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Archaeology and Ethnography in the Trans-Himalayas: the VCL teams up with HNBGU

Archaeology and Ethnography in the Trans-Himalayas: the VCL teams up with HNBGU

by Bernard K. Means

I wrote the first part of this blog while on a British Airways 747 in transit from Heathrow Airport in London, England to Dulles Airport, outside of Washington, D.C. This was the second leg of a journey that began earlier in the day at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, India and was the end of a 12-day stint in India. Most of my time in India was spent at HNB Garhwal University (HNBGU) in the Indian state of Uttarakhand. This was my third trip within the last two years to HNBGU, one of the Virtual Curation Laboratory’s (VCL) major partners in the cultural heritage community. For this particular excursion, I received generous funding from Virginia Commonwealth University’s (VCU) Humanities Research Center. The two prior trips were funded through VCU’s Global Education office.

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This latest journey to north India focused on: 3D digital documentation of select items in the HNBGU Museum of Himalayan Archaeology and Ethnography; artifacts and human skeletal remains from HNBGU’s excavations at high altitude sites in the Himalayas; and architectural elements of a Hindu temple, also located high in the Himalayas.

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From left to right: Mohan Naithani, Vinod Nautiyal, Sudhir Nautiyal,  and Bernard K. Means

I was continuing earlier work with HNBGU’s Chair of the Archaeology Department, Dr. Vinod Nautiyal, as well as Department archaeologists Mohan Naithani and Sudhir Nautiyal. Our shared goal is to use 3D technology to provide people across the globe with access to the rich heritage of northern India, increase awareness of this cultural heritage, and enhance the research potential of these collections. Uttarakhand is one of India’s newest states, and there exists considerable pressure for development. We hope to raise awareness of Uttarakhand’s heritage not only on a global but also on a local level, so this heritage is taken into consideration during development projects.

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Breakfast stop along the Ganges River

Since we began our partnership in the summer of 2015, I’ve made sure the VCU undergraduates I teach have access to these 3D scanned collections for their own research without having to make the long trip themselves to India. Brittany Blanchard, a student in my Spring 2017 Archaeological Methods and Research Design course created a research poster on Kushan-era figurines 3D scanned at HNBGU in 2015 and 2016. She presented this poster at the VCU  UROP Poster Symposium for Undergraduate Research and Creativity.

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Research Poster by Brittany Blanchard on Kushan-era figurines

After spending a day in New Delhi adjusting to yet another time change (having just come from London), I made the now familiar flight from the Indira Gandhi International Airport to the Jolly Grant Airport in Dehradun, Uttarakhand.

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Jolly Grant Airport in Dehradun

I was met by a driver who would take me along the winding and narrow roads that hugged mountainsides, and crossed sacred rivers, including the Ganges. This is certainly a challenging trip for the driver—and can be a bit frightening for a passenger.The road often narrows to barely one-lane wide. There is little to no barrier between the edge of the road and the steep drop off on the mountainside. Sections of the road are partly collapsed or covered with fist-sized or larger cobbles. And, traffic can be heavy–not just vehicles, but also people, and various animals, including pigs, cows, monkeys, dogs, and the occasional horse or donkey.

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On road from  Dehradun to Srinagar (Garhwal)

Pilgrimage season for the region was beginning and the mass of humanity was particularly strong in Rishikesh, a major pilgrimage center that was roughly midway on our journey.

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Bridge under construction

Even once we reached Srinagar (Garhwal), where HNBGU is located, our arduous journey did not end. As a vehicular bridge from town to the HNBGU campus is still under construction, we had to drive down an unpaved access road for the hydroelectric dam that has potholes literally larger than the car. The three-mile or so journey down this road took approximately a half hour before we arrived at the HNBGU Guest House where I would spend the next week. I was met by Vinod and Sudhir Nautiyal and we discussed our strategy for the coming week. In addition to 3D scanning artifacts with their NextEngine Desktop 3D scanner, I was to train the HNBGU archaeology team in how to use their recently acquired Structure Scanner.

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Examining skeletal remains from two ca. AD 1000 juvenile burials from shaft tombs in the Spiti Valley,  high up in the Himalayas. Image courtesy of Mohan Naithani.

On the morning of Monday, May 15, I breakfasted at the Guest House and then made the short walk to the Archaeology Department offices.  There was active construction taking place across campus, and part of the path consisted of metal “bridge” crossing an excavation trench.

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I met Sudhir in the 3D scanning laboratory just after 10 a.m.—the one place in the Archaeology Department with air conditioning, required by the computer equipment.


During my time in the HNBGU archaeology laboratory, I focused on 3D scanning skeletal elements from two shaft burials in the Spiti Valley, as well as two associated ceramic vessels—one vessel is the earliest known cordmarked vessel from northern India, while the other has a copper patch used to repair the vessel.

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Sudhir Nautiyal compares the actual vessel with copper patch to its 3D scanned counterpart.

In May 2016, I had 3D scanned one of the more complete human skulls recovered from Spiti. Over the course of Spring 2017, in my Visualizing and Exhibiting Anthropology course, now VCU anthropology alumna Elsie Martin drew on her background as a sculptor to develop a forensic reconstruction of the facial portion of this skull from Spiti and completed a research poster for presentation at the VCU conference.

