Artec 3D scanners go over the Andes to shine new light on the history of ancient Peru

Apr 08, 2021

By Matthew McMillion

In the middle of a torrential downpour, high in the cloud forests of Peru, archaeologist and Massachusetts schoolteacher Daniel Fernandez-Davila felt fully alive. He was there with twelve others, traveling on horseback 20+ miles a day, hefting a 50-pound pack of tools and supplies on his back. Along with them they carried books and educational materials destined for a faraway mountain village.

Six native Andean guides led the way from elevations 6,000 to 13,000 feet above sea level, where every 90 minutes or less they entered into a new climate: from a cool and crisp 35°F one moment, to a sweltering 90°F an hour later.

Archaeologist Daniel Fernandez-Davila on the way to La Morada

Their line of 23 horses & mules would reach a sunny plateau, and then a short while later become drenched in heavy rain, the horses’ legs getting stuck in the mud, with trails and roads ahead being washed away. In this land of the Chachapoya, adapting to changing conditions is a must.

The Chachapoya were the original inhabitants of the Amazonas Region of today’s northern Peru. Also known as the “Cloud People,” due to their living among the cloud forests of the Andes, the Chachapoya left behind few traces of their mysterious culture.

Overgrown rocky paths snaking across cloud forest hillsides make the journey slow and dangerous.

What has survived to this day includes the sarcophagi of Carajía: tall clay figures perched atop perilous cliff ledges, inside each of which is an ancient mummy curled up in a fetal position; and, of course, the unforgettably shocking mummy collection from the mausoleums of the Lake of the Condors.

Yet in the experience of Fernandez-Davila, many kinds of Chachapoya treasures exist. He’s seen them himself, numerous times, although there are other artifacts and objects he’s only heard rumors of. Fernandez-Davila has been returning to the cloud forests of northern Peru almost every year since 1998.

Destination: the village of La Morada, reachable only after two days of hiking from the main road

He travels there with up to a dozen of his students, giving them an experience of a lifetime, one that, in their words, changes them forever. While there, they perform charity work, including bringing hundreds of books and supplies to remote mountain village schools in desperate need.

Chachapoyan children in the village of Atuen listening to Fernandez-Davila reading a book about the ancient history of their land and people

Fernandez-Davila also conducts crucial archeology work during these journeys, to document and help preserve these disappearing treasures and final traces of the ancient Chachapoya. It’s a race against time, one in which he finds himself outnumbered by the ravages of rainwater erosion, graffiti, vandalism, and looting.

In the isolated villages dotting these mountainsides and peaks, the local people believe that if they find a sacred object, by chipping off a piece of it and taking it away with them, they will receive blessings and protection.

But, over time, Fernandez-Davila has gained the trust of these people. They often tell him about artifacts they happened upon in the jungle, or objects they found and brought back with them, as a rising number of these humble people understand that once these landmarks of their ancestors are gone, they’re gone forever.

Group member and former student Rachel Lorenc with a Chachapoya girl from the village

There’s never enough time to cover all the ground in the few short weeks he has there every year. In the words of Fernandez-Davila, “I truly struggle as an archaeologist every time that a local peasant tells me there is another huge tower there, and another mausoleum over there, and that cave has paintings over there.” And then they ask me, ‘Are you coming back?’ I try to reply kindly, ‘I will, I promise, I’ll try to do this next year’...I've been going there for 21 years already.”

It was during one such trip, in 2008, that Fernandez-Davila, while on his way to La Morada, came face to face with an ancient monolith he had read about years earlier, in the work of Inge Schjellerup, who had conducted archaeological research there as part of the Peruvian-Danish Archaeological Mission. Schjellerup was the first to study, document, and photograph the site of Pukarumi, where the magnificent stone rests, back in the 1980s and early 1990s.

The monolith was also photographed by Keith Muscutt and included in his acclaimed book, Warriors of the Clouds. Years later, in 2005, the stone was captured in drawings by Penny Berliner.

For minutes as Fernandez-Davila stood there in front of the monolith, he found himself unable to step away. As his fingers traced the carvings on the stone, winding their way across spirals, quadrangles, and a sphere encircled by radiating lines, he realized that this was something far beyond simply a rare archaeological discovery. What he was looking at could very well shine new light on the Formative history of Peru.

