This presentation is part of the 2017 3D Digital Documentation Summit.

3D Digital Documentation and Analysis of the Reef Bay Valley Petroglyphs, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands National Park

Speaker 1:           Good morning. Thank you all for being here. This is going to be a little bit different than what we’ve been seeing. It’s going to show the same technologies you’ve been seeing for the past two days. The technology is shown how they can be used for interpretation of cultural features and cultural resources.

This project took place on St. John Island in the Virgin Islands. It was really, really a very tough project to do. Actually it was, trying to get to the site itself. I’d like to thank my partner and co-authors Laurie Collins and Margo Swadgen and Ken Wild.


Speaker 2:           If you just said something. I didn’t hear what it was

Speaker 1:           Aw, jeez.

Speaker 3:           Can’t blame anyone else.

Speaker 1:           Let’s go back here. Hopefully go back. It was a collaborative effort between USF and the Southeast Archeological Center in Tallahassee and the Virgin Islands National Park. The idea was to document some imperiled petroglyphs on the island. We’ve gone through a lot of what the DHHC is at the library. We just use a lot of different techniques. We bridge between the sciences at the school and we also deal with the public and the private sector as well as national and international academic institutions.

So, what we wanted to do was to bring together multiple 3-D digital technologies, spatial technologies to document these petroglyphs. So, the multiple technologies we were able to bring together the multiple data sets and the data sets were used to digitally preserve the resources and to assist the National Park Service in the management and monitoring. Additionally, we wanted to enhance the visitor experience by using this data to bring the features to them because this is a very difficult site to get to. It’s physically demanding to get in and out of this site, so a lot of people can’t make it there. So, this was a large portion of our project was to be able to enhance the visitor experience and also we wanted to work at research and analysis, which is going to be focus of what I’m going to talk about today.

The petroglyphs are really rock art. The surface of the stone has been modified through its sizing or its scribing, or whatever different types of images left on the rock. It’s found around the world. Rock art and petroglyphs are found around the world, usually in prehistoric cultures and that do not have writing systems. So, it was symbols and icons and so forth. It’s also one of the most fragile cultural resource that we have, and they also provide valuable clues to our understanding of prehistoric art and the people that made the art.

Unfortunately, as I said, it’s very endangered, and we’ll look at the different ways. They’re anthropogenic as well as natural threats to these. We have such things as looting in the anthropogenic side. We have vandalism, and then we have the politically correct term, which is referred to as visitation pressures, but I actually prefer to use Ron White’s phrase to describe this, “You can’t fix stupid.” So, that’s what we have to overcome. And we also have natural features here, hopefully. Here at the bottom you have tectonic acid rain, volcanism in some cases, and so forth.

And many of the … I’m stuck. Okay. So, a lot of these same types of threats and damages being done at the site of the Reef Bay site itself, we’ve got tourists who are visiting the site. And because it is so remote, it’s very difficult for the park services to monitor it and to watch it at all times. We have all kinds of things. I have no idea what’s going on in that last slide over there, but somebody’s enjoying the site quite a bit.

The petroglyphs are a sign to the Taino people whose habitation sites are found along the northern part of the island of Saint John. You got Trunk Bay, Cinnamon Bay, and Congo Cay. Almost nothing as far as residential sites or anything is found on the south, but you have the Reef Bay, which cuts right down through the center of the island, and you see the site itself and Reef Bay down at the bottom.

So, the evidence that’s been uncovered on the north shore. Ron Wild, one of the co-authors here, has done excavations across the north shore and has found these different types of artifacts. Clay stone artifacts that have a very, very definite correlation to the images in the petroglyphs that are found nearer the center of the island.

Recent studies have shown that, to understand these petroglyphs, what they mean and so forth, you need to study the larger environment. So, you need to look at the landscape and the contextual settings that we find around the petroglyphs so that you can better understand them. This was a key element in our survey. We found that, by linking petroglyphs from other sites and identifying how they’re used at other sites across the Caribbean and the Lesser Antilles and Greater Antilles, that we can get a better understanding of what these petroglyphs mean. They were symbols that represented social, political, and ideological elements, and they were markers for sacred or ritual spaces. Around 1000 BC, societal groups began to move out of the Orinoco River basin up to the islands of Trinidad and Tobago. From there, they started to follow the line of the Lesser Antilles and then from there into the Greater Antilles. And so, over a period of about 1500 to 2000 years, the people of the Caribbean became known as the Taino, who were the descendants of the original people coming out of the Orinoco River valley.