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Research poster by Elsie Martin. The blank space is to adhere miniature 3D printed replicas.

I 3D scanned each major stage of the reconstruction as Elsie completed them and then 3D printed them.  I brought a 3D scanned and 3D printed replica of the Spiti skull to India, as well as some of the 3D printed stages of the facial reconstruction (TSA evidenced some curiosity about my suitcase contents, but everything made it OK). After Vinod and Mohan arrived to the Archaeology Department that morning, I provided the HNBGU archaeologists with the 3D printed Spiti skull and related facial reconstructions, as well as replicas of some Kushan-era figurines.

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Mohan, Sudhir, and Vinod hold 3D printed replica skulls and facial reconstructions.

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Mohan examines two 3D printed Kushan-era figurines.

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A 3D printed replica of a Kushan-era figurine is compared to the real item, on exhibit.

I also had with me a second 3D printed replica skull from a 3D scan I made in May 2016 that I presented to the HNBGU team.


3D scanned  skull from “Skeleton Lake”

This skull was not from the Spiti Valley, but rather from a fascinating discovery from a glacial lake at 16,000 feet above sea level at Roopkund, Uttarakhand. In 1942, approximately 200 human skeletons were found in this “Skeleton” lake—some so well preserved that flesh was still present. The British forest ranger who discovered them thought that at first they were an invading Japanese army, but this conclusion was dispelled. Subsequent research showed that these skeletons were 1200 years old, and some have suggested that all these individuals were killed in a hailstorm. Biological anthropologists who examined these remains also determined that there were two different populations represented, with some individuals notably taller than the others. The taller individuals appear to have been foreigners migrating into the area, while the shorter people were likely their native guides.

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Sudhir practies with the HNBGU Structure Scanner.

Monday, May 15, also involved setting up HNBGU’s new Structure Scanner and testing it out on museum personnel. During my first visit to HNBGU in August 2015, I had my Structure Scanner with me, and the HNBGU archaeologists quickly concluded that this was would be useful for their efforts to document larger sculptures in the HNBGU Museum of Himalayan Archaeology and Ethnography, as well as archaeological sites and contemporary temples throughout Uttarakhand.


Agni sculpture from the HNBGU Museum of Himalayan Archaeology and Ethnography

The Structure Scanner is of a lower resolution than the NextEngine scanner, but it is more portable and does not need to be tethered to an electrical outlet. These features made it ideal for the next day’s (Tuesday’s) trip to the Ukhimath Temple, high up in the Himalayas, and during a length power outage the following day (Wednesday). Power outages, usually of about an hour duration or so, were frequent during my stay.  Some of these were related to the electrical grid being intentionally turned off during the also not infrequent storms to minimize storm-related damage (wind and lightening in particular).

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This cow felt that I was waiting in her spot.

Tuesday morning’s excursion began somewhat early. I departed the Guest House at 6:45 a.m. and made my way across the narrow “pedestrian-only” bridge, dodging motorcycles and scooters that wove in and out of the students and other locals crossing this bridge. I met Mohan and Sudhir alongside the main road that runs through Srinagar (Garhwal). Our main destination was the aforementioned Ukhimath Temple, located approximately three-hours away and at roughly 1311 meters (4300 feet) above mean sea level. The temple is closed six months of the year because of snow.

After we arrived at the temple, Mohan spoke with the temple’s priest to get permission for us to 3D scan various architectural elements. The priest assented to our efforts—and even allowed Mohan and I to separately 3D scan him.


Priest from Ukhimath Temple


Nandi from Ukhimath Temple

He did restrict 3D scanning inside the temple’s two shrines. Mohan and I did have to 3D scan around the numerous worshippers who went in and out of the two shrines—some of whom took a moment to see what we were doing. We left the temple after a few hours and went higher up in the Himalayas to a tourist campground.

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At Mohan’s request, I consented to be filmed about the garbage scattered across this beautiful landscape—part of Mohan’s advocacy for the “Clean India” campaign.  Our journey back to Srinagar (Garhwal) was uneventful, other than a curious challenge with finding a roadside stand that would make tea.

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Dr. Annpurna Nautiyal

I did spend one day at HNBGU where I did no 3D scanning.  This was Thursday, May 18. Dr. Aannpurna Nautiyal asked if I would speak at the Indian Council of Social Sciences workshop “Research Methodology and SPSS Usage in Data in Social Sciences” she helped organize.  I was happy to do so, and talked about research methods and my use of statistics in archaeology.

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Vinod, myself, and Annpurna. Image courtesy of Nidhi Sharma.

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Nidhi Sharma and I take a selfie.

This research trip was certainly successful. Vinod and I outlined an article that we plan to write about the partnership between HNBGU and the VCL, and I’ve been invited back—should I secure the necessary funding.  I look forward also to sharing the new digital models that I obtained on this trip with my VCU students and colleagues. Some of these models are available at the Virtual Curation Laboratory’s Sketchfab site for HNB Garhwal University and Ukhimath Temple.