Virtual reconstruction of the building’s northernmost section.
Image: Casto Vocal

The 1,500-year-old Pumapunku temple in western Bolivia is considered a crowning achievement of Andean architecture, yet no one knows what the original structure actually looked like. Until now.

Using historical data, 3D-printed pieces, and architectural software, archaeologist Alexei Vranich from UC Berkeley has created a virtual reconstruction of Pumapunku—an ancient Tiwanaku temple now in ruins. Archaeologists have studied the site for over 150 years, but it wasn’t immediately obvious how all the broken and scattered pieces belonged together. The surprisingly simple approach devised by Vranich is finally providing a glimpse into the structure’s original appearance. Excitingly, the same method could be used to virtually reconstruct similar ruins. The details of this achievement were published today in Heritage Science.

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First, some background on the structure. Pumapunku, which means “door of the puma,” was a temple designed and built by the pre-Incan Tiwanaku culture, who lived and thrived in what is now western Bolivia from 500 AD to 1,000 AD. Hundreds of years later, the Inca (1300-1570 AD) came across the Pumapunku ruins, deeming them important and worthy of restoration. And in fact, the Incas believed it was at Pumapunku that the world began. Inspired, the Incas attempted to integrate the style of the Tiwanaku stonework in their own architecture, as seen in structures at the capital city of Cusco and the “lost city” of Machu Picchu.

The eastern portion of the Pumapunku site as photographed by archaeologist Max Uhle in 1893.
Image: Max Uhle/Heritage Science

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Indeed, the Incas had a right to be impressed—the Pumapunku temple was an advanced Andean architectural achievement. Spanish Conquistadors and others who visited the site during the 16th and 17th centuries described it as a “wondrous, though unfinished, building with gateways and windows carved from single blocks,” as Vranich wrote in his new paper. Pumapunku displayed a level of craftsmanship that was largely unparalleled in the pre-Columbian New World, and it’s often considered the architectural peak of Andean lithic technology prior to the arrival of the Europeans. Even today, the stonework of the temple is considered so precise that ancient alien enthusiasts claim it was made by lasers and other extraterrestrial technologies.

3D-printed pieces used for the reconstruction.
Image: Alexei Vranich/Heritage Science

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Unfortunately, the ruins of Tiwanaku, and the Pumapunku temple in particular, have been ransacked repeatedly over the past half-millenium. Archaeologists have virtually no idea what the structure actually looked like. None of the blocks that once comprised the original structure are currently located in their original place, and many of them are badly damaged or decayed. What’s more, most of the stones at the site are too big to move, making further observations difficult. And field notes left behind by archaeologists over the years are considered too opaque to conceptualize.

To overcome these difficulties and limitations, Vranich and his colleagues integrated historical archaeological data with modern computer software and 3D-printer technology to reconstruct the ancient temple, and by doing so, devised an entirely new approach to reconstructing and visualizing ancient ruins that would otherwise be impossible to build.

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The team created miniature 3D-printed models, at 4 percent actual size, of the temple’s 140 known pieces, which were based on measurements compiled by archaeologists over the past 150 years and Vranich’s own on-site observations of the ruins. The researchers used comparative analyses and interpolation to reconstruct broken pieces. Armed with their 3D-printed pieces, the researchers set about the task of re-building the ancient temple, much like someone working on a jigsaw puzzle. Yes, the researchers could have performed this work exclusively in the virtual realm, but they had better luck with tangible, physical pieces they could freely move around.

“It was much easier to use the 3D-printed models,” Vranich told Gizmodo. “You can quickly manipulate them in your hand and try position after position. It is much slower and less intuitive on the computer. It would be like trying to do a puzzle on the computer—moving the mouse, clicking on a piece, moving it, then scrolling around—as opposed to grabbing a piece, trying it, then another, then another.”

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Satisfied with their Lego-like configurations, the researchers keyed their creations into an architectural modeling program, culminating in a single hypothetical model of the temple complex. This wasn’t terribly difficult, as the construction methods used by the Tiwanaku people, and how they formed their incredibly geometric stones, are well documented, explained Vranich. But the exercise yielded some new findings.

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“What we found out is that it appears they were making prototypes for each type of stone type, and then would have copied one after the other. It’s almost like it was a pre-Columbian version of Ikea.”

The mirrored gateway effect on a section of the temple.
Image: Casto Vocal

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The new 3D reconstruction also provided some new insights into the building’s purpose.

“We know that it was ritual of course,” said Vranich. “What we found out is that they were trying to imitate, in stone, the previous forms that were made with adobe. This is called skeomorph, and you can see it on Roman temples—and even on modern post offices—that have decorative stone elements that are imitations of the original Greek wooden temple form.”

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Another interesting finding was that the gateways scattered around the site were lined up in a way to create a mirror effect. That is, “one big gateway, then another smaller one in line, then another,” he said. “It would create an effect as if you were looking into infinity in the confines of a single room.”

In terms of accuracy, Vranich said he’s “confident of the basic form,” but admits there will “always be architectural details that will remain unknown.”

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Virtual model of the stones in their proper location.
Image: Casto Vocal

Vranich’s team gave a copy of the 3D-printed blocks to the Pumapunku ruins site director and taught the staff how to record the stones and model them. Vranich hopes that more blocks will be uncovered at the site, and further reconstructions of the temple complex will continue.

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“The blocks will also be made available online,” said Vranich. “My hope is that other people will print them out and through the wisdom of crowds, we can find additional matches and continue to reconstruct the form of [another Tiwanaku] building known as ‘the temple of the Andes.’”

Virtual reconstruction of the entire building.
Image: Casto Vocal

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Using this technique, Vranich said it should be possible to reconstruct other destroyed ancient buildings, including those in Palmyra, Syria, which were destroyed in part by ISIS. The technique could also be used to reconstruct modern disasters, such as airplane crashes, that require forensic study of scattered pieces to understand the cause and origin of a possible explosion, he added.

As a fun aside, Hillary Clinton toured the site in 1997, and she asked Vranich what the structure looked like.

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“I told her I didn’t know,” Vranich told Gizmodo. “I guess I should write her a note that, 21 years later, I have an answer to her question.”

[Heritage Science]

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