Words: Jonathan McIntosh
Although their sights are fixed firmly on the past, archaeologists have long been early adopters of futuristic technologies. By borrowing and utilising expertise from different disciplines, the science of archaeology has put many sophisticated devices and techniques to good use in the quest to better understand the past. From radiocarbon dating to ocean-faring robots that can explore ancient underwater cities, we dish the dirt on how technology has revolutionised archaeological practice.
The foundations are laid
You may think that archaeology is a recent discipline, but it actually originated in 15th and 16th-century Europe when the upper echelons of Renaissance society began collecting antiquities from ancient Greece and Rome. Sponsored excavations intent on uncovering these treasures became increasingly common. Notably, the Queen of Naples’ penchant for statues fuelled excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii – two cities famously wiped out but perfectly preserved by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.
As demand for antiquities continued to grow, the origins of Classical archaeology were laid down. The 1798 invasion of Egypt by Napoleon Bonaparte ushered in a new era for archaeology. Determined to better understand Egyptian culture, Napoleon brought along a 175-strong troop of scholars – known as the Institute of Egypt. This thinktank even had its own travelling library, scientific tools, and measuring equipment.
In 1809, the fruits of Napoleon’s Institute of Egypt’s labour paid off with the publication of the illustrated book, Description of Egypt. This proved a hit and kickstarted a craze for Egyptian culture. By 1822, the French philologist and one of the founders of scientific Egyptology had played a major role in deciphering the Rosetta Stone, the key to reading Egyptian scripts. With that, a light was shone on the hidden corners of Egypt’s past.
In the limelight
Advances in geology and biology saw scientific archaeology flourish throughout the 19th century. The Scottish geologist Charles Lyell introduced uniformitarianism and described the stratigraphy or layering of geological horizons, which provided – and continues to provide – archaeologists with a reliable timescale to date items. Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species also brought the idea of evolution to the forefront, sparking further interest in how antiquities can explain the advent and progress of human beings from the earliest times.
The 20th century saw more major shifts in archaeology. The 1904 release of Methods and Aims in Archaeology by the renowned Egyptologist, Sir William Matthews Flinders Petrie, established a systematic method for excavation. Major discoveries, including the unearthing of King Tutankhamen’s tomb and the Royal Tombs at Ur in 1922 and 1926, respectively, helping to cement archaeology as an academic discipline.
A date with radiocarbon
Nowadays, archaeologists have an array of tools in their arsenal, and the one most widely used is radiocarbon dating. Before its discovery, it was challenging to identify accurately an artefact or site’s place in time. Features specific to certain eras were among the only reliable indicators of age. Otherwise, archaeological teams had to make considered guesses – albeit relying on techniques such as relative dating or comparing historical styles – when determining the age of new treasures.
Radiocarbon dating entered the archaeological scene in the late 1940s thanks to the American physical chemist Willard Libby. He later went on to win the 1960 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work with the naturally occurring isotope carbon-14.
When an organism dies, it can no longer absorb this particular carbon isotope. The carbon-14 it already contains begins to decay and cannot be replenished. So, simply put, by measuring carbon-14 levels against another isotope, carbon-12, archaeologists can pinpoint an artefact’s age. Furthermore, an artefact found and accurately recorded with a phase of an archaeological site can then date that phase.
Radiocarbon dating was a revolutionary development but not without its flaws. If artefacts touch organic materials during their recovery, such as an archaeologist’s hand, testing can return an age younger than it really is.
It’s all about biology
But what about the study of humans themselves? Enter the discipline of bioarchaeology, which focuses on human and animal skeletal remains. It encompasses several academic specialities spanning paleogenetics, including the study of ancient DNA, to human osteology, the study of bones.
Bioarchaeologists look for clues to a particular society’s patterns of growth and decline. They analyse burial sites, examine dental remains using X-ray to chart historic health and diet patterns, and search for other signs that provide insights to cultural trends and traditions.
These archaeologists use techniques to identify biological material from even the tiniest traces of DNA. This can be especially useful to determine the sex of individuals and identify genetic relatedness. Studying the genetics of remains, coupled with information about graves, monuments, and burial management, helps bioarchaeologists better analyse the history of past populations. It can even pinpoint an individual – remember the discovery and subsequent identification of Richard III, whose remains were found beneath a car park in Leicester.
However, given that bioarchaeology involves the handling of the dead, regulations are in place ensuring they are dealt with respectfully. In 1970, UNESCO established the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property to protect against the abuse of remains and cultural objects.
The detail’s in the data
Bioarchaeologists complement their research with state-of-the-art technologies, including LiDAR, photogrammetry, and ground penetrating radar. Sometimes dubbed data archaeology, these hi-tech tools are well-suited to studying urban history.
Unlike sonar, which uses sound waves to detect objects on or below water, LiDAR creates spatial information using light; devices are mounted on helicopters and drones and are used to measure the distance to objects on the ground by calculating the time it takes for reflected laser pulses to make their way back to the device. This allows archaeologists to quickly map a site’s topography, including areas under thick forest canopies. It’s helped archaeologists discover locations previously thought lost to time, including La Ciudad Blanca, or White City, in Honduras.
Other techniques are often used alongside LiDAR. For example, photogrammetry involves taking two-dimensional photographs, including aerial images, and transforming them into 3D, enabling researchers to create models of ancient structures and artefacts. Ground-penetrating radar, which generates radio waves, can help to locate objects underground, an incredibly useful technology for preventing accidental damage during excavations.
Data archaeology aids archaeologists in mapping the layouts of old settlements. It also makes exploring formerly inaccessible ancient sites a reality as the data recreates locations to explore digitally. Some of these projects are even accessible to the public online.
Take the Virtual Angkor Project, which used photogrammetry to recreate the capital city of Southeast Asia’s Khmer Empire around 1300 CE – a fantastic example of the power of data archaeology in action.
From taking to the air to going underground, archaeologists aren’t afraid of taking the plunge in the pursuit of knowledge. Autonomous underwater vehicles equipped with sonar and LiDAR devices are used to create intricate 3D maps of the seafloor and locate and identify objects. This is particularly useful for shipwrecks and can even be used to figure out how the shipwreck happened.
Underwater suits have also been developed to help archaeologists dive to new depths. The Exosuit lets wearers descend to 1,000 feet for up to 50 hours, delivering breathable air and boasting lights, thrusters and communications gear. It’s the Iron Man fantasy brought to life and may well be on the Christmas wish list of every marine archaeologist!
The underwater-faring robot troop, meanwhile, is another technology straight from the pages of a comic book. A European project called ARROWS – ARchaeological RObot systems for the World’s Seas – has been using robots to explore depths well beyond the reach of mere humans. So far, these have helped to capture additional footage of the Titanic and an ancient shipwreck at the bottom of Norway’s largest lake, Lake Mjøsa.
From its humble origins to the advanced practices of today, archaeology has certainly come a long way. And as the science continues to embrace its well-worn habit of adopting increasingly revolutionary technology, the next wave of discoveries that await this field is extremely exciting.
But high-spec techniques and technology aside, the underpinning principle driving modern-day archaeology will remain constant: to paint an accurate picture of our past. By doing so, archaeologists continue to better our understanding of the things that make us human.
Explore the Khmer Empire’s capital city around 1300 CE, brought vividly to life by this groundbreaking project.
Follow the story of a 4,000-year-old engraved stone slab being used in the hunt for ancient sites in northwest France.
Don’t miss your November/December issue of IQ magazine featuring anatomist, biological anthropologist, author, broadcaster and archaeology expert Professor Alice Roberts!