Ancient Sites and Modern Tech: How the Tools We Use Help Archeologists, Too

In many ways, an industrial worksite has the same requirements that an archaeological dig site has. There is excavation to do, there is aerial surveillance to perform, there are environmental impacts to consider, and there are even volumetric measurements to take.

So, in their quest to learn more about older civilizations, archaeologists use many of the same tools — drones, lidar, 3D models — that we use at Firmatek to measure and model worksites.


Lidar Gives Archaeologists New Visibility Into Lost Worlds

Archaeologist Damian Evans made news in 2016 when his team announced the findings of a three-year study in Cambodia: They had found medieval cities under a layer of forest, one of which was nearly as large as Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital and largest city today.

Mark Horton, a professor of archaeology at the University of Bristol in England, has an excellent writeup on the findings, and what was so different about Evans’ research methods.

Between 2012 and 2015, Evans and his team mapped a massive swath of the Cambodian jungle with helicopter-mounted lidar — a project that would have taken a lifetime of work just two generations ago.

That setup offered unprecedented precision in the maps they created. “With 16 data points measured every square metre, the researchers were not only able to pinpoint well-known monumental stone structures in exquisite detail, they also discovered the massive urban cultures which surrounded these temples, identifiable by the remains of earthworks such as mounds, canals, roads and quarries,” Horton writes.


Lidar can see through centuries of decay and erosion

Discover Magazine’s Nathaniel Scharping, writing about the same Cambodian discovery, says the natural processes of degradation make research so difficult at a site that’s now just dense jungle.

Many of the newly discovered civilization’s structures were built with wood, he says, which has long since decayed. The only clues that remain are “traces of human stewardship”: canal beds, faint paths left by old roads, the outlines of a foundation.

“Lidar is ideal for mapping these patterns, firing short bursts of visible and near-visible light that penetrate the rainforest canopy, revealing the structures beneath,” Scharping writes.


Mapping England’s history with lidar

Historic England, the public body that investigates and protects the country’s heritage sites, has been using lidar technology for years. Its first projects revealed the site of an ancient Roman fort up in Yorkshire.

In 2016, Historic England worked with local aerial photography company Bluesky to create 3D maps of several locations in and around Devonshire in the south, which includes an area used in Roman times for ironworks.

You can see from this image that Bluesky created what Scharping meant by the phrase “traces of human stewardship” — even though those traces are now more than 1500 years old.

Drones Contextualize Information on the Ground by Offering a Bird’s-Eye View

Drones have been such a boon to archaeologists, who had long been hamstrung with some rudimentary surveillance technology.

“Although it seems impossible to anyone immersed in the world of UAVs [drones], the go-to method that aerial archaeologists use to document a site like this is kites,” the DroneDeploy team writes. “As in: program a camera to automatically take pictures, strap it to an ordinary beach-flying kite and let it loose.”

Kites and balloons make sense, actually. Most sites are too small for helicopters or small planes to be useful, even if the researchers had the money for such aircraft. But drones have proven exponentially more efficient than balloons or kites.


How drones make work faster and easier for research teams

DroneDeploy cites one researcher who says aerial photos the old way took three to five days on a site less than an acre. Drones turn that into a 15-minute project.

Drone photography looks great, too. Just have a look the photos the Drone by Drone team captured of the 9th Century Castillo de Santa Marta de Pancorbo in the north of Spain. (The site is in Spanish, but you can click and drag through the photoset to get the idea.)

Further, drones are much sturdier and much more weather-resistant than balloons or kites. “You can fly in almost all weather circumstances, while a kite needs just the right wind, and a balloon doesn’t want any wind at all,” says Jan Driessen, a professor in Belgium who is leading excavations in Crete and in Cyprus, tells Peter Gutierrez at Inside Unmanned Systems.

“The only limits are battery life and the number of pictures you can shoot.”


Archaeologists have to get volumetric measurements, too

Peter Rauxloh, director of technology solutions at the Museum of London Archaeology, has an excellent blog post on how archaeologists essentially have to keep tabs on how big the holes they dig actually are.

And, of course, precision is important for scientists.

So, on a recent project at Orford Ness, a delicate environment on England’s eastern coastline that is under the National Trust’s stewardship, the MOLA team deployed drones to get an idea of how much of a footprint they were making on a pair of shallow excavation sites.

A previous survey, done without drones, had delivered 110 total points from which MOLA researchers could create a 3D model of the hole they’d dug. With the drones, however, the team could get 73 such points per square meter, resulting in “a density of coverage more than two orders of magnitude greater,” and a set of volumetric measurements that were much more accurate.

Affordable Technology and Rapid Innovation Are Defining a New Generation of Archaeologists

Every industry, discipline and field of study is undergoing a dramatic leap forward in intelligence thanks to all the tools we now have to collect and process data. Archaeology is no different — though perhaps it has made a much longer leap than other fields of study.

Carl Feagans, a U.S. Forest Service archaeologist and author of the Archaeology Review blog, notes that just a few years ago a lidar sensor would have cost $80,000 and weighed so much that only heavy-duty drones could lift it. Today, that sensor costs $500 and is light enough to mount onto most drones.

This changes everything. Now, you don’t need a huge budget to do aerial mapping, surveillance and 3D modeling. “With a UAV and the right software and GPS, an archaeologist could fly a grid pattern over a few acres in about 15 minutes,” Feagans says. “Bring the UAV home, pull the SD card, insert it in a laptop, and georeference a point cloud into ArcGIS for a centimeter level view of the site she’s standing on.”

Further, the big data revolution is creating a generation of researchers and other professionals who are fluent in data management. This, says University of Leiden professor Karsten Lambers, is crucial because now archaeologists are building databases that will be accessible and useful for generations to come.

“Now, finally archaeology has understood what is at stake here,” he tells the Leiden Centre of Data Science. “We are now very serious about data management, to make sure that data is stored in safe and easily accessible ways.”


Let’s Put This All Together

Efficiencies created at worksites are accelerating thanks to all of the innovations we have access to today. So, it’s worth examining the near future of archaeology because the exponential drop in lidar costs that Feagans mentioned is only a drop in the bucket.

At worksites, we are already seeing technology that lets miners explore and test solutions in virtual environments. At dig sites, the same kind of technology is helping researchers model ancient cultures.

The drone photography, the lidar-based 3D models, the datasets. All of these tools create inputs that let archaeologists run thousands of simulations based on what they know about an extinct civilization — and even answer what made that civilization go extinct in the first place.

“For every environmental calamity you can think of, there was very likely some society in human history that had to deal with it,” says Washington State University professor Tim Kohler, who has spent years building models to understand how ancient peoples interacted with their environments. “Computational modeling gives us an unprecedented ability to identify what worked for these people and what didn’t.”

That’s knowledge with important contemporary applications. If we understand what didn’t work for every culture that was killed off by drought, flooding, invasion or some kind of localized extinction event, then we as a species are better prepared for any existential dangers on our own horizons.

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