Native American Virtual Reality Archaeology:
An Architect's Perspective

This paper was published as a chapter of the book, VIRTUAL REALITY IN ARCHAEOLOGY, Edited by Juan A. Barcelo, Spring, 2000, ArcheoPress, Oxford (British Archaeological Reports, International Series #843).

By Dennis R. Holloway, Architect
Rio Rancho, New Mexico, USA

Pre-Columbian Native American architecture of the Southwest U.S., specifically that of the ancestral Puebloans (formerly called "Anasazi"), has always fascinated me. When my architecture practice brought me to work in New Mexico in 1990, I was amazed to find the extent of the presence of this native architecture in the high desert landscape. Ceramics, lithics, and mounds of collapsed village and compound walls can be seen on terraces wherever there is nearby flowing water and bottom land. While most visible traces of pre-historic native architecture have been destroyed in the rest of the U.S. , due primarily to Eurocentric agricultural practices and urbanization, the American Southwest still displays an extraordinarily large number of sites, many of which have yet to be studied in depth by archaeologists.

My own architectural education and training had not fully prepared me for what I would re-discover in these ancient sites. As a student, history of architecture was one of my favorite subjects, but the architecture of Pre-Columbian America was only briefly touched upon by the professors. The study of European temples, cathedrals and "modernism" was the main emphasis. What I found during my casual explorations of the New Mexico landscape was a profoundly unique kind of vernacular architecture and a class of "great" architecture distinct from those in all other parts of the world. As I shared my enthusiasm for rediscovering this architecture with my New Mexican Hispano, Anglo, and Pueblo Indian friends, I was surprised to find that most of them did not know much about these ancient places. What most surprised me, was the fact that Pueblo Indians, who worship their ancestors who built these places, had (seemingly) forgotten about them. A Pueblo Indian friend told me he had never visited the Great House ruins of Chaco Canyon nor the Cliff Dwelling ruins of Mesa Verde, which are among the most touristed places in the Southwest.
In architecture and anthropology libraries and collections there is a great quantity of accumulated archaeological data and ruins photography on this architecture, but very little information on theoretical visual reconstructions. Classical perspective or axonometric drawing in American archaeology seems to be a forgotten or yet-to-be-discovered art. Many sites have never been imaged or modeled in any way, other than measured plans, elevations, and cross-sections. Serious reconstruction pictures, perspective views or study models are rare. American archaeology seems to have overlooked the importance of architecture, in favor of other artifacts such as pottery and lithics. This has severely limited understanding of this important world architecture. Surely architecture offers us an equally important, if not more important, axis to the anthropology of pre-historic America.

In spare time I began to study the collections of archaeological data on the ancestral Puebloan sites. Each site I studied was an architectural gem, which, because I am an architect, I could clearly imagine in my mind's eye; but while I could imagine these places inside and out, there was no communicable image. I was struck with the diversity of space planning and architectonic appearances of the various sites. There is a visual continuum in the various contemporaneous regional idioms of architecture of the ancestral Puebloans--in terms of construction materials, and geometrical and structural systems. Yet the conceptual design framework of each individual place is unique from all the rest in a ratio not unrelated to the ambient environmental variants.

I realized that something had to be done about the shortage of visual images of reconstructions of specific places. I wanted to show and share this beautifully unique and diverse indigenous architectural phenomenon with both the Native people and the American "newcomers". But to draw a classical static one, two, or three-point perspective or an axonometric view of each of the thousands of documented American sites, with the traditional pencils, ink, and paper could require the work of many people over a long period of time.

At about this time, I was beginning to learn to use new 3D CAD / Virtual Reality software on the Macintosh computer, introduced to me by my client and friend, artist Ronald Davis. I was astonished at how rapidly, clearly, and vibrantly a Virtual Reality model of a project design could be imaged on a computer and presented to the client. It was gratifying how positively my clients responded and how practice with this new technology brought in more referrals and commissions. The visual communication technology in the field of architecture is in revolution. One day it dawned upon me that with the advent of cybernetic Virtual Reality, rapid modeling of heretofore arcane Southwest archaeological information is possible. A person using a computer, now or in the future, could "virtually" walk into the pre-Columbian Native American architectural world. Thus I began a "hobby" of VR modeling of ancestral Puebloan places.

As a starting point, the research and writing of American archaeologist, Stephen H. Lekson, provided me with good information about ancestral Puebloan architecture. His Great Pueblo Architecture of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, contains plan drawings, story numbers and heights, construction details, and construction sequence chronologies of the Great Houses of the Canyon. By scanning Lekson's drawings into my Macintosh, I had enough scaled three-dimensional and temporal information to build VR models of Pueblo Bonito and Pueblo del Arroyo in animated construction sequences. I was astonished with the speed at wh
ich the computer allowed me to do this. The success of these early reconstruction encouraged me to continue my hobby.


