Transy professor gets grant to search for 'lost city' in Honduras

rclemons@herald-leader.comJuly 5, 2011 

A Lexington archaeologist has received a grant from the National Geographic Society to advance his search for a "lost city" in Honduras.

Christopher Begley, an associate professor of anthropology at Transylvania University and director of the Exploration Foundation, will use the National Geographic/Waitt Foundation research grant and 3-D technology to examine ancient artifacts in the Honduran rainforest, near the Mosquito Coast. The area is the rumored location of a Lost White City from ancient times.

Administered by National Geographic Mission Programs, the NGS/Waitt program provides grants between $5,000 and $15,000 for exploratory research.

Begley and a team including photographer and documentary filmmaker Josh Howard and University of Kentucky engineering professor Larry Hassebrook will leave for Honduras next week to begin filming a documentary titled The Lost City of the Mosquito Coast: A Modern Struggle for the Past.

"What's interesting is what it says about the present," Begley said of the lost-city legends. "This is so pervasive and keeps existing as a legend."

In addition to making discoveries about the past, Begley and his team will implement a new 3-D technology that can be used by archaeologists and experts in other fields.

Hassebrook, an active member of the Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments at UK, has been working on a structured-light illumination 3-D scanner that allows scientists to collect 3-D data in remote areas.

This young technology decouples data collection from a computer, Hassebrook said, allowing one to enter a jungle or other remote area with just a camera. The camera gathers data that can be processed later as a 3-D image.

Hassebrook's technology will let the team photograph ancient rock carvings and petroglyphs during expeditions without having to tow much equipment through the rainforest.

"You don't have to bring anything back besides 3-D scans," Hassebrook said. Said Begley: "You can document, manipulate and measure without any impact besides light."

They both said the technology could be helpful for scientific, recreation and forensic purposes.

"There's a bunch of 3-D systems," Begley said, but "there's nothing like he developed.

"All of the existing 3-D systems that could have helped us capture these 3-D images won't work in these situations."

Begley said that at first, the 3-D scans "seemed like a nifty image, and that's clearly not the extent of it."

It helps to "see if you can extrapolate what might have been there before."

At a news conference Thursday, Howard screened a 40-second trailer for the documentary, and both professors talked about their work in relation to the Honduras project.

"National Geographic was thrilled that we've teamed up together," said Howard, a graduate of Georgetown College who recently finished a documentary about mountaintop-removal mining. He also has been named a National Geographic Young Explorer.

The documentary will be produced by The Exploration Foundation, an organization Begley started about five years ago that focuses on adventure tourism with a scientific and educational twist.

The Lost City project will feature community input, as Begley brought in local artist Theo Edmonds to lead a brainstorming exercise, challenging area artists to construct their own idea of a "Lost City."

Begley emphasizes the project's connection between past and present, the role of the legend in modern culture and the ability to find out more about ancient people.

"Any impact you have is a big deal," Begley said. "You can't re-create any of those ruins."

The team will spend the next year working in Honduras and the United States to make the documentary and conduct more archaeological research involving ancient ruins.

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