Using new technology to preserve the past
When you think of archaeological work, you might think of traditional methods like excavation.
But in their project to preserve a site older than Stonehenge, St. Olaf College faculty and students are taking up the same advanced digital tools that are often used by engineers and businesses.
Through advanced photogrammetry, Jack Hubler-Dayton ’17 is documenting the Jeffers Petroglyphs, a North American indigenous rock-art site located in southwestern Minnesota.
Advanced photogrammetry is a type of 3D modeling that constructs the depth of an object by measuring the distance between photos taken of it. These digital tools, Hubler-Dayton says, “encompass both the scientific and the artistic.”
Hubler-Dayton’s work is part of a collaborative research project at the Jeffers Petroglyphs initiated by St. Olaf Professor of History and Ancient Studies Tim Howe. This project brings together indigenous tribal groups, scholars, and undergraduate students to preserve the cultural heritage of the site through traditional excavation as well as advanced photogrammetry.
With these digital tools, archaeologists “get a clearer image than they get with the naked eye,” says Hubler-Dayton. “The rock carvings at Jeffers are barely visible for about an hour in the morning, between 5:30 and 6:30.”
In order to learn about advanced photogrammetry, Hubler-Dayton spent a week with Howe at Cultural Heritage Imaging, an organization dedicated to advancing the state of digital documentation. Cultural Heritage Imaging offers technology, tools, and training for cultural stewards, such as Howe and Hubler-Dayton.
Now, Howe and Hubler-Dayton are bringing these digital tools back to St. Olaf, where Howe is teaching a new course at the Jeffers Petroglyphs. This course is designed to expose students to methodologies and field practices employed by archaeologists when studying North American indigenous cultures. And with it, St. Olaf will become one of only a handful of institutions in the country that offer training in advanced photogrammetry.
With advanced photogrammetry and other methods, those involved with the research project are inventorying thousands of rock carvings at Jeffers, one of the most extensive collections of petroglyphs found in North America.
Jeffers, situated on a 30-mile long outcrop of Sioux quartzite, includes images of humans, buffalo, turtles, thunderbirds, and arrows. And the carvings tell a story that spans more than 10,000 years.
The petroglyphs are, in Hubler-Dayton’s words, “a living, speaking record of prehistoric religion, history, and thought.”
“Jeffers is a sacred site first and foremost,” he says. “It’s a holy place for many North American tribes, including Dakota and other Siouan people. I feel like I am most accountable to these tribe in my work, and I don’t do anything without the permission of tribal elders.”
Hubler-Dayton, who is pursuing a history major as well as an individual major, says that his experiences at St. Olaf have prepared him well to work at the Jeffers Petroglyphs. He participated in the Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program and did field work at the Antiochia Ad Cragum Site in Turkey through the Mediterranean Field School. He also presented his work at the North Plains History Conference, for which he received funding from the college.
As an individual major, Hubler-Dayton has found that “St. Olaf has been really supportive in all of my independent studies. And in the classes that I can take, I talk to my professors about how I can integrate Jeffers into my work.”
“What this project has taught me is that we need to preserve the earth and respect it from a spiritual, and civic duty,” says Hubler-Dayton.
“We have to be in this together, preserving what’s left ecologically, historically, and culturally.”