Digital Paleontology

Dig, Lazarus, dig! For the past year I have had the incredible opportunity to work with Paleontologist Dr. Paul Sereno and paleoartist Tyler Keillor at the University of Chicago for my research project.  I have been tasked with taking CT scan data of a very old grave and creating 3D models of the human remains in the plot.  Using equal parts sorcery and technology, I have work diligently on this project day in an day out over the past year, and it is now nearing completion!  Here are some of the finer details, in a nutshell:


The grave I have been digitally excavating was found in Niger, West Africa and is part of the much larger Gobero burial complex, which contains approximately 200 separate graves.  The specimens in the graves occupied the area roughly 10,000 years ago when the Sahara was a (comparatively) lush and wet landscape.  There were two distinct groups of people who lived in the area with a 1000 year gap between them, due to climatic change making the area arid and uninhabitable.  The burial plot I have been working with comes from the later population and contains three bodies (dubbed the "Triple Burial"): an adult female and two children.  The bodies were buried facing one another and holding hands, along with an assortment of artifacts (points, scrapers).

Delicious slices of CT data


The specimens were physically separated into smaller parts and sent through a CT scanner, each resulting set of CT data containing upwards of 3000 images.  I took that data and imported it into a software program that compiles the images and interprets them as three-dimensional volumes.  The specimens are extremely fragile and were only partially excavated on-site in order to preserve the structural integrity of the bones. Once the CT data was scanned and compiled, what I was left with was a big hunk of rock and dirt with bones sticking out in every direction.  Thus began the arduous process of digitally removing all the extraneous (non-bone) material, layer by layer. This was a grueling process and required countless hours in front of a computer, manually masking areas and removing data.

Picking the bones clean

After all the models were *just right* I took them into a ZBrush to smooth out the rough areas, then imported them into 3Ds Max to put the skeletons back together, piece by piece.  I converted each skeleton into an interactive model that can be viewed on a computer or touchscreen device - the latter being an incredibly awesome bonus feature. I was also able to take all of the edited CT data from each specimen and create a user-controlled animation that lets the viewer scroll through each individual slice of CT data to see the bones (without the rock!).

Cross-section of data

Whoa.  Breaking that whole process down into 2 paragraphs reeeeeeeeeally doesn't capture the true essence of the project.  The struggle.  The drama.  The revelation and discovery. The bleary eyes, callused fingers, and crooked spine... The unabridged final paper breaks down the process in 84 extremely detailed pages - "Non-Invasive Digital Excavation and Three-Dimensional Reconstruction of Human Paleontological Remains."

If you'd like to learn more about the Gobero site and the excavation, you can read an article HERE.  Also, Tyler Keillor was recently featured in a Wall Street Journal article: Did Dinosaurs Have Lips? Dinosaur and Paleontology enthusiasts should definitely read both!

In addition to feverishly finishing up the various aspects of my research project, I recently had the opportunity to present my research to a group of students and professionals in the field of Medical Illustration at Georgia Regents University, in Augusta, Georgia.  The O.A. Parkes Symposium and Student Conference was an amazing event.  Getting to meet with other students in the field and hear about their research was very exciting, and the presentations were incredible! Getting to hobnob with Medical Illustration VIPs ain't a bad way to spend a weekend.

I think I'm gonna like this line of work.