Iconographic analysis needed to be done to properly analyze the petroglyphs, and to begin to understand what they meant. That’s when a terrible thought came to him, “This beautiful stone is not going to survive. Every year, the acid rains are growing stronger and eroding the petroglyphs more and more. Before much longer, they won’t be decipherable. I need to find a way to fully preserve them!”

At the time, the best he could do was take some photos of the monolith, and yet he vowed to keep searching until he found the best way to preserve this one-of-a-kind monument of immeasurable historical worth, not purely for scientific research, but also for present and future generations of Chachapoya, and the entire world.

But in the months that followed, the jungle reclaimed the 2.5 x 10 ft. slab of stone, and when he returned the next year, he was unable to find it again. Fernandez-Davila had a general idea of where it was, although the path to the nearby town is different with each passing season, due to weather-induced changes incessantly resculpting the landscape and rivers.

Two native Andean guides and Fernandez-Davila deciding on the best path ahead

Year after year, Fernandez-Davila was tormented by the thought that even though the immense monolith was too heavy for looters to haul away, it was only a matter of time before either vandals, rain erosion, or both had ruined it forever.

Reflecting on the early stages of his search for a solution, Fernandez-Davila said, “When I told a few colleagues about my plans for this project, several of them asked me why I didn’t just go with photogrammetry, because it would be easier and cheaper that way, rather than spending days researching which scanner to get and then actually paying for it.”

He went on, “But there’s one huge problem with photogrammetry: you need to take a bunch of photos of the object, but you won’t see how they all come together until you get back to a computer in the lab. That means I would need to sit down and put everything together before I know whether the 3D model is even complete.”

“But what if I missed even just one petroglyph or one crucial surface? What can I do, call up my guides and tell them we need to head back into the jungle with all the horses and equipment, spending another $10,000 just to get this one missing shot? Even if I do that, what’s to say that vandals or looters haven’t gotten there in the meantime and made that shot now impossible to get?”

Eventually his ongoing research and inquiries to other archaeologists brought him to 3D scanning as a viable solution. Yet with so many scanners crowding the market, he wasn’t sure which one could not only survive the demanding journey that lay ahead, but also be able to successfully capture the monolith in high-resolution color 3D.

Upon strong recommendations by others, he turned to Artec Gold Certified Reseller Exact Metrology, 3D scanning experts with years of experience in their respective fields. After Fernandez-Davila told them about the challenging conditions of the trip ahead, and shared with them the details about the monolith and other objects he intended to scan, they introduced him to the handheld 3D scanners Artec Eva and Space Spider.

Artec Space Spider & Eva

They explained that Eva would be ideal for capturing the monolith in vivid, high-resolution 3D, while Space Spider was the perfect answer for ultra-high-resolution scans of intricate sections of larger objects, as well as small objects with complex geometries.

Both scanners have proven themselves throughout the field of archaeology and paleontology for many years, making it possible for researchers to capture precious artifacts and specimens in only minutes and turn them into incredibly precise 3D models ready for digital preservation, VR, and more.

Fernandez-Davila understood that even though the scanners were easy to use, he’d undoubtedly have his hands full on the expedition and would rather the scanning be left to an expert. So he asked Exact Metrology for a volunteer.

While he was describing to the company’s engineers the arduous journey necessary just to cross the mountains and reach the monolith, before he could even finish, training/marketing manager Jason Kleinhenz stepped forward, saying he’d love to come along and take care of all the scanning.

So, on a warm August day, Fernandez-Davila, along with Kleinhenz and a group of eleven others, flew down to Peru and saddled up for the long and winding journey to the monolith and La Morada. Kleinhenz carried a backpack stuffed with two laptops and both 3D scanners, as they headed up into the rainy foothills of the Andes. To make sure they’d have no trouble finding the general location of the monolith, Fernandez-Davila hired native guides to show him and his group the way.

