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underwater anchor
Transylvania anthropology professor Chris Begley ’90 uses a 3-D scanner on a huge eighteenth-century anchor in 80 feet of water off the coast of Menorca, Spain.
A new Dimension

By Tyler Young

The water that surrounds him is at once silent and deafening. He kicks his feet, slowly making his way deeper, when the beam of his light suddenly reveals a giant anchor, long buried but easily recognizable. He takes out his scanner to document the artifact—complex algorithms will soon digitally recreate it to the minutest detail.

Chris Begley is preparing for class.

Begley ’90, an anthropology professor at Transylvania, is an archaeologist, traveling around the world to research and excavate. This particular underwater experience took him to Spain over the summer, where he and a student, sophomore Anne Wright, along with a group of researchers, documented items from Mediterranean history, dating back to pre-Roman times in 250 B.C.

Begley is a firm believer that only a part of education happens in the classroom, and he routinely takes students on digs both in the United States and abroad.

“I try to let them see the whole process, to see how they could do this when it comes their time,” he said. “Sometimes they get to excavate, sometimes they get to do whatever kinds of field work we’re doing. They get to interact with local scholars, which I think is really important, to see that wherever you go, there are a whole lot of dedicated experts that are doing great work.”

Much of Begley’s research takes place in the jungles of Central America, particularly in Honduras, a Spanish-speaking nation with a rich history of indigenous cultures that fascinate him. But to get to some of the places he goes, he has to travel for days on foot or in canoes, reaching the remotest areas of the country with two weeks supply of food and water and hundreds of pounds of research equipment. Once he gets to the sites, many of the artifacts are fragile or so lightly preserved that any contact can be irreparably damaging. Both are common problems for archaeologists, and Begley is working on a way to solve them.

Begley and Crane in Honduras
Begley and Eli Crane, former UK graduate student and now engineer with Trioverse, stand by petroglyphs to be scanned along the Rio Platano in the jungles of eastern Honduras.

Eli Crane, then a graduate student at the University of Kentucky College of Engineering, and his professor, Larry Hassebrook, worked with a three-dimensional scanner that used normal light instead of lasers and expensive equipment to make renderings of objects. It was developed as a way to fingerprint Muslim women at airports and borders without touching them, so it had to be accurate to the tiniest detail—as small as 20 microns. Begley asked Crane if he thought it would be possible to take that idea further and create a scanner big enough and rugged enough to be used on archaeological digs and digitally document artifacts without contact.

scan of monkey petroglyph
The point cloud data for a petroglyph from the Rio Platano that likely represents a monkey.

At its core, the scanner is a projector that uses a 35 mm slide and light to project a pattern onto an object. When it lands on a flat surface, you see an undistorted pattern, and when it is projected onto an object, the lines distort and are captured by a digital video camera. Later, a computer will analyze and measure the pattern and create a perfectly accurate 3-D rendering of the object, which can be manipulated to observe details that can’t be seen with the naked eye.

Crane and Hassebrook developed a model, and in 2009 Begley took it to Honduras to test it in the jungle. It worked perfectly. The team made it lightweight, and its energy consumption was so low that it went the whole two weeks without needing a charge. It didn’t require a computer to store the images, so the files could be sent off later and processed. It worked so well they went back and made it waterproof so it could be used on dive sites.

“I think this is really important for archaeologists and any other field researchers that need accurate 3-D maps of objects they’re going to take in hostile environments,” Begley said. “What we’re envisioning is a system where archaeologists could buy the equipment cheaply, take the data, and send off what you want to be processed. I see a lot of potential for that in places like Honduras that don’t have a lot of resources.”

In Spain, he scanned two caves to look for tool marks or modifications that had possibly gone unnoticed. He also scanned underwater artifacts and items from a Roman city that was in the process of being excavated. Artifacts included jewelry, war helmets, and coins, including one coin that was the subject of a disagreement about whether or not there was a faint engraving of a cross on it. The scanner showed there was.

