New technology used for virtual curation of petroglyphs

New technology used for virtual curation of petroglyphs

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BELLOWS FALLS — State officials saw in the Vilas Bridge and nearby petroglyphs an opportunity to try out their latest gadget.

"LiDAR," Vermont State Archaeologist Jess Robinson said, referring to a terrestrial Light Detection and Ranging unit, "creates very detailed three-dimensional models. This is becoming very popular in archeology as a form of virtual curation; to preserve things in three dimensions and in real space and be able to broadcast them when the actual artifacts or, in this case, the petroglyphs are not available to people."

Last Thursday, the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation and the Agency of Transportation tested out the equipment specifically purchased for documenting the Vilas Bridge. One of the officials had suggested scanning the petroglyphs to get "a very detailed record of them at this point of time," said Robinson.

The technology also allows for tracking of deterioration and comparisons in the future.

"We are still at the early stages of really trying to find out what the technology is capable of doing and what some of the best applications may be," said Kyle Obenauer, historic preservation specialist for VTrans. "So this scan of the Vilas Bridge today is largely experimental. We're curious to see what data and what products may be derived from the LiDAR technology."

The topography was challenging, he said, referring to rocks traveled over while scanning the bridge and petroglyphs.

This month marks the 22nd annual Vermont Archaeology Month. The purpose is to promote "the rich and important ancient and historic past in this state," Robinson said.

"Because my colleagues were coming down here, I said, 'Hey, this would be a great opportunity to invite the public out and talk about the importance of Bellows Falls petroglyphs, talk about the interesting and important history of the Vilas Bridge, and show off some of this new technology,'" he said.

The bridge, which closed in 2009, is owned by the state of New Hampshire so VTrans does not have any rehabilitation plans at this time, said Obenauer.

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Chris Slesar, environmental resources coordinator at VTrans, said his group and the Division for Historic Preservation have identified "some shared goals and visions."

"We have a programmatic agreement with the division that delegates authority to make calls under some of the state and federal preservation laws," he said. "That's really unique to Vermont. And it dramatically improves the processes in government by eliminating redundancies and duplication of effort."

Before projects are designed, Slesar said, VTrans will look at a site during the "scoping phase" and identify resources to avoid negative impacts. LiDAR is looked at as a helpful tool.

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Rich Holschuh, representing the Elnu Abenaki, called the petroglyphs "the handiwork of the people who came before us."

"It was important to them, too," he said. "It's not just some random carvings on some random rocks in some random place. This is a very special place, and I appreciate that when I'm here."

The work of the two state groups is not obtrusive, but sensitive to the overall protection of the petroglyphs, Holschuh said.

Robinson believes the petroglyphs might represent "spiritual helpers."

"Its history prior to European contact isn't really known," he said. "Certainly, the local Abenakis might have different interpretations. But from a scholarly perspective, it appears related to analogues based in Maine, that they may be from around 2,000 years ago."

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Holschuh said the site is recognized as "a sacred place for a number of spiritual and cultural understandings."

"And the site has not been treated with respect in the past," he said. "It is obvious from the conditions here. And going forward, we would like to see that be handled in a much better manner."

He looks at the efforts Thursday as helpful towards achieving that.

"It's all part of a very big story that is not understood well, and the more pieces of it that we have the better," he said. "And by story, I mean the history we all learned that is not at all complete. It is very incomplete and certain people that have a stake in that story — the native people, the indigenous people — have been left out of the equation. And this is part of bringing them back in."

Holschuh considers the project important but acknowledged that others feel differently.

"There are many degrees in between. It's a delicate subject, I can say that safely," Holschuh said. "I mean, some people don't accept oral history, they don't accept various explanations that are not done scientifically."

With the expansion of technology, he hopes more evidence about those responsible for the petroglyphs will come forward.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or @CMaysBR.


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