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Tech in the Sediment: 12 Ways Archaeologists Use Technology

Every Job is a STEAM Job is our series looking at why kids will need tech literacy and coding skills to succeed in their future careers, no matter where those careers take them. Previously, we looked at how technology is changing set designersteachersfashion designersarchitects, journalistssmall business owners, and the professionals protecting our national parks.

Kids become archaeologists from the moment they start playing in the school sandbox. They use shovels, toy trucks, or their hands to discover items left by other kids. Who were these kids that left toys in here? What games did they play with them? The process isn’t much different from the practice of archaeology.

However, modern archaeology relies on technology. The days of surveying with the naked eye and digging random plots are over. Today’s archaeologists use soil analysis, lidar scanning, and the Internet of Things to answer questions without damaging artifacts.

Why Archaeology is Important to Modern Society

Archaeologists study relics that are hundreds and thousands of years old to understand what historical factors affected our ancestors and how they reacted to them. In many ways, our modern society is a product of how these historical events played out.   

“Archaeology allows us to delve far back into the time before written languages existed and to glimpse the lives of everyday people through analysis of things they made and left behind,” the team at the Society for American Archaeology writes.

Modern technology improves preservation techniques and also allows researchers to return to a site to answer additional questions. This is actually expanding the role of archaeologists in society.  

“Archaeology is not a stand-alone national curriculum subject. It is relevant to some of the most important aspects of contemporary education,” the team at Wardell Armstrong Archaeology writes.

Today’s archaeologists are fighting climate change, discovering how cultures evolved, and using technology to better understand human evolution. Keep reading to learn how technology and archaeology combine to advance our knowledge of ancient civilizations.

3D-Modeling of Ancient Documents

For years, museum curators and archaeologists have struggled to review artifacts without damaging them. In particular, delicate rolled up scrolls provide a challenge. They’re so fragile that no one dares handle them or try to read them.

However, CT scanning and advanced 3D-modeling are making it possible, reports ScienceNordic.com. For the first time, previously unreadable artifacts can be virtually unrolled to fully see what’s inside. This ability has a compounding effect: The more hidden texts archaeologists can uncover, the better they can understand languages and identify patterns in existing materials.  

An archaeologist at a dig

Hyperspectral Imaging Creates Layers of Manuscripts

It’s not uncommon for artists to repaint over one image to create something else or reuse the paper. Finding an ancient manuscript with something more underneath leaves researchers with a problem.

“Mixtec people who created the manuscript used inks made from plant materials,” Meghan Bartels writes at Business Insider. “That means there haven’t been any techniques that would give researchers the equivalent of X-ray vision, letting them see a hidden image without destroying the surface of the manuscript as we know it.”

Researchers are overcoming this block with hyperspectral imaging, a technique that involves taking high-resolution images at different wavelengths of light. When these images are added to each other, researchers can see what images lie beneath.

Currently, the hyperspectral imaging technique is being used to analyze texts of pre-European American civilizations.

Developing the Internet of Underwater Things

Benedetto Allotta, head of industrial engineering at the University of Florence, is working to improve both the hardware and software of archaeology tech. In an article for The Guardian, he explains how his new Archeosub differs from other autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs).

The Archeosub is smaller, lighter, and far cheaper than most AUVs. This makes it more affordable for researchers who can’t afford to buy or rent an underwater sub.

Once underwater, these AUVs talk to each other, creating an “internet of underwater things” where the robots pick up on dive site conditions, and make decisions on how best to survey a specific area or find objects. This kind of IoT technology allows scientists above water to understand more fully the conditions below.

Lidar Scanning of Ancient Cities

One of the main tools saving archaeologists from spending years wandering through the jungle is Lidar, short for “light detection and ranging.” Lidar is a form of airborne laser scanning technology typically mounted on drones and helicopters. It was originally developed in the 1970s and used on Apollo 15 to map the surface of the moon.

Archaeologist Damian Evans used Lidar to discover and map medieval cities buried in the forests of Cambodia at least one as large as the current capital of Phnom Penh. This technology allowed him to see through dense vegetation and get a clearer picture of ancient cities and their cultures.

Lidar Also Identifies Small-Scale Finds

You don’t have to excavate the next hidden city to make use of Lidar. Meghan Howey, an anthropology professor with the University of New Hampshire, used the technology to identify cache pits in the Great Lakes regions.

These small pits (only a few feet around and deep) were buried between the years 1000 and 1600. They are almost impossible to find unless you know the exact topography you’re looking for. Howey told Great Lakes Echo that she had thought cache pits were correlated to living near the inland lakes; however, Lidar helped her find almost 70 cache pits outside of the lakes region, disproving that theory.