Figure 1: "Ray tracing" is the most realistic way to visually represent a 3D object on a computer screen. It is more advanced than simple rendering in that the final image can have reflective, refractive, and texture qualities with shading and shadowing automatically calculated, given the source, color and intensity of light as well as the observer's viewpoint. Shown here is a reconstruction of the pre-Columbian Great House, "Pueblo Bonito", in Chaco Canyon National Historic Park, New Mexico, USA.

When I first exhibited printed still "ray-traced" color images of these VR models at the Bareiss Gallery in Taos, New Mexico, USA, in 1991, the reaction from local Hispanic Taoseños, Native Americans, and descendants of Chaco Canyon ancestral Puebloans was positive and encouraging. For the first time they could see something that they had only heard about. As well, they were initiated into some mysteries of the so-called "Chaco Phenomenon", known previously only by the archaeological community. One normally reticent Pueblo artist friend became ecstatic upon seeing for the first time in 3D the large number of kivas (round ceremonial chambers) of Pueblo Bonito, and began to expound his interpretation of what that meant.

When I put my VR ancestral Puebloan work on-line on my first web site, I was shocked at the world response. Currently the site is averaging about 60,000 hits per month, and I get voluminous e-mail from visitors worldwide. The gist of the feedback is that VR reconstruction of the past is vitally important. Subsequently, I continued this work to include, at this writing, about sixty models of "great" Southwest architecture.


Figure 2: Ray traced image of VR reconstruction model of the pre-Columbian Great House, "Chetro Ketl", Chaco Canyon National Historic Park, New Mexico, USA. With archaeological data supplied by Stephen H. Lekson, the model is constructed to show only what is known as a result of excavations.

Work on these VR models has been a profound personal education for me. Because the VR modeler becomes intimately acquainted with the archaeological data, the experience of building a VR model can be an intense one--perhaps the most intense and complex form of study possible. While building the VR model from the data, the modeler may begin to get intuitive flashes of how an architecture or place looked during its existence. Sometimes working late at night, I had a comforting sense that the original "architects" of these places were standing over my shoulder, teaching me while guiding my hand through the many mouse-clicks and key-strokes required for each model. In building these models I learned an entirely new idiom of world architecture and village planning, the environmental principles of which seem, in my opinion, more relevant to the American milieu, than the transplanted architectural and planning principles of the so-called "modern movement" of the Industrial Revolution. This experience has influenced my New Mexico architecture practice in the way I think about design and materials of construction, and I have been honored by several New Mexico Indian Tribes, who have commissioned me to design "culturally relevant" buildings as alternatives to main-stream architecture.

Virtual Reality models are dynamic processes--not static pictures as with previous Western presentation media. VR models allow us to put all of our contemporary knowledge and thought about an object into a user-interactive presentation or encounter. VR models may be modified with the passage of time or as new information becomes available. Thus, a VR model can be a repository for all new knowledge about the past, present, and theoretical future of an object. When I work on a VR model, as with my work in architecture, I try to be aware that my product is going to be experienced or revised by other people long after I am gone. Because VR models are likely to exist into the future, they may be refined in the future by others as new archaeological data becomes available. They should be constructed with that in mind--in a way that facilitates future corrections, expanded detailing or changes in scale. Processes like grouping elements, labeling and dating of all the parts, phases, and subcategorizes, and showing scale and orientation can facilitate the VR model's future enhancement. I think of the VR model as a complete known specification for a site that should be capable of accepting new information as it becomes available. Because VR is the daughter of the computer, like the computer, it must be future oriented--even while expanding knowledge of the past.


Figure 3: Screen capture of VIDI Presenter Pro (recently renamed 3D Joy) software; shown here in process of reconstruction is the Great House of Tyuonyi, pre-historic Rio Grande ancestral Puebloan site, Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico, USA. The working environment includes top view, front view, right view, interactive perspective view, tools and color palettes, and hierarchical groups window. [Note: I currently use Cinema4D™ for all modeling. See review of Holloway Cinema4D VR Archaeology.]

Useful information to acquire in preparing for construction of a VR architectural archeology model could includes measured or surveyed floor plans, sections, and elevations. This data should contain a graphical scale and a "true" north arrow that has been corrected from magnetic variance. Topographical data of the surrounding site or site context including proximity to water courses, aerial photographs and other site photos, adjacent structures or natural formations, and underground or other "hidden" data. Dating of the parts of the object/buildings/compound to be modeled is essential for construction-sequence or metamorphic modeling. Construction details for outer walls, inner walls, floors, and roofs, specified materials used for construction, and their color and texture can all be built into the VR model. Once this information has been acquired for a given site, the images can be scanned into the computer and referred to as the model is constructed using VR software. In the future, we should see dramatic developments in software that allows the archaeological team to construct the VR model directly as surveying , surface scanning or excavation proceed.

