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A rocky past reveals an intriguing story

September 19, 2018

ASU archaeologist captures the hidden history of petroglyphs on camera

Think about where you are right now. Your office chair, your living room couch, your spot of shady sidewalk. The land under your feet has a story to tell.

Postdoctoral Research Associate Emily Fioccoprile, an archaeologist with the School of Human Evolution and Social Change's Center for Archaeology and Society, has made it her mission to uncover that story. Only the land under her feet, so to speak, is the Deer Valley Petroglyph Preserve.

From a distance, the preserve may seem unremarkable. It’s a patch of desert with a large hill of boulders at the center. Peer a little closer, however, and you’ll see that the orangey discolorations on the rocks have form. They’re pictures.

The preserve boasts the largest concentration of Native American rock art, called petroglyphs, in the Phoenix area. It’s a unique spot, because the petroglyphs there date from many different periods of time, meaning that different groups of people contributed to the hillside’s artwork.

VISIT THE PRESERVE: Free admission Saturday with downloadable ticket

“Multiple people came back over and over again,” Fioccoprile said. “This was an important enough place that they bothered climbing quite high up a very steep hill. They went to a lot of effort to make these.”

Fioccoprile has been studying how people of the past and of today have used the preserve to understand who they are. To do this, she looks at the archaeology of the site’s landscape much like a biographer would examine events over the course of a person’s life.

“Landscape biography is a nice model that gives you a connection across deep time. You can pick little snapshots, almost like chapters, of a place’s history, and then you can ask questions about those without losing sight of the big picture,” she said.

Now, she’s starting the next chapter of the preserve’s biography by helping the public interpret the landscape in new ways.

Lights … camera …

There are some petroglyphs that visitors just aren’t able to see, whether because the marks are too faded, too far away from the trail or too well hidden in the nooks and crannies of the hillside.

“I wondered, can we use nondestructive technologies to learn anything new about the petroglyphs that the public can’t see? And how would that impact the way people experience the landscape?” Fioccoprile said.

She decided to put this to the test with a high-definition camera and a technique known as reflectance transformation imaging.

The basic idea behind RTI is to take multiple photos of an object with the light at different angles. The changing shadows and highlights give researchers a better view of the object’s curves, cracks and edges.

At the preserve, Fioccoprile and her team of ASU researchers, students and volunteers chose petroglyphs that were on boulders with enough open area around them to safely set up a camera tripod. Then, one team member held a powerful flash bulb at the end of a long pole and moved it around in a dome-like pattern above the petroglyphs. Another team member remotely triggered the camera and flash for each photo.

After carefully saving the original, untouched, high-resolution pictures, Fioccoprile used software to combine them into detailed models that allowed her to virtually move light around the petroglyphs. For some harder-to-see petroglyphs, she used another program to adjust the colors and create a stronger contrast between the petroglyph and the rock panel.

Fioccoprile is careful to only clarify, not alter, what is physically present on the rocks. She also documents the changes, if any, that she makes to the photos so that future researchers can trace the steps she took from the original images.

“There’s a big responsibility to make sure that these images actually represent what you see in real life,” Fioccoprile said. “We try to interfere with these photos as minimally as possible.”

Her team also brought in a drone pilot, Douglas Gann, to take high-resolution photos of the petroglyphs from above. The pictures not only provide a detailed view of how the markings are spaced out on the landscape, but they also allowed the team to create a 3D model of the entire site.

That model, along with the other RTI models, photos and maps created during her research, will benefit the community in several ways. They’ll be archived for future researchers and heritage management professionals, serve as a resource for visitors to explore the petroglyphs they can’t make out from the trail and become the basis of a forthcoming exhibit at the Deer Valley Petroglyph Preserve’s visitor center.

“I’m really passionate about making sure that what I do is something that someone off the street could understand and get excited about,” she said.

Filling in the blanks

The RTI and color processing techniques, it turns out, were enough to uncover an ancient mystery or two.

One came about unexpectedly when Fioccoprile did RTI on the preserve’s most famous boulder, which depicts two four-legged, deer-like animals touching noses, known as the “kissing deer” petroglyph.

“Sometimes, when I’m doing RTI on one of these animals, I do feel like I’m taking its portrait,” she said.

Though the petroglyphs on this panel are highly contrasted against the rock, their creator carved them very shallowly onto the surface. In fact, high-resolution photos reveal that the lines are so shallow they have little gaps in them — perhaps giving a clue about the maker’s priorities.

“It doesn’t seem to have been important to get a perfect line,” Fioccoprile said. “It was about the visual impact, rather than creating a continuous mark.”

She believes this rock panel is popular partly because visitors can easily recognize the animals it depicts, and in doing so, share an experience with people of the past. The deer, in a way, are celebrities and will be for generations to come.

Other petroglyphs, however, may have been completely forgotten by time were it not for Fioccoprile’s methods and the incredible knowledge of the preserve’s volunteers. One rock panel had a petroglyph of a one-pole ladder — a long vertical line with short horizontal lines crossing it — and another petroglyph of a footprint. But volunteer Peter Huegel advised using RTI to find a third petroglyph that he insisted was there.

Sure enough, as Fioccoprile later looked at a model of the panel on her computer, a second footprint slowly emerged from the rock. It was so faded, the site’s original surveyors of the ’70s and ’80s missed it entirely.