One of the big parts of the ideology of the Taino is ancestor veneration, and it was represented by nocturnal flying creatures, primarily bats. They were considered to be messengers of the dead. So, the ideological beliefs were not only interpreted or expressed through artifacts and artwork, but also across the landscape. The landscape held sacred and ritual meaning. The ancestors’ surrogates, the bat, appeared in caves and grottos but always near water, and these are where rituals were performed. The rituals were intended to facilitate the communication to the ancestors, which was often accomplished through a psychotropic drug-induced trances. One of the most prominent sources of this was cohoba, which was produced from the seeds of the cohobana tree. The seeds, they’re ground on a metate or mortar and pestle, and then on the bottom two, on the right, are the inhalers. You can see they’re split, the tube for each nostril into the ground powder, and get sort of a stunned look on you, and we’re going to come back to this fellow right here a little bit later. He fits into the story.

So, that’s pretty much the background on the Taino and the cultural aspects. So, we’ll look at how we use the technology to further advance our understanding. Here you have some airborne LIDAR imagery that offers observation of the landscape, not only of the valley but of the entire island. We were able to get the digital elevation models out of it. We also used our GPS data to allow locations to be placed into the real world. You can see the metadata is there for all our images. So, you see the different areas where we took GPS photographs of the different elements? You can choose one of those and you click on it and you get the complete metadata list as well as a better-resolution image of the piece you’re interested in.

So, as I said, the petroglyph site is remote from the routine or the everyday or the mundane activities of these people. So, it would suggest that selection of the location of these petroglyphs was not just a random act. It was intentionally done. These pieces were carved on large stone outcrops that were really secluded in an area of the valley and distant from either coast. The setting at Reef Bay is really quite striking. The valley is shrouded in a very lush, tropical vegetation. But at the petroglyph site, there’s a natural opening that is created by these stone outcrops. There’s a forty-foot waterfall in the back, which is the northern boundary of the site. It flows into a shallow pool that drains through a spillway into a little larger pool, which is the center of the attraction, as we’ll see. And this is a spring-fed pool as well as receiving water from the waterfall. In dry season, as you see here, the waterfall has dried up. But the pool maintains a pretty consistent level, and that’s because of this drain right here, which was intentionally carved to keep a consistent level of the pool.

So, we took the 3-D scan data and, because it is 3-D, we were able to slice it and we can see a north/south profile here. And we can start to identify and measure all of the different elements. We see where the waterfall is. We see that it spills into pool one and, through the spillway, into pool two, which is literally surrounded by the petroglyphs, down into pool three, and from pool three down into Reef Bay about a kilometer, a kilometer and a half away.

So, this is a … Whoops, excuse me. Is this going to work? Probably not. Nope, my video’s not going to work here. So anyway, the 3-D video from this point cloud was able to show us and really immerse us into the site to give you an idea of how this was almost a small theater opening with the waterfall, with the central pool with the petroglyphs around it and so forth. And it was really totally different than any other place on the island.

So, here we see the waterfall into pool two and this area right here you can make out some petroglyphs. This whole area here is covered in petroglyphs as well as some over here. So, as you’re sitting on the south side of the pool looking to the north, you can see the whole panorama of glyphs.

And with the pool level being at a constant level, you can see that the carvings are mirrored into the surface of the water, which is a perfect example of the duality that’s part of the ideology of the Taino. Life and death, natural and supernatural worlds, and so forth. So, this is pretty much consistently there because of the water level of the pond.

Now, there are a number of natural features at the site besides the petroglyphs that add to the story. Every night at dusk, a number of bats fly in across the site, skimming across the water. And the bats were symbols of the dead, so that the ancestors are at this place, and the natural activity suggests that this was a place where the ancestors gathered. Another feature that occurs here is a very deep mortar-like recess that has been ground into the stone. Ken Wild is sitting here. It’s actually easier to straddle that rock, so that that mortar is sitting directly in front of you. So, you can just imagine this guy sitting in exactly in that position. And from that position, you’re looking directly at that whole panorama of petroglyphs. And the depth of this mortar sort of indicates how the time depth that this site has been used.

There’s another petroglyph that has been found recently. It’s really unique to the Reef Bay site. It was undocumented previously, and it’s unique because, when you’re sitting at that mortar, and you’re looking out across the petroglyphs, this one is directly behind you on a vertical rock outcrop. So, it’s singular. There’s no other petroglyphs associated with it, nothing near it at all, which is also unusual at this site. And it also may represent the earliest carving at the site. Most of the petroglyphs that have been documented are thought to have been carved somewhere between 1000 and 1500, some have even gone back to 700 AD. However, this site … Excuse me. … This particular petroglyph is a wrapped or a swaddled body petroglyph and it’s found around the Caribbean, and it was introduced, and they’re other places in the Caribbean about 350 AD. Going back to the Orinoco River valley, we find it on ceramics at 100 BC. So, this is much earlier. So, it’s quite possible that this was the first petroglyph carved here and the first time it’s been used. It really gives us some greater time depth than we had originally thought.

Unfortunately, my videos don’t seem to be playing, but I had a RTI of this glyph, and you would be able to see it with the different angles of light.

Speaker 3:           You’re sure you can’t click? There’s no way to make it play?

Speaker 1:           I’m not seeing one. No.

Speaker 3:           No?

Speaker 1:           Go back. Here.

Speaker 3:           Right here. See that little thing?

Speaker 1:           Is it playing?

Speaker 4:           It should. It’s going.

Speaker 1:           Okay. Thank you.

Speaker 3:           You’re welcome.

Speaker 1:           See, that’s why I’m the field guide and she’s the technology person. So, you start to see you can look at these in different ways. You can change the angle of the light. You can change the settings so you can bring out detail, and you can take a whole different series of these images and start putting them together to get you the whole overall picture.

We also noticed between the photographic data and the scan data that we were having images that were carved over the top of other images. So, you can see this appears to be an original cross with the other cross being engraved or incised over the top of it. Now, this is not a Christian cross. It was done long before then, that Christianity came to the new world. It is associated primarily with the cardinal directions, and these crosses point, the top of them point directly north. So, that reinforces the thought of that as well.

So, when we start putting all this together we’re seeing that we have possibly up to 1500 years of cultural continuity going on at this site. Prior to this project, these were the major benchmark references. It was put together in 1995 by Dubelaar. He took his images from site visits as well a previous depictions and descriptions of the site and of the glyphs. They’re not complete, for one thing. When we compare them to the new digital data, you can see that there’s quite a bit of difference between what was done, and believed to be there previously, and what is there now. We also find that they’re spatially not correct as relative to each other, and one of the major finds that we had is that there is a number of other images or glyphs that are here that haven’t been recognized before, because it’s very difficult to see it.

So, here we matched up a mosaic of photos from our project on the bottom along with the master drawing of the images by the pool and I tried to put the numbers in the same place so you can see what’s what. But what really stands out is when you start to look at these with the scan data images. We literally increased the number of images that are found on this rock by about 65 to 70 percent. So, the red letters indicate new sculptures that have been found, and are being interpreted.

We also found that there were additions to some of the drawings that had already been done, and the red outlines shows us some of the new portions that we have been able to add to the corpus. And then getting back to what is the called the lost glyph, this was a photograph. We don’t know when this was taken; this was what helped Ken Wild identify this glyph.

They were cleaning out one of the offices at the headquarters at the National Park Service, and there was a desk. Something was rattling around in one of the drawers and he picked it up and it was an exposed roll of film. He had no idea of where it came from or what, had it developed and this picture was on it. And he wasn’t sure where it came from, so he took a group of volunteers down to the site, gave them all that image. Actually, the image was larger than that, and he says, “Okay, so let’s all spread out and go out and find it.” And one woman was standing there and she went, “Oh, it’s right there.” And it was right behind him, but it was totally isolated from all of the rest of them.

So, that’s where this image came from. We don’t know exactly when it was taken, but it’s been chalked and so forth. And then there’s some of our TI images as a comparison. We can see it better today with the technology. And you can see also the damage and the deterioration that’s taken place. This is probably a 20 year-old, 25 year-old photograph. So, within 20 to 25 years, we’ve had a tremendous amount of damage to this particular piece. And a lot of it is tectonic activity on the island as well as flooding that comes through and the visitation aspects. So, we can see the damage here, too. Along the bottom, you can see the defoliation of the stone that’s happening. So, it’s important that we document this for preservation. Actually, here’s the drawing. You can see it’s significantly different than what’s really there on the rock, so we’re bringing this out.

So, we get into our conclusions. So what do we have? We have detailed, accurate imagery of the petroglyphs in multiple formats and at various scales. We have the surrounding contextual landscape. We have the broader terrain and the global position. We have spatial and geographic metadata for all of it, the digital comparative and analytical abilities that we now have with the data in the virtual preservation of the cultural resources, baseline data for monitoring going forward, and the ability to share this off the site and with others. So, you have engagement, interaction in the dissemination of the data. They allow us to have people who cannot physically go there to experience it, whether it be with AR, VR, or mixed reality.

