CyArk: Digitally Preserving a Wahi Pana

A 2.144Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

During the first week of December 2010 I was lucky to escape the drizzly rain and fog of San Francisco winter (not that it’s much different from our summer) and fly to the sun-kissed beaches of the Big Island of Hawai’i. It was going to be a week in a tropical paradise, but with a busy agenda ahead there were no plans for hammocks or Mai Tais. I arrived on a Monday morning, was picked up at the airport and went straight to Hulihe’e Palace in Kona. There I found my friend and colleague, D’Arcy Trask, busy at work (single handedly) with his two Leica ScanStation 2’s up and running since sunrise that morning. One was located out front, scanning the façade and property, the other documenting the interior spaces.

Hulihe’e Palace once belonged to the royal family of the Kingdom of Hawai’i. It varied from a summer retreat to main residence for different royal family members. Today it is maintained as a museum by the Daughters of Hawai’i. Hulihe’e’s Palace was the first of three wahi panas chosen for digital preservation on the Big Island. A wahi pana is a "place" of significant meaning in the Hawaiian culture. This project set out to digitally preserve a few important wahi pana of the Big Island in an effort to raise awareness of the need for digital preservation efforts in the island state of Hawai’i. The project utilized laser scanners and digital photography to record three sites. The data was then archived and processed into educational and interpretive deliverables to be freely shared with the world via the CyArk website ( Hawaiian culture is intricate, complex, and fascinating and CyArk had worked for months with its partners (both old and new) to bring this effort to fruition.

The planned documentation of the three wahi panas would be conducted by CyArk and our partner, Gauge Point Calibration (Trask’s commercial firm, of which he volunteered his time, equipment, and expenses for the good of this pilot effort). We spent two days at the Hulihe’e Palace capturing the structure in near entirety (one room was off limits for any kind of imaging­—photographic or laser­—due to the cultural sensitivity of the artifacts within). The interior of the house had a no-shoes policy to protect the beautiful hardwood flooring so we used rubber mats to protect it from the harsh metal tripod footings. And with the cool, soft grass in the warm sun outside, there was little reason to put them back on when moving between the interior and exterior machines. It was the first project I’ve ever conducted barefoot! It was certainly easy to let the Hawaiian lifestyle easily creep into our workflow.

The data for the Palace will be used to promote the site and raise awareness of its important history in the Hawaiian Kingdom. It will also function as a base data set for future repair or restoration in the case of damage. The palace had previously suffered extensive damage in the 2006 earthquake and had only just finished final repairs. The data set we created could provide information necessary for intricate moldings and furnishing should future damage occur. Additionally, it is possible to interpolate historical reconstructions. Approximately 50 years after its original construction the Palace was plastered over to make it more European in style. Through historical photographs of the Palace and sample data collected at the Mokuaikaua Church across the street (built at the same time by the same architect), digital 3D models of Hulihe’e Palace can be created showing it in its original appearance of mortar and lava rock. Or, the hut formerly on the property and used nightly for sleeping by Princess Ruth can be digitally reconstructed and reinserted to achieve a digital recreation of the historical landscape. Princess Ruth did not enjoy sleeping in her European-styled palace, and preferred her traditional hut and mats and so retreated to the on-site hut each evening. The hut’s original location is now crossed by the modern Ali’i Drive, but the original stepping stone remains (and was also scanned). These types of interpretive elements will allow visitors to travel through time at the site, seeing its evolution and change.

At the conclusion of field work for Hulihe’e Palace, Trask and I traveled south from Kona to Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park (also known as "the Place of Refuge"). CyArk has had an extensive relationship with the US National Park Service, documenting eight sites to-date (not including work in Hawai’i) and this trip provided a rare opportunity: the Place of Refuge park had just purchased its own Leica C10 3D laser scanner, but had yet to use it. Trask and I were able to conduct a hands-on training exercise with the NPS staff, teaching the basic operation and data capture methodologies. Together, the team documented a reconstructed canoe shelter and a portion of the "Great Wall" of the site, and partial exteriors of a heiau (a temple or shrine) and its surrounding ki’i (a large wood or stone carving, also known as a tiki in other Polynesian cultures).

The "place of refuge" was exactly that to ancient Hawaiians. It acted as a sanctuary for those escaping punishment (usually death) for breaking a kapu (laws of taboo) or could even be a haven for enemy warriors escaping capture. As long as you could get there alive, you’d remain so. But the people didn’t make it easy to get there. The sacred place of refuge was surrounded by a massive, thick wall of lava rock. Nicknamed "the Great Wall", it was to help keep people out, including attempted asylum seekers. If you happened to survive the chase and scale the wall, your fate was then in the hands of the attending priest. The priest could choose whether or not to absolve your sin of breaking kapu. If the priest didn’t choose to absolve you, you wouldn’t want to walk back out. You could, however, either stay inside the wall indefinitely or maybe make a swim for the next island. Options were few, and not ideal.

