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A&M prof explores depths of Alcatraz

Published: Monday, January 13, 2014

Updated: Tuesday, January 14, 2014 00:01



Mark Everett (left) assists graduate student Timothy DeSmet with research on Alcatraz.



Anthropology graduate student, Timothy DeSmet, says data collected on Alcatraz has located structures from the original Civil War-era fort.

When most people think of Alcatraz Island, they’re taken back to the time of gangsters in stripes and prison bars. When A&M geology professor Mark Everett thinks of Alcatraz, he’s taken underground.

Everett is part of a research team seeking to add to the understanding of Alcatraz by seeing what lies below the surface.

“We’re trying to image the Civil War era fortifications beneath the prison in order to learn more about the early history of the island,” Everett said. “And, in particular, learn about what remains now of the
historic structures.”

Everett said architecture professor Robert Warden brought him in on the project, which was the brainchild of one of his former students, Chico State University professor, Tanya Komas.

“She is interested in historic concrete preservation and
was already working at Alcatraz,” Everett said. “Through these connections, I learned that the [National Park Service was] also interested in the underground historic structures.”

Everett’s love of electromagnetics was what drew him to geology and geophysics. Everett said he found that electromagnetics could be used for practical purposes like learning about hidden geological structures.

“I loved electromagnetics classes as an undergraduate physics major, but it was very theoretical,” Everett said. “When I found out that you can use electromagnetics for such a practical purpose as learning about hidden geological structures, bingo — I was hooked.”

Everett hopes the project will advance the techniques the team uses and also provide yet another layer of history for visitors to the island to experience.

“Hopefully we can advance the art of archaeological prospection of historic structures using geophysics and that visitors to Alcatraz can be provided with interpretive maps of the hidden subsurface,” Everett said.

Anthropology graduate student, Timothy DeSmet, was brought in on the project by Everett and is using the project for his dissertation.

He said his involvement was more luck than choice.

“I was the right person in the right place at the right time,” DeSmet said.”Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. But being good is a prerequisite in order to turn lucky opportunities into results.”

DeSmet said he hopes the project will shed light on an often underrepresented period of Alcatraz Island’s history.

“If you ask people about Alcatraz, you never hear about the fort, it’s always about the prisoners or the escape attempts or prison,” DeSmet said. “We want to put this period in the spotlight for once. It’s a great feeling to see this period emerge from the data as we proceed with the analysis.”

DeSmet said from the images and data they have already collected, the research team has located a number of structures from the original fort that stood on the island during the Civil War.

“We hope to continue to determine the extent and integrity of the subsurface structural remains of the island,” DeSmet said. “I am hopeful we can define some of the already known features in greater detail as well as see some other structures like the magazine, school room and engineer’s office from the earliest period of the island’s history as a fort during the Civil War.”

DeSmet said the architects, historians and archaeologists with the National Park Service were an incredible resource.

“They are an incredible resource with extensive knowledge about the park and have been generous enough to provide us with old photos and maps as well as georectified overlays of the maps projected onto the modern surface,” DeSmet said. “They are preserving this national treasure for the public every day with their hard work and dedication.”

Tourists who visit the island have also shown an interest in the project, Everett said.

“Lots of tourists from all over the world stop and ask questions and are fascinated with the technology,” Everett said.

DeSmet said the experience has been amazing.

“I am lucky to have been a part of this group of talented individuals,” DeSmet said. “I found in life that when you surround yourself with great people, great things tend to happen.”


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