead. Due to harsh climatic change and droughts, Mayan social and political systems disintegrated around  900 A.D. We have the opportunity to collaborate with people from Penn State’s Department of Anthropology and Northern Arizona University to help the public and researchers explore the site remotely using virtual reality,” Huang says.

The students hope that their virtual reality environment can be used by other researchers and anyone interested in the Mayan heritage.

Huang has been working on this project since last summer, and Masrur joined her in January, which is the dry season in Belize. While in Central America, the students visited the site early in the morning to capture the images for structure-from-motion mapping. Later in the day, they took panorama images to ensure bright light. They spent the evenings compiling the images using specialized image-processing software.

Next, they created lifelike 3-D models.

“The software works much like the parallax of our eyes where we need information from two eyes to perceive depth. If the image was received from only one eye we would see things in 2-D,” Huang says.

Image by image, structure by structure, an entire complex of 34 structures, including a pyramidal temple, several plazas and two ball courts, come to life through this process. Like a real-life video game, the high-definition simulation allows users to zoom in and view the minutest architectural details.

“Now that we have the current model of the Cahal Pech complex, we want to connect it with what it may have looked thousands of years ago. This method is called experiential archaeology and would allow people to go back in time,” Huang says.

With the recent success of games like Pokémon Go!, virtual and augmented reality seem promising enough to evoke awe through a perception of vastness. According to Masrur, virtual and augmented reality can revolutionize the field of archaeology.

“The idea is to use these immersive technologies to understand cultural heritage. Even as a tourist, you can focus your camera on a particular site, and find additional information from the minerals inside the structure to the cultural history attached to it,” Masrur says.

Even though bringing the Mayan ruins to life for the general audience is a mammoth task, the team already has concrete plans for the future. Huang aspires to replicate these immersive technologies in China’s Forbidden Palace, while Masrur plans on conducting more research on virtual reality either in academia or industry.

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Last Updated April 25, 2018