Saving History in the Digital Age

By Dave Scheidecker, THPO Research Coordinator

It all started with a lightning strike. One random act of nature on the island of Egmont Key started a chain reaction… and a wildfire. That wildfire cleared a large area of the island of dense overgrowth, revealing ground and ruins that hadn’t been seen in decades. This gave the archaeologists of the Tribal Historic Preservation Office a chance to survey the island where members of the Seminole Tribe had been held prisoner 160 years before. The survey led to a renewed interest in the Seminole History of the island that is now under threat, being washed away by erosion and climate change. These efforts led to new collaboration with the University of South Florida 3D Lab, a project to digitally preserve the Island before it is gone!

image 1
The USF 3D Field School team plan their scanning strategy for the day.

In order to record the Island, we first had to receive permission from the state rangers and the park service. Then the USF professors and students took the Egmont Key Ferry Service to the island, riding with other visitors while bringing with them supplies, including multiple FARO 3D scanners and even a quad-copter drone! The team set to work, arranging the scanners to get the best possible angles to record structures like the Egmont Lighthouse and Battery Charles Mellon. The drone flew overhead of the lighthouse, the cemetery, and the old helipad built where historians believe the prison that held Seminole captives had been located. All of this information was then brought back to the 3D lab and sewn together by the students into lifelike computer models.

Image 2
The students of the USF Field School arrange FARO laser scanners to get the best possible overlapping views of the Egmont Lighthouse.

We try to preserve the history so that it isn’t lost to the sands of time, and in this case with the sands of the eroding shore. This has been done by recording and sharing the stories of what has happened, and what has gone before. But historians don’t need to be limited to historic methods, and new technologies give us incredible new ways to share these stories. When this projects is complete, people will be able to visit Egmont Key on their computers and even their phones. They’ll be able to walk through the lands like the Seminole ancestors did, and experience their stories in new ways. Long after the island may be gone, the story will be preserved online for the generations to come.

Image 3
The combined scans come together in the lab to replicate the buildings on Egmont Key. When finished, this will be a full color virtual explorable model!
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