Antonio Serrato-Combe used his computer to raise a temple from the rubble of ancient Mexico.
And, though he won't be the one to jump to any conclusions, what he found bears a curious resemblance to the LDS Church's Temple Square in modern-day Salt Lake City.The University of Utah architecture professor's love for pre-Columbian architecture and his knowledge of computer-generated modeling was a perfect marriage in his study of the Aztec empire.
The project gathered steam about five years ago, when Serrato-Combe began looking in depth at historical accounts of the empire's architecture.
"It's a truly fascinating area of study," he said. "The Aztecs are really the last link between all these civilizations in the Americas before Columbus."
The link was nearly lost, though, when Hernando Cortes conquered the area in 1521 A.D. He razed the Aztec buildings, destroyed their artifacts, and built his own city over the top.
Since then, historians have sought and recovered records left by people who lived or observed the ancient city, but the information has been inconsistent and conflicting.
Earlier renderings of an Aztec temple have relied more on guesswork and artist perspectives than on dimensional precision, Serrato-Combe said.
"The only way we know what went on there is through other people's accounts that saw it. But, many did not have an accurate view of what the temple square might have looked like. Their accounts were quite biased, and not very realistic."
His curiosity whetted, Serrato-Combe set off for Tenochtitlan, the capital city of the ancient Aztec empire. There, he studied the site of the city's spiritual center, the Recinto del Templo Mayor, or "Temple Square."
If the name rings familiar, it's not the only similarity between the two sites.
Serrato-Combe discovered, through a painstaking process of data examination and computer modeling, that there are correlations - however coincidental - between the temple squares of ancient Azteca and Salt Lake City.
For example, Serrato-Combe found there were "interesting similarities in the conceptual design of both places."
"The planners of Salt Lake City's Temple Square could have chosen a rectangle, or any other shape. But they chose a square. So did the Aztecs. For whatever reason, the shape is important."
Also, both temples were built in the same relative place within the square, though Serrato-Combe was quick to say that the structures themselves were not similar.
Both also had four entrances along the midpoint of each side of the square, and the squares themselves served as the ordinal beginning of the cities' block grid plan.
Serrato-Combe said it was not his intent to determine whether the similarities have any significance or not. His was purely a historical mission.
He sifted through the available information about the temple, checking and cross-referencing the measurements and structural dimensions different sources recorded. Then, he entered the data into a computer model.
Little by little, a three-dimensional image emerged. Though he said there is no way to precisely recreate the structure, he hopes it is more accurate than its predecessors. At the very least, it is an opportunity for people to see, in three-dimensional form, a historically significant structure they've only been able to read about before.
"When we didn't have computers, you had to kind of guess how things might have looked. Now, the computer can act like a camera - you can take out different kinds of lenses, like zoom or wide-angle, and take a picture made of the data you entered, complete with texture, color and lighting."
He understands there is local interest in the project, not just architecturally but as a part of Utah's cultural mythology. There is speculation among some members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for example, that Tenochtitlan is actually part of the land of Zarahemla talked about in the Book of Mormon.
Still, Serrato-Combe is unwilling to speculate on the potential religious significance of his work. He stresses that his goal was to reconstruct a part of architectural history, not spiritual history.
"My purpose was to get the information, real accounts of real people who saw the building, and translate them into a model to visualize what the place looked like. That's the end of the study. People can see the images with colors and shapes, and can draw their own conclusions."
It seems people are doing just that, and favorably so. Serrato-Combe's images of the Aztec temple were recently chosen as one of the 13 best entries in an international American Society of Architectural Perspectivists competition. An exhibit of the entries will travel around the country, and is scheduled to make a stop in Salt Lake City early next year.
His research has also attracted the attention of several book publishers, and Serrato-Combe expects that a book will be available some time in 1999.