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Archaeology meets virtual reality in Nunavut

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By Grady Semmens

It was the summer of 1881 when 25 men led by U.S. Cavalry Lt. Adolphus Greely arrived on the northern tip of Ellesmere Island and built a wood and tarpaper hut that served as base camp for the first Arctic scientific expedition during the inaugural International Polar Year. Greely gave the ramshackle shoreline settlement the lofty name of Fort Conger before his team moved on to an ill-fated expedition that saw their ship crushed in the ice and all but seven of the team perish before they were rescued three years later in what is now Nunavut Territory.

In 2010—129 years later—a Twin Otter carrying University of Calgary archaeology professor Peter Dawson and Chris Tucker, president of Calgary-based SarPoint Engineering Ltd., touched down on the barren tundra surrounding Franklin Bay to launch a research project of their own. Unlike their predecessors, who were exploring unmapped terrain for future development, Dawson and Tucker’s aim was to use high-tech surveying equipment to preserve and better understand the past.

“That is the furthest north I have been, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that the High Arctic is one of those places that gets under your skin and becomes a part of you forever,” says Tucker, whose company specializes in ultra-precise 3D laser scanning of landscapes and buildings. “Being involved in a project with such rich history was off-the-charts neat.”

Tucker and Dawson spent a week in July 2010 documenting the remaining structures of Fort Conger, which were re-built by Robert Peary’s 1899 expedition to the area in search of the geographic North Pole. The documentation project was undertaken to provide a detailed record of the structures—now a federal heritage site in Quttinirpaaq National Park—so that Fort Conger can be brought to life using virtual reality for those who will never get a chance to see it in real life.

Faculty of Environmental Design professor Richard Levy is using Tucker’s laser scanning data to develop an interactive 3-D model that may become part of the Virtual Museum of Canada. The Fort Conger project follows several previous collaborations between Dawson, Levy and Tucker, including virtual preservation of Calgary’s Penny Lane Mall and re-creation of an ancient Thule whalebone house from Bathurst Island, in the Canadian High Arctic.

“Fort Conger is an incredibly important site in Canadian polar history,” Dawson says. “Outside of a few tourists on icebreakers, very few people get a chance to visit our northern parks. Using virtual reality is an excellent way of preserving these places and sharing the stories about polar science and culture, which are so compelling because they involve adventure, science and Inuit culture.”

Read original story and view the slideshow here.