Revealing the Secrets of Machu Picchu

Researchers in the Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies at the University of Arkansas have traveled around the world using their advanced remote sensing technology to provide a 3-D perspective of archaeological sites and historic structures.

This month, PBS will air the second season of Time Scanners, a three-part documentary series featuring CAST experts using cutting-edge technology to reveal secrets about some of the world’s most iconic structures. Tonight’s episode focuses on the ancient mountain city of Machu Picchu in Peru. On Dec. 16 the series shifts to the Colosseum in Rome and Jerusalem on Dec. 23.

CAST researchers Katie Simon (from left), Adam Barnes and Malcolm Williamson at Machu Picchu

CAST researchers Katie Simon (from left), Adam Barnes and Malcolm Williamson

All three shows are scheduled for broadcast at 9 p.m. CST.

Time Scanners showcases CAST laser-scanning experts collecting and analyze billions of measurements. They use the data collected by laser scanners to produce what is known as a 3-D point cloud.

The Inca built Machu Picchu on top of an 8,000 mountain in the 15th century. The royal palace complex incorporated nearly 200 stone buildings and terraces that reduce soil erosion and protected against landslides.

Adam Barnes, a CAST researcher, said Machu Picchu was the most challenging site he’s ever scanned. The production schedule for the series was tight, so the researchers had to collect and analyze data in a couple of days. The process typically takes at least two weeks.

“It was at the top of the difficulty scale,” Adam said. “There was heat, humidity, snakes, and dense vegetation and we had very little time and no room for error.”

CAST researchers and the Time Scanners production crew hike to Huayna Picchu | Courtesy Eileen Ernenwein

CAST researchers and the Time Scanners production crew hike to Huayna Picchu | Courtesy Eileen Ernenwein

Adam’s favorite moment was hiking to the top of Huayna Picchu – 1,100 feet above Machu Picchu – and seeing the ancient city from a completely different perspective.

“It was not the average day of scanning,” he said.

The CAST team, which included researchers Malcolm Williamson, Katie Simon and Eileen Ernenwein (now an assistant professor of geosciences at East Tennessee State University), was tasked with finding out how did the Inca built Machu Picchu, how they constructed the terraces and how they provided water to the city.

“Machu Picchu is such an incredible location,” Williamson said. “On the one hand, I would ask myself ‘What were they thinking?,’ to have built there in the first place. Recording the ‘Tech HQ’ segment for the show in the reconstructed Inca guardhouse was a pretty amazing experience as well – it would be difficult not to appreciate the contrast between the ancient structures and the modern technology.”

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