On the fourth day on the island, D’Arcy and I moved to the King Kamehameha Hotel just across from Hulihe’e Palace. On the hotel’s property is the Ahu’ena Heiau with its black lava rock platform jutting into the small bay. The Ahu’ena Heiau was King Kamehameha the Great’s personal temple where he held daily council with his advisors. It was, in effect, the first capitol building of the Hawaiian Kingdom. Although small in size and scope for documenting, this wahi pana was far more complex than the other structures for intangible reasons. As the sacred temple of the great founder of the Kingdom of Hawai’i, the structure is still treated with great reverence in traditional Hawaiian beliefs. It took several levels of clearance to access the site. First, our friend and advocate Tommy Hickcox connected us with head of hotel security, Kalei Villacorte. Next, the heiau’s caretaker, Sam, had to approve of our trespassing on to the structure. Finally, we had to offer our word to the spirits of the wahi pana that we were there for good and not to take or destroy; this, our ho’okupu (offering), was the final step to gaining permission from the protecting spirits to physically access the heiau.

I set about to photograph the site while Trask took to the Heiau platform to scan the interior spaces and the ki’i. The NPS staff joined us with their scanner to capture the heaiu from the beach and dock for a full exterior view. The caretaker, Sam, was actually in the process of replacing the tea leaf coverings of the temple in completely traditional methods. This provided a unique opportunity for us to clearly document the underlying wooden structure and its beams. We were able to capture half as its skeleton and half in its finish
ed state.

Friday was the final work day in Hawai’i. In the morning a few patch scans were conducted to fill missing data, which was being reviewed and registered daily. The day concluded with a presentation to our partners in Hawaii, interested individuals, and the local press. Many of the attendees had never seen a laser scan point cloud and marveled at the possibilities for management, conservation, virtual tourism, education, and outreach. And on Saturday, I finally had that much needed date with a hammock and Mai Tai.

None of the work in Hawai’i could have been possible without the fantastic support and collaboration from our friends and partners. Through their concerted efforts, CyArk was able to conduct the documentation phase for the digital preservation of three culturally significant sites on the Big Island. We thank Paul Horner and the Keauhou Beach Resort, Lolly Davis and the Daughters of Hawaii, Tommy Hickcox and the King Kamehameha Hotel, Superintendent Kathy Billings and the staff of Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historic Park, and D’Arcy Trask of Gauge Point Calibration.

In the year since the visit, CyArk has managed to utilize generously donated intern and volunteer hours to processing some of the data. Hulihe’e Palace will be the first data set to be public on the CyArk website in early 2012. Despite the success of our initial efforts, help is still needed.

The magnitude 9.0 earthquake that struck off the Pacific coast of Tohoku, Japan in March 2011 sent a tsunami across the Pacific Ocean, striking the islands of Hawai’i. The Hulihe’e Palace’s basement was flooded, but unlike the 2006 earthquake, there was luckily no structural damage. The basement, however, housed a collection of documents, photographs, and artifacts; many of which are now in need of or are receiving conservation.

A corner of the seaside platform and the fencing of Ahu’ena Heiau were damaged by the wave. The wood and ti-leaf shrine and ki were mostly unaffected although the oracle tower’s lower section was partly shattered (it remained standing). The structures of the Place of Refuge also escaped traumatic damage, but the wave washed away the sands of the beach exposing new archaeology that had to undergo emergency mapping and conservation.

The earthquake and tsunami were poignant reminders of the need for digital preservation in Hawai’i and globally. At any moment, nature, man, or simply time can strike. A point-in-time record can be critical for restoration efforts, or may be all that can survive. There is tremendous potential for uniquely telling the stories of this Pacific isle culture.

Fortunately, some of these stories will be told through the sites digitally preserved by CyArk in Hawai’i. We hope through the help of partners old and new that we may expand upon our initial work and digitally preserve the unique Pacific Isle heritage.

Justin Barton, formally trained as an archaeologist, holds a BA from UC Berkeley and an MA from University College London’s Institute of Archaeology. His graduate research focused on the use of terrestrial LiDAR to improve management and conservation efforts of earthen architecture, including long-term erosion monitoring. He has worked on more than 30 CyArk projects worldwide and currently oversees technical standards and methodology development for the organization as well as long-term partnership programs with heritage authorities and universities.

A 2.144Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE