Archaeology examines the human condition over thousands of years and helps us find solutions to the chronic problems of humankind. The latest technological advances in archaeological research have opened up fascinating horizons of historical information, but are especially needed today since countless archaeological sites are disappearing due to climate change, war, and looting. Here are five of those new technologies and what they have done to transform the way archaeologists collect and display their data.
The Camera Drone
Drones with cameras do more than hover over sports stadiums. Archaeologists can gain a bird’s eye view of their sites as never before. Some drones can travel at 40 MPH and take precise photos and videos that can lead researchers to discover new sites, as well as help nations to protect archaeological sites from illegal destruction by real estate developers.
LiDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) is a form of laser-scanning, initially employed in meteorology. This technology uses satellites, laser, and GPS receivers. LiDAR can cover hundreds of miles and allows an in-depth study of a region. Over the past decade or so, archaeologists have begun routine use of the technology, both on the ground and in aerial reconnaissance, for its ability to capture high-resolution 3-D data. It works by using light sensors to measure the distance between the sensor and the target object. LiDAR can search through visual obstacles like dense vegetation. Examining these laser-scanned sections, previously unknown archaeological sites or architecture can be detected that would not be visible any other way. At Angkor Wat in Cambodia, LiDAR allowed easy and efficient mapping of terrain that was normally obscured by dense tropical vegetation.
For a non-invasive exploration of archaeological sites that are fragile or difficult to access, muon tomography offers images without actually entering an ancient edifice. Muons are particles generated by cosmic rays and have a mass 207 times larger than electrons, allowing them to penetrate far deeper into stone and substrates of the earth. This helps researchers determine how they can move around within the excavation with the least amount of interference. Muon tomography not only reveals the inner structures of a site but also allows better exploration of voids such as tunnels, corridors and hidden rooms in pyramids.
Agisoft Metashape (formerly known as Agisoft PhotoScan) is a software product that performs digital photogrammetry. Photogrammetry, which has been around for 150 years, is the science and technology of obtaining 3D information about individual objects, architecture, or the landscape environment through measurements and interpretation of 2D photographs. After using drones to take hundreds of digital aerial photographs, Agisoft conducts photogrammetric processing to “stitch” the photographs together into a single image. The aerial maps and 3D models that archaeologists use have to be geographically accurate and capable of being layered on top of pre-existing maps—so the software geometrically corrects (orthorectifies) the images into a uniform scale.
Digital photogrammetry is used not only with aerial photographs but also for close-range photography such as creating 3D models and interactive special effects for archaeological objects and excavations. After discovering the 15th-century grave of England’s King Richard III under a 21st-century parking lot (!), Agisoft created a 3D interactive presentation of the grave and the king.
Gathering, storing, and sharing vast amounts of complex data in archaeology is now easier with Cloud computing. Fellow researchers can protect their hard work drawn from all the other technologies mentioned above. They can access it wherever they have internet capabilities, or download it for later use. Associates can readily access the data for collaborative efforts. Teachers and students can cooperate on examining information, interpreting it, and developing new theories about ancient human societies. Cloud computing has also seen increasing use in the heritage industry in general and in improving tourism to heritage sites.