Figure 4: Ray traced VR model image of Acoma Pueblo considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited place in North America. Data for this model is from the 1934 Historic American Building Survey of the architecture of the Pueblo. All measured exterior elevations and plans were scanned, and used as model templates. The window frames and doors have not yet been modeled in this work-in-process.
Figure 5: Electronic photo-montage showing "Kwastiyukwa", ancestral village of Jemez Pueblo and largest of the know pre-Columbian Indian Pueblos. The model and sun angle were manipulated "by eye" to match the angles of Paul Logsdon's aerial photograph of the ruin site. Using Photoshop the image of the model was "pasted into" a selected area of the scanned site photo. The composite image was then retouched to create the "treeless" area surrounding the Pueblo.

Figure 6: Electronic photo-montage showing the interior of the "Great Kiva" (with roof covering removed), Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico, USA. The VR model was first ray traced, and then a scanned image of the sky was pasted into the background to give a more realistic effect.

This new freedom to interactively animate a model in VR space, look at it at will in real time, photo-realistically from any angle, inside or outside, and at different points in its temporal existence, is the most radical new way of looking at objects in space, since the early European Renaissance. It has enormous implications on the advancement of all fields using visual 3D information.

Virtual Reality can be a very powerful media for presenting new ideas about the past. The potential societal impact of new archaeological knowledge gained from VR experience should be taken very seriously by the VR model builder. In the Nineteenth Century, John Ruskin declared that architecture is the most permanent collective cultural memory of an age--a "lamp" that all future generations will see. Today, at the dawn of the cyber age, and with the new VR technology, the past can be remembered like never before. By refreshing cultural memory, archaeology has been a powerful influence in the development of emerging world ideas and politics. Utilizing the tool of Virtual Reality, archaeology will continue to gain in importance.

When European architects (the first "archaeologists") studied and became conscious of the architectural ruins of ancient Greece and Rome, a European Renaissance resulted, which influenced all the world arts and sciences down to the present time. With the new VR study of ancient Native American architecture, can a similar phenomenon be underway in the Americas? Certainly the culture of Native Americans will be empowered. Can the general shift towards world-wide VR archaeology herald a New World Renaissance in which all the people of the world become re-awakened to the wonders of a forgotten past? Certainly we will all better understand our human inter-connectedness, and that can contribute to the search for world peace.

With the advent of VR, society has attained a quantum leap in visual imagery and visual literacy. To meet the future needs of this new VR-savvy audience, the disciplines of archaeology and architecture must collaborate much more integrally than in the past. VR architects can work alongside VR archaeologists to create the most virtually real images and experiences of forgotten buildings and places. Archaeology and architecture schools need to encourage reciprocal cross-disciplinary studies, so that this necessary teamwork will be less daunting. Indeed the emergence of VR may propound a new field of study; perhaps we should call it "archaeotecture"- from ancient + building.

As we VR image places that heretofore have existed in esoteric library collections, those places become more integrated into the public consciousness about the planetary past. This consciousness raising is a logical extension and augmentation of the green or environmental movement. Virtual Reality is important, because it brings us closer to an understanding of the illusion in which we exist--from VR we get a broader understanding of our place and time in the cosmos, and we are sensitized to the significance and meaning of living in our own time. By knowing where mankind has been, we may better understand where we should go.

Through the experience of VR, the relativity of Space and Time has become palpable--not just theoretical. Today, while sitting in front of a computer console, it is possible to experience the VR flythrough of ancient Egypt and simultaneously be in web cam ICQ chat with someone in the Netherlands. In the future there is no telling to what new perceptual thresholds VR technology will take us.


PETER NABOKOV and ROBERT EASTON, 1989, Native American Architecture, Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford.

STEPHEN LEKSON ,WILLIAM B. GILLESPIE, and THOMAS C. WINDE, 1984, Great Pueblo Architecture of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA.

STEPHEN H. LEKSON (EDITOR), JEFFREY S. DEAN, PETER J. McKENNA, RICHARD L. WARREN, and Thomas C. Winde, FORWARD BY FLORENCE HAWLEY ELLIS, 1983, The Architecture and Dendrochronology of Chetro Ketl, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, Division of Cultural Research, National Park Service, U.S. Department of Interior, Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA.

PETER NABOKOV, 1986, Architecture of Acoma Pueblo: The 1934 Historic American Building Survey Project, Ancient City Press, Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA.

WILLIAM MORGAN, 1994, Ancient Architecture of the Southwest [U.S.], University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas, USA.

WILLIAM C. STURTEVANT (General Editor) and ALFONSO ORTIZ (Volume Editor), 1979, Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 9, Southwest, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., USA.

MICHAEL A. ADLER (Editor) 1996, The Prehistoric Pueblo World A.D. 1150-1350, The University of Arizona Press, Tucson, Arizona, USA.

© 2009, Dennis R. Holloway Architect