Looking forward to look back: new technologies in current archaeological practice

CT scanning the Temple Signer. Image courtesy of the Trustees of The British Museum

“No, it’s nothing like Indiana Jones.”
If archaeologists received a dollar for every time we had to give that answer at dinner parties, we’d never have to apply for grants.

It has to be said – being an archaeologist is amazing, but it’s nothing like it seems in the movies. You live in close quarters with the same people 24/7 for at least a month in extreme environments, often in regions with poor infrastructure and questionable hygiene. You may only bathe once every two to three days and your digestive tract will revolt against your life choices. Glamorous it is not, but nothing can beat the thrill and the privilege of discovering something that no human has seen or touched for hundreds or even thousands of years.

In recent years, new technologies have become increasingly common in archaeological practice both in the field and in laboratory settings. These novel and cutting-edge methods have not only reduced the physical difficulties of ‘dirt archaeology’, but they have opened up exciting new avenues by which to better record, analyse, and understand our ancient past. Indiana might mourn the loss of opportunities to shoot up baddies, but real archaeologists relish in the potential of new, non-destructive analytical methods.

Detail of calcification in Tamut’s femoral artery. Image courtesy of the Trustees of The British Museum.

Detail of calcification in Tamut’s femoral artery. Image courtesy of the Trustees of The British Museum.

Egyptian Mummies: Exploring ancient lives”, currently showing at the Powerhouse Museum, is a fantastic example of using 3D imaging technologies to study ancient human remains. Scientists at the British Museum (which has loaned all of the mummies and objects in the exhibition) performed CT scans of six ancient Egyptian mummies, which have been rendered into interactive 3D models, allowing visitors to peel back the layers between us and long-deceased individuals. Without touching the mummies, we can observe features that would otherwise go unnoticed by physical examination. A striking example of this is the mummy of Tamut, a chantress at the Temple of Amun at Karnak, who shows signs of atherosclerosis in fatty deposits in her femoral artery [1]. This ancient example of what is the biggest killer in the modern developed world (i.e. cardiovascular disease) bridges the gap between today and people who lived 3000 years ago; the ancient world may be distant in time, but much remains unchanged.

Tamut’s mummy is also a captivating example of the use of 3D technologies to make the ancient world tangible. The three-dimensional scans make it possible to replicate the amulets placed on and in her body using 3D printing. Visitors to the exhibition, especially children, have been thrilled by the opportunity to handle ancient objects without disturbing the deceased individual. Beyond the exhibition, 3D scanning and printing has been used to great effect for recording and reproducing objects in museum collections, giving students and researchers access to artefacts no matter where they are in the world.

3D scanning the mummy of Nestawedjat. Image courtesy of the Trustees of The British Museum

3D scanning the mummy of Nestawedjat. Image courtesy of the Trustees of The British Museum

3D technology also offers possibilities for the preservation of cultural heritage through the replication of artefacts and entire sites that have been lost or destroyed. A shining example is the recent reconstruction of a triumphal arch from Palmyra (Syria), the original of which was destroyed by Islamic State in 2015. The reconstruction has travelled to London, New York, and Dubai, serving as a poignant reminder of what the world has lost. The New Palmyra project and the Institute for Digital Archaeology (a joint venture between Oxford University, Harvard University, and the Dubai Futures Foundation) aim to record and preserve cultural heritage that is under threat from war or natural disasters. The well-publicised theory of possible hidden chambers in Tutankhamun’s tomb was sparked following close examination of high-resolution images taken by Factum Arte in preparation for the production of a life-sized facsimile of the famous monument. Subsequent analysis has proven inconclusive, but this is a perfect example of the potential for technology to lead to new discoveries and perspectives on ancient artefacts long thought to have revealed all of their secrets.

Long hidden secrets may also be uncovered by the somewhat misleadingly named and slightly controversial practice colloquially known as “Space Archaeology”. No, it does not refer to excavation on the moon, but rather the use of satellite imagery to identify sites of potential archaeological interest. The basic premise of aerial and satellite imagery is that ancient human activity leaves traces in the landscape that are visible as anomalies in surface topography, for example variations in crop growth (known as crop-marks) or discolourations in soil. These traces can suggest that there may be an ancient site below the surface that warrants archaeological investigation. The use of aerial imagery to identify and study ancient sites is nothing new. Most archaeological projects will undertake some form of aerial photography to record the site. Photographs may be taken using aircraft, balloons, kites, or tall ladders. A project that I worked on last year in Egypt seized upon the opportunity to use a local cherry-picker that happened to be parked next to the site!

More hi-tech satellite imagery has famously been used by ‘Space Archaeologist’ Dr Sarah Parcak, who claims to have found ‘thousands’ of lost and previously unknown sites. The use of satellite imagery has its advantages. It is non-destructive, and vast regions can be examined more rapidly than a traditional ground survey. Different imaging technologies (e.g. infrared) can be used to reveal features otherwise invisible to the naked eye. It has also allowed archaeologists to track the extent of looting that has swept across the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring.

Dr Aaron M. de Souza at Tell Edfu, Egypt. With permission from the Tell Edfu Project, Oriental Institute, University of Chicago. Photo: Rose Campbell

Dr Aaron M. de Souza at Tell Edfu, Egypt. With permission from the Tell Edfu Project, Oriental Institute, University of Chicago. Photo: Rose Campbell

Above all, satellite imagery is easily accessible and cost effective; anyone with access to Google Earth can, in effect, become a Space Archaeologist. However this easy accessibility is also its greatest disadvantage. The data can be prone to misinterpretation, and while one may ‘discover’ thousands of sites using satellite imagery, one cannot actually be sure of what those sites are until a trowel is put into the ground. Rectangular features could be the remains of an ancient settlement, but it could also be the remains of houses built and demolished only a few decades ago. Parcak has followed up many of her space-based discoveries by conducting test excavations with varying degrees of success. If nothing else, the use of satellite imagery has highlighted the wealth of sites still yet to be studied, and should serve as motivation for the field of scientific archaeology to record as much of our ancient past as possible before it is lost forever.

After all is said and done, there is nothing that can replace coming down from outer space, getting dirty, and excavating. Archaeology is ultimately a destructive process, but when done respectfully and scientifically, it is the only way to verify finds identified through new technologies and to reconstruct the ancient world. Techniques such as those described above, and many others, are indispensible tools, but there is no better way for humans to touch the ancient human past than by actually touching it with our own human hands and witnessing it with our own human eyes.

[1] D. Antoine, M. Vandenbusch, and J. Taylor. 2016. Egyptian Mummies. Exploring Ancient Lives, London: The British Museum, pp. 65-67.

All web links were  accessed on 11 February 2017.