Analyzing Soil in Spain

Archaeology is also used to determine how cultures and information spread in ancient times. For example, researchers from Bournemouth University are studying the medieval Islamic palace city of Madinat al-Zahra in Southern Spain.

Islamic palaces have a lot of intricate decoration and artistic points like glazed tiles. By using technology called Portable X-Ray Fluorescence Spectroscopy (pXRF), researchers can perform immediate chemical analyses of the field to understand the soil composition.

“The way in which people made things like metals, ceramics, and glass gave off a lot of pollutants, which tend to stay in the soil around them,” Kate Welham, Professor of Archaeological Sciences at BU, explains.

By understanding where the kilns were located and where materials came from, researchers can see who invented new techniques and where they spread.

Identifying Ancient Sites Through Crop Patterns

One of the main challenges of living in locations like Spain and England is that ancient cities crop up almost anywhere. The team at Historic England uses aerial technology to photograph cropmarks and soil patterns to better understand what is potentially buried underground.

“Our aerial archaeologists continue to transform our knowledge of England’s past from traces visible from the air,” Duncan Wilson, chief executive of Historic England, tells Heritage Daily.

“This not only supports archaeological research, but also gives us a better understanding of which parts of the land can be developed and which parts need further investigation because of what lies beneath.”

By sending drones to photograph patterns in crops, archaeologists can learn exactly where to excavate and prevent developers from building a shopping mall on top of a Roman settlement.  

Burial Excavations Without Raising the Dead

Not only does modern archaeological technology prevent artifacts from getting destroyed and allow exploration underwater and underground, it also protects the dignity of the dead. Understanding how cultures bury people is a part of understanding societies as a whole.

Today, experts like Dr. Chris Gaffney at the University of Bradford use geophysical techniques and underground mapping to create visuals of tombs. In fact, Gaffney recently mapped out a 12th century abbey with a cemetery of up to 2,000 bodies.

“As a general rule, burials are difficult to detect by geophysical means, so revealing the whole layout of a cemetery, in the way that we have, is exceptionally unusual,” he says.    

These maps confirm theories about that particular community’s belief in resurrection of a person’s body. The burial practices exposed by the technology could not have previously been discovered with actual physical excavation.    

Forensic Fingerprinting Identifies Tool Users

Finding objects is one problem archaeologists face, but they also must identify the use of those objects and who would have used them. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology are answering the “who” question in relation to ancient Châtelperronian tools and artifacts.

Using a combination of peptide mass fingerprinting to identify hominin remains along with radiocarbon dating, researchers are able to confirm that the tools were in fact developed by Neanderthals. The new technology allows scientists to analyze societies from 50,000 years ago, a time period without much preserved DNA evidence available.

Space Archaeology and Crowdsourcing Ancient Egypt

You don’t have to travel to Egypt to uncover ancient hidden landmarks and burial sites. Space archaeologist Sarah Parcak is combining satellite imagery and the power of crowdsourcing to turn anyone into an archaeologist. Users are shown a plot of land not much bigger than 20 by 20 meters. They will then review the image and apply tags when they see something of potential interest.

“As the crowd populates these images with their tags, after 10, 20, or 50 users tell us that something is there, we’ll know to be able to check, to confirm, one way or another,” Parcak tells NPR.

Crowdsourcing makes the review process significantly faster, saving Parcak and her team from manually reviewing every single photo.

Crowdsourcing Makes Excavation a Community Effort

Parcak isn’t the only archaeologist tapping into crowdsourcing to further explorations of ancient cultures. DigVentures is a company that specializes in crowdfunding and crowdsourcing excavations.

In 2015, more than 120 people paid to take part in an excavation at Leiston Abbey in Suffolk, England. The company found what appeared to be the foundations of an infirmary in a farmer’s field. These excavations get local communities involved in the discovery and preservation of ancient cultures, and may also help create the next generation of archaeologists.                

Researchers Use Archaeology for Climate Change Solutions

Coastal flooding and catastrophic storms have been a part of human life over the centuries. People who planted the first crops or made huts in fishing villages were at risk of seeing their effort and lifelines destroyed by floods and other weather-related events.

Archaeologist Jemma Bezant recently discussed efforts to use Geographical Information Systems (GIS) mapping to learn how societies rebuilt after natural disasters.

“Archaeological evidence can reveal the way that past human populations have adapted to new opportunities in the past, both economically and as communities in a state of disruption and disaster,” Bezant writes. “These new insights can help policy makers seeking to mitigate coastal erosion and direct scant resources in a post-Brexit scenario.”

Cities in Wales already must decide whether to fight erosion or retreat from the shore. By studying the past, we can prepare for the future.