“There was a blank space on this panel which we now know is actually pretty full. And if you think about all the other blank spaces across the preserve, I wonder how many of them have petroglyphs which we don’t realize are there,” she said.

“It’s thrilling that we can still make discoveries almost 40 years after people first studied the site in depth,” she added. “We don’t know everything. I think that’s really exciting.”

Top photo: (From left) Deer Valley Petroglyph Preserve volunteers Joseph Sallak and Peter Huegel, School of Human Evolution and Social Change Postdoctoral Research Associate Emily Fioccoprile and Kendall Baller, doctoral student, do reflectance transformation imaging on a boulder at the preserve. Photo courtesy of Chris Reed

Mikala Kass

Communications Specialist , ASU Knowledge Enterprise


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We need to talk about health

September 19, 2018

New ASU course distills tough health topics into digestible podcast format created, produced by students

If you’re like most 21st-century Americans, chances are you’ve crowdsourced what to do about a medical concern on social media — or worse, Googled it — and found yourself overwhelmed by the response, walking away with more questions than answers.

That’s why health communication and literacy is so important nowadays, says Mayo Clinic neurologist Joseph Sirven.

“We now have tools we never had. There’s a lot of noise coming from a lot of different areas, from social media to whatever your best friend is telling you,” he said.

The challenge is cutting through all that noise to get at the truth. That’s the goal of a new course offered at ASU co-taught by Sirven and College of Health Solutions Professors Swapna Reddy and Gregory Mayer, called “We Need to Talk — Tough Health Conversations: The Podcast Health Literacy Course.”

The course takes complex, and sometimes fraught, health topics such as research, practice and policy issues and distills them into a digestible podcast.

Students break up into three teams — background research, human voice and scriptwriting — to confront the issues, eventually rotating through each team over the course of a semester. Each team is headed by one of the three faculty, who specialize in medicine; law and health policy; and human communications and journalism.

The multidisciplinarity of the faculty, the group teaching model and the student teams are representative of a recent wave of experimentation in higher education that forgoes the traditional lecture hall method, instead treating each class of students as a cohort, and asking them to collaborate on big ideas instead of learning rote curriculum.

City University of New York English professor Cathy Davidson spoke about the phenomenon Tuesday at ASU when she delivered the 2018 Frank Rhodes Lecture on “The Creation of the Future.”

She called it a “provocative way of thinking” that has the potential to reform higher education.

The health conversations course was inspired by a series of panel discussions introduced by the College of Health Solutions last fall. Sirven said they realized they were attracting a substantial amount of students to the free public talks and wanted to find a way to engage them further, so that the subjects were not only more tangible, but also reflective of what really matters to them.

“We wanted to address the topics in a way that speaks to the young adult voice,” Sirven said. “How does an issue that seems far away, like dementia, affect a young person? What brings that to life for them?”

So he, Reddy and Mayer surveyed students, then sat down to see what concerns rose to the top.

The six they settled on (the first half of which will be covered during the fall semester and the second half during the spring semester) are: gender and ethnic diversity in the health care workforce; medical cannabis; dementia; fake health news; gun violence; and ADHD in adults.

“These topics are complicated and messy,” Sirven said. “There’s nothing simple about them. So they’re the perfect vehicles to teach students how to use all these things available at their fingertips to make them easily understood and useful to people. We also hope we spur on innovation and proffer solutions to some of these issues.”

Students and community members gathered Thursday, Sept. 13 in the AE England Building on ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus for the first podcast taping, a panel discussion on gender and ethnic diversity in the health care workforce.

Reddy greeted the crowd of nearly 150, telling them, “I’m hoping the number of you is reflective of how important and relevant of a topic this is.”

The event began with a brief video clip providing an overview of the subject, featuring facts and figures as well as first-person accounts. One of them came from the mother of Milo Charbel, a senior double majoring in biological sciences and neuroscience, who recalled how she was made to redo her residency upon moving to the U.S. despite already having become an accomplished specialist in Europe.

Charbel, who originally signed up for the course because of his interest in science and educational podcasts, said it has opened his eyes to the prevalence of certain issues.

“I was surprised to see how big of a factor race is in health care,” he said. “I always thought that a physician is a physician, they’re just there to do their job and make you better.” But he was shocked to hear, for example, of instances in which people had refused treatment from doctors of another ethnicity.

Mayo Clinic women's health specialist Jewel Kling and director of community affairs Marion Kelly were the guest speakers at last week’s discussion. They fielded questions developed by students, including, “Does race really matter in health care?”; “Why do gender issues persist?”; and “What can be done to address these issues on a systemic level?”

(To hear Kling and Kelly’s replies, tune into KJZZ next week for the public airing of the podcast taping.)

Throughout the event, business and global politics junior Asha Ramakumar monitored the Facebook livestream and, later, during the Q&A portion, relayed questions from virtual audience members.

“The way this course bridges (several disciplines) and distills complicated information into a digestible format for the public is really unique,” she said. “These issues are pervasive and complex, and can only be discerned through conversations like these.”

Top photo: Business and global politics junior Asha Ramakumar monitors the Facebook Live feed at the "We Need to Talk — Tough Health Conversations" podcast Thursday, Sept. 13. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now