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common ground

Reaching the Public
Spring 1998, vol. 3(1)

Online Archive

*  Imagining Lowry: A Puebloan Village Rises in Cyberspace

(photo) Students reconstruct a 1000 year old Mississippian house.

"I am simply astounded that there is virtually no scholarly literature which addresses the role of North American archeology in the contemporary world. "

Brian Fagan

by Joseph Flanagan

The wonderment of the circuitry in your hard drive is testament to how far removed we are from our earlier incarnation as people who depended on the seasons, animal habits, the flow of water, and the proclivities of plant life. The technology of everyday living is electronic now, but back then, the most esteemed engineers were those who could divine what the natural world could contribute to humankind.

Yet, sometimes the futuristic landscape moves us closer, not farther from, the past. People in the Past, a CD-ROM produced by the Bureau of Land Management's Anasazi Heritage Center and the Southwest Natural and Cultural Heritage Association, is a convergence of temporal extremes across cyberspace. Resonant of childhood fantasies of time travel, the interactive multimedia program places you before Lowry Ruin in southwest Colorado, a National Historic Landmark managed by the BLM. From there, you are on your own to discover the 800-year-old pueblo. People in the Past brings all the tools of the technology to bear in bringing Lowry Ruin and its people to life: sound, animation, QuickTime/video, stills, and 3D imaging.

The conscientious presentation of the archeological and Native American perspectives is the first thing you encounter on your path to the ruin—one of many walkways to explore. On a wooden welcoming sign are the engraved faces of an archeologist and a Native American woman. Click either and hear them talk about the site as a focus of study or as a center of cultural identity, both with a reverence evident throughout the program.

The CD has the visitor assume the role of a new research assistant. You can take part in excavations, measure and record artifacts, learn about curation, examine specimens with a microscope—in general, explore any aspect of the discipline. Or you can wander at will, peeking into rooms and kivas or walking down the pathways that open before you in a twisting course through the brush. One can recognize how powerfully the creators of the program wanted to place people in the Southwest. The animation captures a certain aspect of Southwestern sunlight, with the steady chatter of birds and the occasional distant screech of a hawk lending to an overall effect of solitude.

LouAnn Jacobson, director of the Anasazi Heritage Center, says that People in the Past came about by happenstance when two people approached the museum in 1993 with an idea of doing something about archeology on the computer. Theresa Breznau and Clay Hamilton were illustrators-animators-producers with an unlikely address in the tiny rural town of Bluff, Utah. Both had extensive experience with computer graphics, and Hamilton had won a regional Emmy, a Silver Reel Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, and other honors.

Over the following year, museum staff met with the designers to work out the goals and content. They agreed that the state of interpretation at the time—obsolescent technology and exhibits dominated by archeological interpretations (with Native American views conspicuously absent)—called for something new.

Jacobson's description of People in the Past's objectives echoes the creed of the preservation establishment nationwide, though with a Southwestern bent. There are tens of thousands of Puebloan sites in the Four Corners region, she says, many on private land that can't be protected. And those on public land don't get the protection they need, the place is simply too vast. But she makes the point that where technology, anthropology, and ancient tradition come together, a new front is opened in the campaign to reach the public. If people can see a pueblo live before them on screen, they are more likely to see it as far greater in the sum of its parts than a desert oddity or a souvenir trove.

The CD is intended for all ages, but is particularly pitched to elementary and middle school students, though it is both accessible and popular on both sides of that age range, Jacobson says. In developing the CD, Native American advisors from the San Juan, Santa Clara, and Hopi Pueblos lent insight into their culture and personal connections to the past. Archeologists from BLM and the private Crow Canyon Archaeological Center contributed their expertise. The Southwest Natural and Cultural Heritage Association, a non-profit organization that works with federal agencies to foster preservation, joined the project as well.

The BLM and SNCHA next tapped what Jacobson describes as "a remarkable resource." Colorado allows gambling in three historic mountain towns about 50 miles west of Denver. Regular busloads of gamblers from the city have made it a success, and 28 percent of the gambling tax revenues go to the Colorado Historical Society. Over $9 million are distributed every year to historic preservation projects throughout the state.

Over the course of its development, the People in the Past project was awarded two preservation grants from the State Historical Fund totaling almost $135,000. SNCHA also contributed funds and handled financing, while the Heritage Center oversaw the project, compiled records and photos of Lowry, and purchased software and other equipment. The Native American advisers and archeologists Melissa Churchill and Mark Varien of Crow Canyon were interviewed for video segments. In March 1996, a three-minute prototype was produced to demonstrate to the Colorado State Historical Society what kind of technology was available and to serve as a launching point for a longer and more comprehensive program.

Making the site live is exactly, it seems, what everyone had in mind. The human figures are fashioned after models that the designers bought and then re-touched digitally, producing 24 individual characters. Computer-animated landscapes are difficult to render convincingly, but software made specifically for the purpose—Questar's World Construction Set—got the results the artists wanted.

The archeologist's tent showcases what the software can do. The visitor can operate a laptop, a VCR, a CD player, and more. Inserting a slide into the microscope and seeing the grinding marks on a mano shows the visitor archeology's ability to inform us about the people of the past.

At certain points in the journey, you can visit the pueblo ca. AD 1125, when it was a busy, thriving place, full of Native Americans going about the tasks of daily life. A child's voice narrates these segments, giving descriptions of how different rooms are used, how food is gathered, how idle time is passed. The narration is yet more evidence of the program's emphasis on people, not only in the child's words, but also in the constant murmur of voices one can hear in the background.

In all, producing People in the Past cost $380,600. About an additional $8,000 will be spent on the writing, design, and printing of a companion teacher activity guide. The CD is copyrighted by SNCHA, which will pay for its production. The first run will be 1,000 CDs and 500 guides. SNCHA will market the CD through museum shops, magazines, and cooperating associations. The association operates a number of shops and information centers itself where it will sell the CD. Proceeds will fund other SNCHA projects.

The BLM has established a permanent version of People in the Past on a Macintosh computer at the Anasazi Heritage Center. The museum is visited by between 5,000 and 6,000 schoolchildren as well as 35,000 adults each year. People in the Past is both Macintosh and IBM compatible, and can be purchased for $24.95 ($39.95 with the activity guide) by contacting the Southwest Natural and Cultural Heritage Association, 27501 Highway 184, Dolores, CO 81323, (970) 882-4811.

For more information, contact LouAnn Jacobson, Anasazi Heritage Center, 27501 Highway 184, Dolores, CO 81323, (970) 882-4811, fax (970) 882-7035, e-mail ljacobson@co.blm.gov.