Cave in Spain
 Transylvania sophomore Annie Wright and engineer Eli Crane use a laser 3-D
scanning system to scan a pre-Roman mortuary cave on the island of Menorca.

He then went to Sicily to scan a bronze ram that would have been on the front of a warship during naval warfare in the Mediterranean. Up until a few years ago, there had been only one ever recovered. Begley scanned the ram, and the team was able to read and see inscriptions and artwork that would have been impossible to study otherwise.

As a result of his work with the 3-D scanner, Begley received a grant from National Geographic that focuses on pilot programs using new technologies. The grant sent him and a team back to Honduras for a month with a filmmaker, Josh Howard, to scan petroglyphs, ancient rock carvings that historically have been difficult to document. They also looked at river erosion to get an idea of conservation and preservation issues.

From that experience, Begley and Howard decided to team up again to work on their current project—a documentary on the legend of a lost city hidden in Honduras’s Mosquito Coast.

For centuries, there has been talk of a lost city somewhere in the rainforest on the northeastern coast of Honduras. People have come from all over looking for it—it is a kind of El Dorado for Spanish and American explorers. Begley has heard the legend many times during his work around the Mosquito Coast.

“Everybody knows about it and talks about it, and they have for hundreds of years,” he said. “Some of the places formerly thought of as the lost city are now just villages. The city just moves, retreats into the jungle. There’s always a lost city around the next corner, just out of reach.”

While he doesn’t believe it exists, he is searching for funding to shoot the film because he wants to know why the story has persisted for so many years. 

“That’s part of the question for this film—what function does it serve for the people who have this legend?” he said. “For the indigenous people, it seems to refer back to a time when they had greater autonomy—the glory days. For non-indigenous people in the area, it’s the open frontier. It gives them hope that there’s something still there undiscovered. For treasure hunters, it represents fame and glory.”

Part of the reason the legend has survived, Begley has surmised from his research, is because of the spectacular limestone cliffs over the river that look like buried palaces, barely visible. That feeling is enhanced when the limestone sediments that make straight, horizontal lines intersect with water stains flowing vertically down the cliff. The resulting rectangles look like they could have once been windows or doorways.

Other projects Begley is working on include cave archaeology in Missouri and underwater research in the U.S. and jungle rivers in Central and South America, which have not been studied extensively because of low visibility and difficult diving. He has been working with a portable x-ray fluorescent machine, a spectrometer that can be pointed at an object and will read its elemental makeup.

Much of Begley’s research makes its way into his class. He likens it to, instead of being a reporter who writes about the news, creating the news yourself.

mountain climbing in Peru
Begley trails Kristin Geil ’11 and Chase Pugh ’10
as they descend from the summit of Yanapaccha,
an 18,000-foot peak in Peru, on an alumni trip
led by Begley.

“Research is not something I do that is ‘extra,’” Begley said. “This ought to be fundamental to what we do as faculty. This is what makes me valuable and creates opportunities for my students. If you are in the midst of it, then you present it in a totally different way, and I think that’s important. While teaching is the central thing we do, it’s not enough.”

That’s why he spends so much time taking students off campus to get hands-on experience, particularly in his archaeology courses. He has held four archaeological field schools at four different central Kentucky sites—Camp Nelson Civil War camp, Lexington’s first Catholic cemetery, an early pioneer station, and a historic stagecoach stop and tavern on an old route between Lexington and Washington, D.C.

And when he takes students abroad, they not only get archaeological experience, they learn how different research can be for scholars in other countries.

“In many cases, they’ll see how it’s kind of an unfair situation,” Begley said. “They don’t have the same resources, in some cases, the same opportunities to publish to a big audience or present their work. They get to see that we’re a part of this community. They get to interact with other scholars, and now all of those people who were part of the project know about Transylvania, our students, and me.”

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