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Archaeologist creates digital records of endangered heritage sites

Peter Dawson uses reality capture technology to create 3D digital records, preserve history


Peter Dawson and PhD candidate Christina Robinson get ready to scan a historic building. Photo courtesy Peter Dawson

By Heath McCoy
September 6, 2017

A University of Calgary archaeologist is using reality capture technology to create a 3D digital record of Alberta’s endangered heritage sites – among them the McDougall Memorial United Church, the Okotoks Erratic, and a Chinese laundry shop in Fort Macleod, which dates back to the 1890s.  

Peter Dawson, a professor in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, has been conducting research in the Canadian Arctic for 25 years. His innovations in digitally preserving polar heritage and archaeological data using 3D computer modelling brought him to the attention of Alberta Culture and Tourism, which was looking with concern to its own heritage sites.

It was a call that greatly appealed to Dawson. “It’s all here in Alberta,” he says. “There’s such rich depth and history — the history of technology and energy and its crucial importance in developing the province, the history of immigration, of our Indigenous heritage.”

Dawson adds that the province’s many heritage sites have been threatened in recent times. “We had a significant flood in 2013 that impacted historic sites along some of our major river systems,” he notes. “We also had the wildfires in northern Alberta last year which put energy heritage sites like the historic Bitumount oil sands separating plant and other heritage sites at risk. And there’s always the threat of development.

“Using 3D laser scanning and reality capture technology, our goal is to digitally document these heritage sites,” Dawson explains. “Our ultimate objective is to create a digital heritage archive — an open source online repository that would allow heritage professionals and the general public to virtually access 3D images of these heritage sites.”

That’s of particular importance when it comes to heritage sites that are difficult to access, such as the long shut down Bitumount plant in northeastern Alberta. One of the first plants that extracted bitumen, it dates back to the 1930s and is key to the province’s industrial history. “People can’t physically visit this site because it’s dangerous,” says Dawson. “The structure is crumbling. But by digitally scanning the site in 3D, we could potentially make it accessible, virtually.”

The technology also allows for monitoring the deterioration of heritage sites, which, in turn, helps Alberta Culture and Tourism implement necessary interventions to protect them.

An example is the Brooks Aqueduct, a 3.2 kilometre-long reinforced concrete flume built between 1912 and 1914 to carry water east from Lake Newell for irrigation. Dawson and his team, which he co-leads with geomatics engineering professor Derek Lichti, recently received funding through Parks Canada’s National Cost Sharing Program for Historic Places to digitally preserve the aqueduct, which is located in southeastern Alberta.

A series of design flaws and the effects of time now threaten the stability of the structure. In response, Dawson and his team have begun scanning the aqueduct using the 3D images to detect damage and changes in its stability over time.

“We are setting up a monitoring program where we scan the aqueduct and then go back and scan it again at a later date,” says Dawson. “By comparing the scans, we can detect minute changes that have occurred over the intervening period. This will allow Alberta Culture and Tourism to better understand how successful their attempts at stabilizing the aqueduct have been.”

Recently Dawson and his team were called in to Morley, Alta. for a “heritage emergency” when the gothic-style McDougall Memorial United Church, built in 1875, burned down. Luckily, enough of the structure was left standing to scan the burnt ruins.

“Decades after it was built there was a façade constructed around it,” says Dawson. “When the fire hit, it actually revealed some of those underlying architectural details which had been built over. These details are clearly visible in the scans we captured, which gives us insight into the history of the structure and how it was built. That could be really useful if they decide to rebuild the church at some point.”

Dawson adds, “These heritage sites are great mnemonics. They’re a testament to a particular time in history and when they’re removed you lose that important historical marker. So it really is crucial to capture these lasting digital records.”