We are entering a golden era of archaeological discoveries where technology will be at its core.
Today archaeologists are equipped with the newest technological tools that allow identifying hidden structures in a matter of hours. Laser scanners (LiDAR) and satellite imagery are revolutionising the archaeological field the same way the Hubble Space Telescope revolutionised astronomy. Soon robotics and artificial intelligence will become an essential part of the field too, transforming archaeology into a discipline of the future.
One of the main tools transforming archaeology is LiDAR (an acronym for Light Detection and Ranging). The tool relies on laser sensors that can be deployed from air (typically mounted on helicopters or drones), providing 3D imagery of ruins, even the ones deeply buried in nature.
Its accuracy in detecting hidden features has proven effective, particularly in Central America and South-East Asia, where entire Maya and Khmer settlements have emerged beneath the tropical canopy (challenging the existing theories on how the two civilisations developed, dominated the regions and declined- with the role of climate change and resources management at its core).
Over 60,000 housing complexes, palaces, elevated highways, terraces, defensive walls, ramparts and fortresses have been revealed in the Petén region of Guatemala, making it the largest LiDAR project carried out so far (2,100 square kilometres).
Those were the mega-urban-webs of pre-industrial times: incredibly complex, highly urbanised, densely populated, and interconnected. Along with the archaeological findings, the survey also revealed thousands of modern-day dug pits. The sites are new to the archaeological community, but sadly not to the looters who pose the biggest threat to South American heritage.
Most recently the aerial scanner has been used to investigate the ancient city of Teotihuacán of what is now Central Mexico. Researchers have used the technology to understand how Teotihuacán was laid out (what type of landscape modifications were carried out) and how the modern city was built over it.
The results have further exposed how the ancient city planners have led large-scale quarrying and excavation projects, including redirecting the San Juan and San Lorenzo rivers to enable Teotihuacán to be astronomically aligned.
Another tool not to be overlooked is satellite imagery (often used in remote, extreme or conflict areas). Multi-spectral satellite imaging enables archaeologists to view different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum otherwise invisible to the naked eye, and also undetectable with photographic techniques.
The use of the imagery helps detect valuable indicators of human past activity from thermal, chemical cues, to subtle changes in vegetation growth that could indicate the presence of buried structures. Thousands of ancient settlements have been documented by analysing satellite images taken from over 600 km’s from the Earth’s surface (mostly in Egypt, and South America).
We may expect in the coming years a launch of a satellite specially designed for archaeological use, which would help monitor areas at risk and drastically accelerate the process of discovering ancient remains.
Yet the principal aspect of archaeology is to understand the sites in order to learn how people lived in specific times and places (understanding the past is also key to predicting the future that we are facing as species) and not just for the sake of discovering them, therefore, fieldwork will remain a core element. However, what we can expect is the evolution of excavation processes as archaeology is aiming at becoming more sustainable.
Soon, virtually unwrapping sites will become reality.
Instead of archaeologists carefully removing one layer at a time to document and analyse sites over the course of years, the use of scanners will virtually enable excavating them in a matter of hours, without disturbing the state of the archaeological remains.
De facto we will be able to practice more responsible archaeology if the circumstances require it. That means taking all available precautions not to over damage the sites, nor the artefacts. Like surgeons, archaeologists only get one shot at completing a successful archaeological operation. As the process of excavating begins, there is no way to undo the removal of excavated layers, therefore, using robotics will become an essential part of archaeology too.
We can therefore envision that in the near future archaeologists will deploy legions of tiny bots that will perform archaeological operations while documenting each step of the process. They would be used to collect samples (for example – DNA testing) without disturbing the integrity of the site.
A fleet of autonomously flying small drones equipped with thermal infrared and hyperspectral sensors, programmed to work as a unit will detect subsurface architecture with unparalleled accuracy in a matter of minutes while producing 3D scans.
Artificial intelligence will then produce an on-site report based on all the collected data, which would be then analysed by researchers.
It seems only logical that with the ongoing technological advancement archaeology will become one of the most technologically and scientifically advanced fields.
Written by Terry Madenholm
Terry Madenholm is a project partner for Drone Archaeology and focuses on identifying threatened archaeological sites (using non-invasive technologies, such as LiDAR, satellite imagery and drones), and building 3D models of endangered heritage.
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