Making Indiana Jones Jealous

Mito temples are among the earliest religious structures found in the Americas.  Dating to the Late Archaic Period (3,000-1,800 BC), these buildings consist of single room enclosures with two level floors and central fire pits that served as the focus for ritual activities.  Examples of Mito temples have been identified in the Central Andes Mountains and it is widely assumed that they date to 2,500-1,800 B.C.  In 2007, researchers with the Proyecto Arquelógico Norte Chico (PANC) uncovered the remains of a possible series of Mito temples at the coastal site of Huaricanga in the Fortaleza Valley (Peru) that may be the earliest sacred altars in all of South America.

            This year, Carmela Alarcón Ledesma (PAURARKU, Centro de Investigaciones Andinas) and I have established the Huaricanga Archaeological Research Project (HARP) to explore these early ceremonial structures and to reconstruct the ritual activities that took place within them.  If these structures are indeed Mito temples their early dates may rewrite our 40-year-old understanding of the origins of this architectural tradition and its associated religious practices.  HARP is dedicated to applying innovative techniques to archaeological exploration.  Continuing in this tradition, we have teamed up with the folks at Carnegie Mellon to bring GigaPan technology to our dig at Huaricanga.

 GigaPan and Archaeology

             While perusing the GigaPan website it is easy to see the appeal for photographers.  However, what can GigaPan do for the archaeologist?  Archaeology is a lot more than finding interesting artifacts and uncovered long-buried architecture.  Since it is a destructive process, the careful documentation of the ancient past is crucial to the discipline.  Therefore, archaeologists spend most of their time sketching, measuring elevations, and most of all, taking photos.

            GigaPan offers the unique opportunity to capture panoramic views of entire architectural complexes, monumental mounds, or even excavation profiles, while preserving the smallest details.  For our project we used the GigaPan robot to capture a stunning excavation profile that details the entire series of Mito temples exposed by our dig this field season.  Please check out the amazing GigaPan here.  

 Pushing Boundaries to Infinity and Beyond…

             However, the profile GigaPan at Huaricanga was not my first at the site (for more GigaPan photos of other parts of Huaricanga, please click here).  I did, however, initially struggle with how can I incorporate GigaPan in a meaningful way without simply capturing wide views of monumental architecture as you can see in my other GigaPans.  After contacting my counterpart at Carnegie Mellon, Clara Phillips, I explained to her the project and how HARP uses a tall ladder to capture overhead shots of the excavations.  A light bulb popped in her head and Clara thought, “Why not put the GigaPan on top of the ladder?!”

            This great idea was quickly dispatched once I realized that the platform on top of the ladder is too narrow to support the tripod, but I wanted to push further, “to infinity and beyond…” as Buzz Lightyear says.  Not to be discouraged I looked around and told Carlos, our driver, to pull the truck over parallel to the canal.  Just like an experienced city driver he pulled in as closely as he could.  I mounted a large piece of plywood on top of the roof rack to serve as a base and I set up the GigaPan on top of the truck.  To my surprise, the results were pretty impressive. You can view the GigaPan by clicking here.

            It is my hope that these initial GigaPan photos will inspire other archaeologists to more fully incorporate the technology into their work.  GigaPan is not only useful for high resolution vistas of dramatic landscapes, but also as an explanatory tool to describe stratigraphy or even to document artifacts.  While we may have to wait and see how gigapixel photography will impact the discipline, I am sure that Indiana Jones would be jealous of what we can do with GigaPan today.


Matthew Piscitelli

Ph.D. Candidate

Department of Anthropology

University of Illinois at Chicago