Reengineering the Past
UMaine students use digital modeling to virtually rebuild the
18th-century plantation ruins
History in the
Piracy and an economy based on slavery mark the history of the U.S.
Virgin Islands, located at the shoulder of the West Indies just east
of Puerto Rico. Named by Christopher Columbus, the islands had been
under Spanish, French and Danish influence before being purchased by
the United States from Denmark in 1917 for $25 million. Today, the
68 islands have U.S. territorial status. Residents are U.S. citizens
and elect a non-voting representative to Congress, but they cannot
vote for president.
University of Maine art major Amy Crosby talks about her engineering
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It sounds like the perfect spring
break. Last March, eight University of Maine students joined two
engineering faculty members for a trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands. The
students camped on tent platforms under warm skies, a far cry from the
snow and cold back home. Each morning, they hiked along the beach,
soaking up the tropical sunshine and taking in the sights.
At least that's the way it might have looked from afar. In truth, these
students spent much of their time grubbing out vines, shrubs and trees
from the ruins of old buildings.
They had to keep an eye out for scorpions and tarantulas. And in
addition to their swimsuits and beach towels, they brought along the
tools of academic research — laptop computers, global positioning system
(GPS) receivers and surveying instruments.
The purpose of their trip was to apply the latest information
technologies to a thorny problem in archaeology: how to preserve history
in the face of deteriorating physical evidence. The Virgin Islands
National Park on St. John, it turns out, is an ideal place — and one
with a remarkable history — to apply computer-aided design (CAD) and
geographic information system (GIS) software to the needs of historical
Scratch the surface of this tropical paradise and you'll find a history
of colonial shipping and piracy, slave labor to work the sugarcane
fields and European power struggles.
On St. John, the third largest of the 68 islands within the U.S.
territory, evidence of those times is still visible in the remains of
more than 500 buildings, most within the national park.
Many of these buildings date from the 18th century, and some go back to
the 1680s, when Spain, Britain, France and Holland vied for economic and
military power in the region. The stone structures include well houses,
sugarcane mills, storehouses, slave huts, and large homes for plantation
managers and owners. Preserving those cultural resources is part of the
park's mission, but physical renovation is costly, and many buildings
are falling prey to time and the stranglehold of vines and trees.
"These buildings are being destroyed to the point that in a few years,
there won't be anything left but piles of stones," says University of
Maine engineer Connie Holden. "They can't begin to stabilize what they
have." And as buildings fall to ruin, historical clues can be lost
Holden is an instructor in the Department of Spatial Information Science
and Engineering. She and Karen Horton, associate professor of mechanical
engineering technology, led the eight UMaine undergraduates to St. John
to document the precise location, landscape features and structural
details of an 18th-century sugar plantation.
"We'll probably never have the money to rebuild them," says Ken Wild,
National Park Service archaeologist who initiated the project with
Horton. Wild has worked in national parks throughout the southeastern
U.S. and first came to St. John in 1984.
Students focused much of
their efforts on this well house made of stone, brick and coral,
located on the Leinster Bay sugar plantation that is part of the
more than 14,500-acre national park on St. John. In addition to the
cane fields, the 18th-century plantation included the
windmill-powered well, a horse-driven sugar cane mill, slave huts
and a large hilltop house for the owners. At the well house,
students cleared vegetation, measured walls, took photographs and
downloaded data into a laptop computer to generate digital designs
of the building. Their renderings preserve details about the
structure for future historical analysis and restoration. Leinster
plantation, built in 1721, operated for a century before the
Caribbean sugar industry collapsed.
Photo by Amy Crosby
"Some of the buildings have fallen down
since I've been here. The technology that Karen and Connie are using
will give us a three-dimensional (computer) model that allows us to
visualize how these structures were built. Even if one does fall down,
you'll still be able to walk through it (on the computer)."
The technology will enable future park visitors to see ruins that, by
then, may have deteriorated completely. Moreover, archaeologists and
historians will have a thorough and precise record to use for studies of
the island's history and culture. And if reconstruction money should
become available, the 3-D models can be used to visualize how to
rebuild, says Wild.
"Engineers use this technology to design new buildings. Why not use it
in reverse to bring these buildings back?" he says.
A photograph provides just one perspective, says Holden. "A 3-D model
gives you everything. We're including in the database things like
specific measurements, thickness of the walls, places where an arch is
holding the building up, how that arch was constructed. These details do
not exist in a photograph."
GIS, says Holden, allows historians and archaeologists to create maps
that show the relationships among the landscape and building features.
For example, understanding how sugar plantations varied with respect to
elevation, soils, proximity to the sea and structures can help
historians recreate events such as the slave revolt that occurred in
Also important for historians is information about how data were
collected. By knowing how accurate the data are, they can evaluate
interpretations of the past as new facts come to light.
"The interest in the enslaved people, from their perspective, is an
important aspect of history," says Horton. "Historians would be thrilled
to have the ability to visualize where a slave revolt physically began.
What are the differences in each of the plantations? Which of the
plantations had places where people could be on higher ground, for
example? What was the physical relationship between where the slaves
were at the time that the revolt started compared to where the people
who were enslaving them were located?
"(The GIS) allows an historical analysis. The information for that
analysis isn't currently tied together in any way. There's a huge
historical record on this (St. John sugar plantations), but the records
Students participating in the trip last spring came with backgrounds in
engineering, art and even theater. They focused their attention on the
old Leinster Bay sugar plantation, which operated with slaves from
1721–1867. During the day, the students cleared trees and other
vegetation, took photographs and measurements, and established survey
They collected GPS data for the site, although the island's steep
topography sometimes blocked their access to the satellites on which the
system is based.
The engineering students used MicroStation, CAD software that generated
precise 3-D images of the ruins. Once on St. John, they downloaded their
photographs and measurements to the CAD program, refining the data and
photographic images as they worked. Their goal was to take back all the
raw data needed to produce an accurate rendering of one of the buildings
and to integrate the rendering into a full GIS package of the site.
Upon returning to Orono, the students worked with Horton and Holden to
produce a report for the National Park Service. Eventually, the GIS and
CAD renderings will be posted online for public use.
Support for the project came from University of Maine faculty research
funds, the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park and the National
by Nick Houtman
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.