Photo: excavators from the University of Michigan’s dig at Gabii in 2017 (Image by Sarah E. Bond)
A Walk-Through: Unraveling Ancient Cities with Technology
By Angela Nguyen
With the rise of new technologies, archaeology has become more collaborative and interdisciplinary within the sciences. Contemporary archaeology has developed to encompass techniques of engineering, geology, chemistry, and physics in innovative ways to increase the efficiency, productivity, and findings of excavations. These processes connect technology with traditional analysis, forming a methodology that can unearth the human past more deeply. This article will explore three cutting-edge approaches—magnetometers, underwater archaeology, and LiDAR. Their advancements have made the exploration of archaeology more extensive than ever before.
The use of magnetometers began in the 1940s. Magnetometers are sensitive instruments capable of detecting different materials and disturbances sub-geographically and are used to record slight changes in the magnetic field. Magnetometers can easily sense items in the ground composed of iron, burned soil, and decayed organic remains. As a result, rapid ground coverage of sub geographical deviations can be visualized in a short time period. This type of subsurface prospection is used by many archaeologists and has been used to discover the remnants of ancient cities, such as Troy.
Beyond magnetometry’s ability to detect sub geographical anomalies using subsurface prospection, archaeologists can essentially “see” into the ground before they begin excavating, allowing them to efficiently identify valuable areas to excavate. Magnetometers allow excavators to take out the guesswork, unearthing specific sites in a more time-efficient manner. Magnetometry and subsurface prospection prove to be effective and time-saving methods in contemporary archaeology.
A camp for the underwater excavations at the Uluburun Late Bronze Age shipwreck
2. Underwater Archaeology
Underwater archaeology started in the 1960s and is another valuable technique to archaeologists, allowing them to excavate ancient shipwrecks and underwater cities. Objects from underwater environments tend to preserve archaeological evidence better than dry, land environments. However, they are more fragile to take out from the water and conserve; the drastic change from a wet to dry environment can cause the objects to break, crack, or possibly disintegrate. Due to technological advancements, there are several new tools in underwater archaeology that have majorly improved finding and conserving underwater objects in the past few years, including sonar machinery and scuba diving equipment. As of 2019, researchers have developed autonomous underwater vehicles (UAVs) that travel on the seafloor and operate independently (i.e. without a human operator). This machinery demonstrates that robots can help archaeologists by venturing into areas that may be too dangerous for human exploration. Additionally, scuba diving gear has significantly improved, allowing divers to now explore underwater for hours—this surpasses the efficiency of older scuba diving equipment, which only allowed divers underwater for a few minutes at a time.
In 1982, a Turkish sponge diver discovered a wealthy cargo ship from the Late Bronze Age carrying exotic and expensive goods. This finding was called the Uluburun shipwreck. Some of the items found include carved ivory, gold, semi-precious stone jewelry, and valuable raw materials such as elephant tusks, ostrich eggshells, and glass ingots. Between 1984 and 1994, the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA) excavated the site, completing over 22,000 dives. The site’s recovered exotic artifacts provide evidence for the intercultural exchange of goods between elite kings and merchants, giving us a glimpse into the material culture and economic exchange of the Bronze Age.
A diver excavating an amphora in the Uluburun Late Bronze Age shipwreck
Underwater excavations also include the analysis and extraction of DNA. Amphorae found in shipwrecks, such as in the image above, are containers traditionally used to store foodstuffs. The residue left inside can be extracted and analyzed to identify biological materials such as oil or wine, allowing archaeologists to research the food diets and commodities being transported to ancient cities. Underwater archaeology uses robots to explore where humans cannot: bringing us closer to understanding the material culture, trade routes, and lives of people in antiquity.
3. Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR)
A LiDAR rendering of Copan, an ancient Mayan city in Honduras by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) was first developed in the 1960s. It combines the two-dimensional mapping system Geographical Information System (GIS) software with 3D modeling capabilities to produce a detailed image of an archaeological site. Archaeologists can use LiDAR to harness virtual reality systems such as Oculus Rift or Unity to create an interactive map of the site. LiDAR is a major advancement in imaging technology and works via scanning devices that are attached to small planes. These devices fly above the site to calculate distances from its height to the ground level, allowing archaeologists to map topography and can even visualize areas covered by forest canopies.
Excavators can use LiDAR with underwater archaeology and autonomous underwater vehicles (UAVs) to create 3D maps. This methodology can model artifacts and can even demonstrate possible causes of shipwrecks through closely examining the destruction sites in the shipwreck remains.
Archaeology is an interdisciplinary field that is advancing with technology to explore the human past. Methodologies such as subsurface prospection, underwater archaeology, and LiDAR are just a few examples of archaeological developments over the past few decades. In future generations, excavation techniques have the potential to advance even more, continuously revolutionizing the way archaeologists explore ancient civilizations. Hopefully, these future technologies will increase the efficiency and findings of the field, creating a deeper understanding of the social, economic, and cultural life of past societies.
Angela Nguyen (College ’25) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania studying Classical Studies.
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