The technologies are portable and they make this data accessible, and it can be done pretty quickly, and it’s very accurate, and it’s representative and it increases the global capacity for collaboration. And it allows us to engage and share, even in some cases in real time, with anyone around the world. On and off-site displays and interpretives, so people can actually see what’s there and maybe understand why these are important and why we have to respect them. And then, as Laurie had mentioned, you BYOD, bring your own device, your smartphones and tablets. You can augment the detail in the sculptures themselves and what they mean.

So, that about wraps it up for me. So, thank you very much.





The Taino people, who were indigenous to the Caribbean region, carved a series of prehistoric petroglyphs on stone outcrops located in a remote portion of the Reef Bay Valley in the Virgin Islands National Park on the Island of St. John. The pre-Hispanic residents of St. John materialized their ideological expressions in petroglyphs and other types of imagery that were further strengthened through their locational or landscape context. The ideological beliefs of the islands’ inhabitants were expressed not only by the specific designs or motifs portrayed, but also by the terrains and environments in which they were produced or contained. Therefore, the landscapes in which rock art were located appear to have been as significant to the creators as the images themselves.

Recently, the University of South Florida Libraries’ Digital Heritage and Humanities Collections (DHHC), working in conjunction with the National Park Service’s (NPS) Southeast Archeological Center (SEAC) and the Virgin Islands National Park (VIIS), recorded the petroglyphs and the surrounding landscape using a suite of high definition digital and 3D imaging techniques. The acquired datasets were processed and purposed for multiple applications and visualization techniques. The project not only generated a more detailed, accurate, and complete record of the carvings for virtual preservation, but the digitally conserved resources were prepared to assist the National Park Service in the management, maintenance, and monitoring of the cultural assets. Additionally, the results were used in the development of interpretive off-site displays and interactive virtualizations that would enhance the visitor experience and are also being used for educational and public outreach programs.

The data also allowed scientific research and analysis, which is the focus of this paper. The project produced several new findings that included the detection of a number of previously undocumented glyphs as well as substantial additional information that informed on the ideological practices of the island’s pre-Hispanic residents. The natural setting of the petroglyph site is striking, and it is unlike anywhere else on the island. Its physical presence combined with its insolated location would have been key factors in its selection as a sacred ceremonial site. Jean Clottes (2008:1) states that “[t]he preservation of rock art, both as a cultural heritage and as an archaeological resource, is crucial. In addition to preserving the art, we must work to preserve the associated natural and cultural environments.” The petroglyphs and their surrounding context were digitally recorded using a series of progressive and conventional two and three-dimensional digital spatial technologies and virtualization techniques. Data acquisition included terrestrial laser scanning, various high-resolution photographic and photogrammetric techniques, and global positioning system data and images. Beyond generating a more detailed, accurate, and complete record of the carvings, the surrounding landscape that comprises the cultural environment or context of was also digitally captured. The collected spatial and imagery data demonstrated support for a connection between the carved symbols, the natural landscape, and the human pre-Columbian visitor to the site. Overall. the evidence supports the theory that the site was situated within a sacred landscape and was used repeatedly as a place of rituals for more than a millennium.

Clottes, Jean
2008 Rock Art: An Endangered Heritage Worldwide. Journal of Anthropological Research 64(1):1-18.

Speaker Bios
Dr. Travis Doering is an Assistant Research Professor and co-Director of the University of South Florida (USF) Library’s Digital Heritage and Humanities Collections. He is affiliated faculty in the USF School of Geosciences and courtesy professor in the Department of Anthropology. He has directed research projects across the United States, Mexico, and Guatemala, and has conducted 3D surveys at European World Heritage sites in Armenia, France, and Spain. His interests span numerous digital technologies including terrestrial laser scanning and photogrammetry and imaging. His specializations include rock art and stone monument digitization and iconographic analysis, architectural documentation, and landscape analysis.

Dr. Lori Collins is the co-Director of the University of South Florida (USF) Library’s Digital Heritage and Humanities Collections, and is a Research Associate Professor in the USF School of Geosciences. She has led a number of research projects in National Parks, and specializes in the application of LiDAR and terrestrial laser scanning and imaging for heritage documentation. She teaches courses on technologies for heritage preservation, Global Positioning Systems, 3D printing, and museum visualizations. Areas of primary interest are in landscape preservation and management, iconographic and rock art documentation, and LiDAR and terrestrial laser scanning applications for heritage.

National Center for Preservation Technology and Training
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