Nick Ciorogan showing villagers and their children the magic of modern photography

One member of the group, international filmmaker Nick Ciorogan, was there to create an in-depth photographic record of the journey as well as the monolith. Ciorogan has been closely following Daniel’s work for over 10 years. He’s also producing a long-form documentary film entitled, “My Teacher,” which follows the lives of a group of students and their teacher, Fernandez-Davila, as they journey together to the remote jungles of northern Peru, transforming their own lives as well as the many lives they touch.

The future of La Morada: the local children bursting with excitement to welcome the visitors and see the books they brought

Following days of traversing rock-strewn mountain pathways and moving through dense vegetation, machetes hacking away to clear the path for the group and their horses, they finally reached the stretch of jungle where the monolith was supposed to be. But even the local guides weren’t able to find it.

Along a trail skirting the Huabayacu River, on the way from La Morada to the monolith

Only after sending up a drone high above the jungle canopy and overlaying the video feed with a scanned map of a drawing that researcher Inge Schjellerup had diagrammed years earlier were they able to pinpoint the massive stone, by then thoroughly engulfed by vines and other vegetation. After the guides carefully brushed aside the grass in front of it, Fernandez-Davila gave the go-ahead for Kleinhenz to begin scanning the monolith.

Drone photo overlaid with Inge Schjellerup’s map of Pukarumi showing the exact location of the monolith (in orange): Archeological map reference: Schjellerup, I. 2005 Incas y Espanoles a la Conquista de los Chachapoyas. Pg. 288. IFEA. Lima

Even though Fernandez-Davila had confidence in the technology as well as Kleinhenz’s scanning abilities, capturing the monolith was a critical test of whether the Artec Eva could accurately scan the damp, organic surfaces and elaborate petroglyphs despite the humid and foggy conditions of the jungle. And to do so with, in Fernandez-Davila’s words, “Zero intrusion, no damage done to the stone, and with nothing removed or taken away from the site.”

He went on, “If that could be proven, if the Eva could deliver the results we needed, then we would bring it along with us any time we’re heading off into the cloud forest or other remote locations where we need to non-intrusively capture stone sculptures.”

One of the local guides in awe as he encounters the monolith for the first time

Kleinhenz gently set down his laptop, then connected the Artec Eva and started scanning the face of the dark, time-worn stone, sweep after sweep. Each side of the monolith was being captured in high-resolution color 3D, while the laptop with Artec Studio software visually confirmed to Kleinhenz, Fernandez-Davila, and the others that every aspect of the stone’s surface, including all the petroglyphs, was coming to digital life at two million points per second.

No contact needed: Jason Kleinhenz scanning the left side of the monolith with Artec Eva

But then the sky opened up. A single drop of rain multiplied into a cascade of showers. Before Kleinhenz even turned to ask for help, a member of the team jumped over and held up a tarp to shield him and the scanner. Others stepped in and stretched tarps above the monolith, to keep any rain from splashing down on it.

Not long after, as the downpour continued, Kleinhenz’s power bank failed, making its solar panels useless. Then the laptop’s batteries flashed a low-power warning. They had just minutes left.

Fortunately, no other complications arose. And in around an hour from start to finish, every inch of the entire monolith had been scanned, with a few extra scans done for good measure.

The monolith of Pukarumi reborn in 3D: the green render was chosen for ease of distinguishing the petroglyphs

Kleinhenz saved the scans on two separate hard drives as backup, then gave each drive to a different person, for added security. From there it was a two-day journey back to their base camp, where they prepared for the final chapter of their expedition.

After they had flown back to the US, Kleinhenz returned to the office, and the Exact Metrology team processed the scans into 3D models, using Artec Studio to remove any unwanted data, align the various scans, and export the files to Geomagic design software, including Geomagic Wrap.

The true color and geometries of the monolith as captured by Artec Eva

Regarding forthcoming uses of the 3D model, Fernandez-Davila added, “We will be 3D printing a ½ scale model of the monolith for the Leymebamba Museum, which will make this priceless treasure accessible to local residents and tourists alike. Now researchers and students in Peru or anywhere else can examine the petroglyphs, all the engravings on the stone, for years and even centuries to come.

During the expedition, right after scanning the monolith, they put Space Spider to the test. Fernandez-Davila wanted to assess the handheld scanner’s ability to non-destructively capture smaller artifacts with high levels of detail.

