Tall Tripod Photography at Mesa Verde

Mesa Verde, a US National Park known by its Spanish name meaning 'green table', comprises more than 4,000 archaeological sites built by the Ancestral Pueblo people.  The park contains more than 600 cliff dwellings, the best-preserved structures of their type in the United States.  Mesa Verde Park Superintendent Larry Wiese notes that, of the 600 cliff dwellings, only 135 have received any archaeological documentation in the 100 years since the park's founding.

INSIGHT was invited to join a case study pilot project at Spruce Tree House by CyArk, a nonprofit project of the Kacyra Family Foundation (a 501c3 charitable trust) with the mission of preserving World Heritage Sites through collecting, archiving and providing open access to data created by laser scanning, digital modeling, and other state-of-the-art technologies.

INSIGHT worked with the National Parks Service archaeologists at Mesa Verde on a number of topics:

  • Tall Tripod Photography
  • Linear Orthographic Images from Scan Data
  • Obtaining Accurate Euclidean Distances from 2D Panormas
  • High Dynamic Range Photography at Spruce Tree House
  • 3D recording using the off-the-shelf Konica-Minolta VI-910 laser scanner

Tall Tripod Photography at Mesa Verde

In this article, we will explore only the first of the topics on the above list.  'Tall Tripod Photography' is our name for a category of lightweight systems we've built over the years to obtain aerial viewpoints from the ground.  INSIGHT's tall tripods are usually closer to monopods in form:  tall, rigid, and easy collapsible (as shown in the image below, right).  The virtue of the approach is its portability, and (relative) stability compared with kite aerial photography (KAP) or small helicopter photography, which INSIGHT has also used over time.

The stability of the platform improves the photography by enabling longer exposures.  Tall tripods also allow for enough weight to support a heavy digital camera or 3D scanner.  Other groups, notably the INSIGHT partner non-profit organization XRez, has designed their own tall tripod systems with excellent results.

The above image (left) show a detail of Area A at Spruce Tree House.  Since the floor is missing in this area, it's impossible to stand where the picture was taken.  At right, archaeologists look on with INSIGHT Director Kevin Cain (far right).  The square tube aluminum tripod stays rigid in this design, while a polymer shuttle moves up the post carrying a digital camera.  The archaeologist taking the picture at left, above, used a laptop to remotely frame the image before making the exposure.  True to its portable nature, the tripod was assembled on site after being brought down the winding path to Spruce Tree House as a bundle of 5 foot sections carried by an agreeable pack mule.

Above, the view from the visitor's path, looking towards Kiva C.  The camera is about 25' above ground level here.  (See this example of even taller tripod photography at the Ramesseum in Upper Egypt.)

Upper level floors in Area A, taken less than a meter below the overhanging rock shelf.  The original flooring, thought to be over 600 years old, is of special interest in this photograph.  The exceptional fragility of the monument makes it difficult to inspect, but makes the inspections vital.  Using a tall tripod is relatively simple, non-invasive solution for monitoring the condition of sites at risk.


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News & Events

The Smithsonian Museum's work in 3D Digitization. INSIGHT Board member Kelly Roberson brought the Smithsonian's recent 3D work to our attention, including publicly accessible data for 3D printing similar to INSIGHT's Maya Skies Archive (www.mayaskies.net).  To read more about the Smithsonian's plans, please see this news story: http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/smithsonian-museum-artifacts-can-now-be-3d-printed-at-home-1.2424898


Current Questions in Authenticity. This day-long symposium at UC Berkeley will be held February 3, 2012, as is open to the public.  Several people on the INSIGHT team will be participating.  The event is free and open to the public; RSVP to: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


INSIGHT's Kevin Cain is serving on the International Scientific Committee for VAST 2011. The International Symposium of Virtual Reality, Archaeology and Culture Heritage (VAST) conference will be held October 18-21, 2011, in Prato, Tuscany, Italy.  Kevin previously co-chaired VAST 2004, gave the keynote for VAST 2003 and has presented papers in other years.

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