To accomplish this, he and Kleinhenz scanned multiple objects that several villagers brought in to show them, including pottery shards, a series of rocks (mace heads (used for bashing enemy skulls in ancient combat) in various stages of progress), and a large stone pestle used for grinding grain.

The local people witnessing the event were wide-eyed as their gazes darted between the scanner, the artifact, and the laptop, while the artifacts came to life on the screen in seconds.

Fernandez-Davila and Wayland HS student Sydney Lloyd analyze the monolith’s petroglyphs via digital and printed pictures

After returning home to Massachusetts, Fernandez-Davila was examining the 3D model of the monolith and discovered something that took his breath away: a previously undocumented engraving of a fanged, feathered serpent on the right side of the stone. It was too faint to be seen when merely looking at the monolith, and yet the Artec Eva had captured it in its entirety.

A distinctly similar image, which was being drawn by artists only during Peru’s Formative Period, was discovered on a section of Cupisnique art at the major archaeological site of Chavin, radiocarbon dated back to around 2000 years ago. This means that the newly-discovered petroglyph was very likely engraved centuries before those on the left side of the monolith were chiseled to life.

The carved Formative head of the fanged, feathered serpent, as revealed by Artec Eva, with digital photographic confirmation and drawing analysis by D. Fernandez-Davila

Further comparative iconographic analyses determined that the petroglyphs on the center right side of the stone were made probably between 400 BC and 200 AD, while those on the center left were engraved around 700 AD to 1470 AD.

Fernandez-Davila spoke about an important step for gaining the trust of the people of the region, “We brought along a community leader from the local village to be an eyewitness, so he could go back to the people and tell them firsthand how our Artec scanners don’t require us to intrude on any sacred grounds; we don’t even need to touch the remains or the artifact itself.”

He continued, “We want the people to know that these scanners work like a flashlight, and they do no damage to anything. They relax when they come to understand that all of this is true."

“We make certain they know that with these scanners, we don’t need to do any excavations, nothing is destroyed, and we aren’t taking anything away from them or their land. The monolith is still where it’s been for centuries: right next to the pathway leading to La Morada.”

“We want them to see that we are doing this work for them and their people. When they finally realize this, they start to share more and more artifacts with us, even leading us out to see monuments and objects that they never shared with outsiders before.”

Artec Eva capturing the left side of the monolith, which features classical Chachapoya petroglyphs as seen on other local artifacts

Fernandez-Davila emphasized how with Artec scanners, if he has even just one chance with an artifact, then that will be enough, “With Eva and Space Spider, there’s no guessing involved. I can easily see in real time that every surface of an artifact is being captured. If there’s any doubt, with just a wave of the scanner, the problem is solved. In minutes, using Artec Studio, I can process them into tremendously lifelike 3D models right there onsite, or in my tent, or wherever I’d like. It’s that easy.”

The low cost and availability of 3D printing make it possible for these artifacts to be recreated and used in schools and universities for education and research, while the exhaustive level of detail present in the 3D models makes them perfect for VR environments or in-depth studies by archaeologists and other researchers worldwide.

The mysterious and vast emerald landscape of the cloud forest, where countless archaeological sites have lain hidden for centuries

For Fernandez-Davila, the possibilities that Artec 3D scanners have brought to archaeology are indisputable, “In this field, professional archaeologists around the world constantly seek to accurately reconstruct the past, the way it actually was, rather than simply construct it the way they believe it must have been. This is my mission as an archaeologist, and this is what Artec scanners give me the power to do.”

At the 60th Annual Andean Studies Meeting in Berkeley, California, in January 2020, Fernandez-Davila and Kleinhenz together held a poster session focused on the monolith and the expedition, and also gave the audience a live demonstration of the scanning capabilities of both Artec Eva and Space Spider.

Kleinhenz commented on the pivotal role that 3D scanning can play in the future of cultural and historical preservation: “A massive next step will be for governments around the world to set up national 3D libraries, similar to the US Library of Congress, where each will host digital collections consisting of petabytes and beyond of 3D data of irreplaceable objects that have been scanned.”

He went on, “This will ensure that these priceless artifacts are preserved for today and future generations. It’s entirely within our reach to bring this about, and we owe it to all of humanity to do so.”